Absinthe Ritual

Absinthe Fire

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).
back to top

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.

Top 5 Sellers on a merchant site:

* La Bleue Clandestine
* TRUL 1792 Absinthium 🙂
* King of Spirits Absinth
* Abisinthe Lemercier AMER
* Versinthe La Blanche

5 responses to “Absinthe Ritual

  1. “So if we were to squirt pure alcohol on the sugar cube and ignite it, the flame would burn at about 173°F.”

    I understand you are trying to provide lots of information (obviously leaning towards a certain angle) but you should really double check what you post. “absinthe alchemist” has no clue what they are talking about.

    Think about it for a second, if an ethanol flame burns at about 173°F it would be impossible to boil water with ethanol. They have obviously confused flame temperature with boiling point. In reality ethanol burns at around 1,835°F (give or take a bit based on mixture and environment).

    The rest of this is just laughable.

  2. >The rest of this is just laughable.


  3. The idea that certain artists were the voice of absintheurs or would enjoy the fire ritual is funny. Most absinthe drinkers during the heyday were general people, who were sometimes taught the proper way to prepare a drink by “absinthe professors” in bars. To keep it short we can probably lump the bohemian artists into two categories, those who are looking for enjoyment and those looking to get drunk. Those looking for enjoyment probably don’t want to burn their expensive absinthe, those looking to get drunk probably wouldn’t want to waste their alcohol.

    It’s also funny that the way to bring absinthe into the 21st century is to use a 20th century method made mainly for 20th century pseudo-absinthe.

    Alcohol was often very much part of old fashion elixirs and distilled wormwood shouldn’t be bitter (notice the recipe bought by pernod doesn’t add sugar).

    Frankly this seems to be grabbing at straws to hold onto old beliefs about what absinthe is not.

  4. Hmmm..

    “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 cube”

    I wonder what Verlaine or Rimbaud would have made of the popinjays and poseurs of new absinthe “orthodoxy”? I suppose they would find them as obnoxious and amusing as the writer of the piece.

    Ari, where is that Pernod recipe please?

    >expensive absinthe

    How much would Verlaine have paid for a glass at the Cafe Procope? You seem to know some fascinating pieces of ephemera, and I enjoy reading your commentaries.

  5. I believe you have been shown the pernod recipe more than once.

    I don’t know what Verlaine would have paid, there are some price lists floating around. He lived during a time when absinthe was coming down in price butwasn’t nearly as affordable as right before the ban.
    Many of the famous artists were also famously poor and I would bet enjoyed the times they spent extra to get top quality instead of cheap rot-gut. (at one point even top quality was inexpensive, which makes me wonder how cheap the rot-gut was).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s