|Sugar and the Absinthe Ritual
With or without sugar?
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Pernod Fils, and other leading manufacturers, actively promoted the sugar ritual (while also of course saying that their absinthe
could - not should, but could - be drunk sans sucre). There is much more evidence of absinthe in the Belle Époque being drunk
with sugar, than without - and generally a generous dose of sugar, often two or even three cubes as you’ll see in some of the
contemporary photos below (it’s been suggested that late 19th century sugar, being less highly refined than the modern equivalent,
was also less sweet). Cusenier, producer of the only absinthe more expensive than Pernod, showed it being drunk with sugar in all
their promotional material.
The modern idea, prevalent especially amongst some US absintheurs, that sugar "masks" flavours is in my opinion wrong. It's
really more about individual preferences, and also about the characteristics of an individual absinthe. I think generally sugar binds
together otherwise disparate flavour elements and smooths out the drink, and I think it's primarily for this reason that absinthe was
historically often drunk with sugar (rather than to counteract bitterness, which on the evidence of dozens of vintage absinthes
often isn't even there). Absinthes with sugar added taste rounder and more unified - particularly so if they contain certain herbs.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that most absinthes, including all the finest brands, were mostly drunk with sugar, or
with one of the myriad of other sweeteners - anisette, orgeat etc - popular at the time.
These scans are taken from
an original glass negative,
circa 1910.. They show the
preparation of three absinthes
in Chope Yvonne glasses (the
third is probably for the
photographer!). Note the use
of two sugar tablets for at least
one of the glasses.
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Of course the classic absinthe ritual with perforated spoon and sugar cube only dates from the
1880s, when cubed sugar first became widely available. Prior to that, absinthe was likely
sweetened with sugar syrup. The sugar cube itself was invented in 1841 in Dacice, South
Bohemia by the director of a Czech sugar beet factory, Jakub Rad, after his wife had cut her
hand badly trying to slice into a large loaf of raw sugar. He pondered the problem and several
months after the incident he presented her with a gift-wrapped package which contained 350
red and white sugar cubes. The town has a plaque and a large sugar cube made of granite in his
memory. Rad’s invention seems not to have been widely commercialized outside the region,
and it wasn’t until the German industrialist Eugen Langen patented an efficient method of
producing sugar in cube form in the 1870s, that its use became widespread in Europe. Henry
Tate bought the rights from Eugen Langen and introduced the Langen cube process to the UK,
and its use throughout France and Switzerland followed shortly thereafter.
Of course, sugar use is a matter of taste and personal preference, and we have today a less
sweet tooth in some respects than was the case a century ago. But sugar is a time honoured
and traditional addition to absinthes of the highest quality, and it’s certainly worth trying any new absinthe both sans sucre and
with the addition of a sugar cube, in order to fully appreciate its taste and potential.
|Click on the images to enlarge.
"The art of making an
absinthe": two sugar tablets
(or perhaps one very large
The card dates from 1906.
Cusenier, producer of the only absinthe
more expensive than Pernod, showed it
being drunk with sugar in all their
promotional material, including this
famous 1896 poster by Tamagno.
La Buveuse d'Absinthe. Two large sugar tablets for one small
glass of absinthe - the lady had a sweet tooth!
Click on the images to enlarge.
|A popular vogue in the late 19th century were numbered series of satirical or humorous cards, which were usually sent over the course
of a few days to the same addressee. Several featured absinthe drinking, as these 1909 cards show.
|Three sugar tablets with a glass of Absinthe Pernod Fils.
Click on the images to enlarge.
A plated cast brass model of an absinthe glass, spoon and sugar tablet,
apparently made as a promotional item for Absinthe Junod, probably
around 1910. Soldered to the top is a real absinthe spoon, to which is
affixed the brass sugar cube. Because this is made to precise life-size
dimensions, we can accurately measure the dimensions of a standard
Belle Époque sugar tablet: 27mm x 16mm x 11mm.