The absinthe cocktails you need to know. So strong they'll box your ears.

By Carl Hanson
September 12, 2015
Photo by Soup Loving Nicole

Some of the names here are in themselves instructional: Death in the Afternoon, the Third Degree, Corpse Reviver, and one that has the same name as a famous general who razed his way from Atlanta to the sea. You get the idea. These formidable cocktails are enough to box your ears. Also, you can always replace the absinthe in these cocktails with Pernod or Absente and be no worse for the wear. Cheers!

But first, a few words on absinthe and its reputation for being a total badass.

In its heyday, absinthe earned outsize blame for driving artists and poets and assorted tortured souls to soaring fits of madness; Exhibit A, of course, being Vincent van Gogh's loopy night of earlobe loppery.

Vincent van Gogh, Selfie | Vincent van Gogh, via Wikimedia Commons

As the story goes, it was Christmas eve in Arles, 1890, when van Gogh, always the romantic, gifted his severed earlobe to a pretty girl at the local brothel. She opened the box, saw the ear, and toppled over into a cold passed-out heap. "Unlucky in love" is the technical term.

To be fair to absinthe, van Gogh was arguably ear-removingly unbalanced even without help from "the green fairy." Absinthe, though, could not have helped. And certainly there were other artists emotionally undressed by absinthe. Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, and poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud.

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of these artists did their absinthe drinking in France. Which makes sense in that France seems an arty place, but in another sense is odd because...shouldn't they have been drinking wine? Or brandy? Well, maybe. Except that the absinthe craze took off when France's vineyards were being decimated by a tiny insect accidentally imported from...oops...America.

With the French wine industry in les toilettes, more and more French folks turned to absinthe -- and enthusiastically enough to cause alarm. For the resulting out-of-mind drunkenness, authorities blamed wormwood, an ingredient in absinthe (wrongly) thought to produce hallucinations and psychotic episodes. The more likely culprit? The alcoholic strength of absinthe. Back then, it weighed in anywhere between a very hot 120-proof and an astoundingly hot 180-proof. This level of toxicity, particularly for someone used to drinking relatively low-alcohol wine, would have made for some interesting times out on the town.

Finally, in 1915, the French had had enough. They outlawed it. Meanwhile, the United States had already gotten the jump on absinthe, outlawing it back in 1912.

 It would not be legal to drink absinthe again until 2007.

Today's absinthe doesn't blaze quite as ferociously as yesterday's, but with a proof between 90 and 148 it's still brain-rattlingly strong. Which could explain why many of the best absinthe cocktails call for just a minuscule amount of the green stuff and direct you to swirl it around in the glass and then toss it. Consumed like this, it adds essence, perfume; it's delicious, not overpowering, and a bottle can last for many, many years.

The Sazerac | Photo by Nole Garey for Oh So Beautiful Paper

8 Classic Absinthe Cocktails!

1.) Sazerac

3/4 teaspoon sugar (or 1 sugar cube)

2 dashes Peychaud bitters

1 teaspoon water


2 ounces rye whiskey

1/8 teaspoon absinthe

Twist of lemon peel for garnish

Place sugar in another cocktail glass. Add bitters and a splash of water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Then add ice and whiskey. Take another glass from and rinse it with the absinthe, coating the sides of the glass. (Dump or drink the excess absinthe.) Strain the contents of the whiskey glass into the absinthe glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.


1 oz rye whiskey

¾ ounce Benedictine

¾ ounce sweet vermouth

1/8 teaspoon Pernod or absinthe (or in the unlikely event that you have it, Herbsaint)

Several dashes Peychaud's bitters

Maraschino cherry for garnish

Fill a cocktail pitcher with ice. Pour in whiskey, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and Pernod. Shake in bitters. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or a twist of lemon.

1 sugar cube

¼ teaspoon absinthe

Sparkling wine


Lemon twist for garnish

Place sugar cube in a champagne glass. Drip absinthe over the cube. Fill with sparkling wine. Float a small amount of good cognac on top and garnish with a twist of lemon.

1 ½ ounces absinthe

About 5 ounces sparkling wine

Pour absinthe into a champagne glass. Gradually add sparkling wine. Read some Hemingway.


1 ounce gin

1 ounce Lillet Blanc

1 ounce Cointreau

1 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon absinthe

Maraschino cherry for garnish

Add ice to a cocktail shaker. Pour in gin, Lillet, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Add absinthe to a separate cocktail glass and swirl to coat sides of glass. Shake cocktail, and then strain into the glass. Garnish with a cherry.


2 ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 teaspoon cherry brandy

1/4 teaspoon absinthe

Place ice in a cocktail pitcher or shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy, and absinthe. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass.


2 ounces gin

½ ounce dry vermouth

¼ teaspoon absinthe

Lemon twist for garnish

Pour gin, dry vermouth, and absinthe into a shaker or pitcher with ice. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.


2 ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1/2 teaspoon absinthe

1 dash Angostura bitters

1 dash orange bitters

Twist of lemon for garnish

Place ice in a cocktail pitcher or shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, and absinthe. Shake in Angostura and orange bitters. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Check out our collection of Cocktail Recipes.