One subject that there is a lot of disagreement about is the ritual involving caramelised sugar. I was interested to read this intelligent, and well thought out piece at Absinthe Alchemist:
Concerning the claim that you are ruining the absinthe by burning it, we need to look at it both from a confectioner’s and a distiller’s vantage. We have the sugar cube and we have the alcohol. We know that sugar reacts to heat in precise ways depending upon the temperature. We also know that pure alcohol vaporizes at 173°F (78°C). Water boils at 212°F (100°C). So if we were to squirt pure alcohol on the sugar cube and ignite it, the flame would burn at about 173°F. If we dipped the sugar cube into the absinthe and then lit it, the melting point would be higher since the absinthe contains alcohol and water. The vapor point of a blend of alcohol and water would fall between 173°F and 212°F depending on the percentage of each in the blend. An absinthe with an alcohol content of 65% would vaporize around 187°F (86°C).
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So here’s the deal. As the alcohol or absinthe-soaked sugar cube combusts, the temperature rises as the alcohol burns off. Sugar goes through the following stages:sugar cube absinth fire ritual
Thread 230-234°F (110-112°C)
Soft ball 234-238°F (112-114°C)
Firm ball 244-248°F (118-120°C)
Hard ball 248-254°F (120-123°C)
Very hard ball 254-260°F (123-127°C)
Light crack 270-285°F (132-140°C)
Hard crack 290-300°F (143-149°C)
Caramelized sugar 310-338°F (154-170°C)
From my experience, a full dropper of pure alcohol from a four-ounce (120 ml) bottle can bring a sugar cube to an advanced stage of caramelization. This is too much, since the dark brown will give off bitter flavors. A very light brown, however, a hard crack or light caramelization perhaps, is quite tasty. One piece of advice is to pour water over the cube just as the flame goes out because once the sugar cools it becomes a piece of hard candy and it won’t dissolve into the drink.sugar cube Czech absinth fire ritual
But the argument that the Absinth Fire Ritual would disgust Belle Époque absintheurs gives me pause. Having read up on Alfred Jarry, I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t be amused by “that which burns.” Likewise, would any other iconoclasts of the bellisima epoca Absinthe Era such as Verlaine, Rimbaud, Zola, Modigliani, or Picasso, really get bent over it? I just can’t bring myself to believe that they would act like panty-waisted crybabies and stomp their feet over flaming sugar cubes. I suspect they would think it was cool. Time marches onward, dear brothers and sisters! If you really want to bring absinthe into the 21st century, embrace the Absinth Fire Ritual.
Another point raised by our own DrAbsinthe was this discovery:
My French Grandmother used to make Absinthe when I was a wee child. She was an amazing woman Ma Mere’. She would pour a small glass and then would dip the spoon with sugar cube into the liquor and let it drain off some. Then she’d light the cube on fire, let it carmelize then stir it in. She’d then add a little bit of water and then point out the fairy (which was green/brown) dancing in the glass. We were in awe. ;-} She didn’t light the liquid on fire, but she WAS from France — and made it herself. We were allowed a tiny pony glass on special occasions/holidays and we never complained when we were sent to bed. lol!
We’ve tried to get in touch with the author of this very important observation, but have had no reply.
The idea that the absinthe ritual was borrowed from the Café Brûlot of New Orleans, might appeal to some bouffanted gent in a bottle green smoking jacket, but I think it is wrong. A former contributor was fond of mentioning Mary Poppins during his sojourn on this blog, and wasn’t it Mary who said “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down“?
Medicine! That is what absinthe was – long before it was commercialised as an aperitif – burning off the alcohol and adding sugar, to take away the bitter bite of the powerful wormwood in real absinthe, was probably the rite of the farmhouse kitchen. Sneering at this ritual – as many do – might be to sneer at absinthe’s earliest use.
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