The absinthe ritual of La Louche is a process of adding iced water to absinthe, which dilutes the drink and slowly transforms its colour from the original emerald green to a lighter, opalescent shade of milky green. More often than not, the water is poured over a lump of sugar placed on a perforated spoon that rests on the top of the glass.
Despite popular belief, the original absinthe ritual did not involve pouring absinthe itself over sugar and then setting the sugar on fire. Of the different ways to drink absinthe, the "fire ritual" is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Although the traditional ritual does not involve fire, it certainly has its sparkle. La Louche truly is a ritual -- a fairly elaborate one -- and an essential absinthe experience: practical, symbolic, aesthetic. To louche your absinthe means so much more than to water it down. The Louche ritual, we might say, expresses the very essence of the phenomenon that is absinthe.
On a practical level, La Louche does dilute absinthe, which is very alcohol-rich in its pure form (absinthe contains up to 70 per cent of alcohol).
But the ritual also serves another practical -- and yet more important -- function: it unlocks the true power of the Green Fairy. As cool water drizzles into the glass, it gently liberates the essential oils of the herbs from which absinthe is made. And these essences, it is thought, are the secret behind the perplexing absinthe effects experienced by the drinker. (Consequently, absinthe connoisseurs think it pointless to drink absinthe neat, unless one does so purely for the alcohol effect.)
The absinthe ritual of Louche also has a significant figurative connotation: the transformation that can be observed in the glass is considered symbolic of the transformation that is about to be experienced by the drinker. Just as water liberates the essences of absinthe, so will absinthe liberate the mind.
Practicalities and symbolism aside, the louche process is also a delightful eye-pleasing spectacle. As water drips into neat absinthe and essential oils are released, the glass becomes a stage where a restful yet exciting performance of colour begins: we witness the milky clouding, then the gradual change from deep emerald to a delicate, opalescent shade of light green. And when the performance -- and the drink's transformation -- comes to an end, another transformation begins: a transformation of our senses, of our mind, of our world.
The American poet Peggy Amond celebrated the delights of the absinthe ritual in her beautiful poem "Rimbaud's Poison" (Copyright 1998):
The emerald hour--
when the poet's pain is soothed
by a liquid jewel
held in the sacred chalice,
upon which rests
the pierced spoon,
the crystal sweetness--
Icy streams trickle down.
The darkest forest
melts into an open meadow
as waves of green seduce.
the soul spirals toward
the murky depths,
the beautiful madness--
La Louche, indeed, was the way absinthe was once drunk by Rimbaud, Verlaine and countless other poets crouching over a pontarlier glass in smoke-filled Parisian cafes. Today, absinthe is back again, and the louche ritual remains the preferred way the drink is enjoyed in the dining rooms of smart mansions, trendy urban lofts and quiet cafes alike.
Ever-increasing numbers of modern-day party hosts appreciate the entertainment aspect of the ritual, too, especially when entertaining guests who have not tried absinthe before. For the majority of newcomers, the traditional absinthe ritual adds a intriguing dynamic to the enjoyment of the special green liquor.
To invoke the magic of the Green Fairy in the traditional way, you will need:
(1) To begin with, pour a shot of genuine absinthe (4cl) into a glass. A traditional-style absinthe glass (or even an antique one) will add to the magic of the ritual, but do not worry too much if you haven't got one -- just use a standard wine glass instead.
(2) Next, rest a perforated absinthe spoon over the glass, and place a cube of white sugar onto the spoon.
(3) Finally, slowly pour iced water over until the sugar dissolves, while observing the beautiful play of colour that takes place as a result of the louche process.
The amount of water to add depends on your own preference. Depending on the strength desired, you should end up with a mixture of one part absinthe and two to four parts water.
Absinthe connoisseurs always pay attention to the quality of the ingredients used, since they will all affect the subtle louche process. It is thought the quality of the louche is related to the quality of the mental transformation they will later experience.
Do make sure, therefore, the absinthe you use is a genuine, quality one. Certain inferior brands that bear the name absinthe will not louche properly (or not at all). Genuine absinthe will transform its deep colour into a shade of cloudy, milky greenish-white when you add water; if it does not, your bottle of "absinthe" is just high-proof alcohol with artificial colourings added.
The quality of the water used is also all-important to the absinthe purist. In keeping with absinthe's reputation as a clean, natural liquid, common tap water is frowned upon. Use quality still spring water such as Evian, or another natural water with a neutral taste.
Got something to say about the original absinthe drinking ritual?
At Absinthe Fever, we encourage you to get involved. In fact, this whole site is meant as an open forum about absinthe, because we believe that absinthe is more than a drink, or a bit of thujone in a bottle. The Green Fairy -- the affectionate name given to the absinthe drink in the 19th century -- is art, poetry, experience, lifestyle... So join us and share your thoughts anywhere on Absinthe Fever!
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About the original absinthe drinking ritual
Absinthe.se is one reliable website that has a short how-to guide to the classic French ritual. They resolutely condemn (and refuse to provide instructions for) the modern-day "fire method".
Instructions for both rituals -- the traditional French one and the recent fire one -- are available at DrinkNation.com.
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