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The Allure of Absinthe

Return of the Green Fairy

by Jennifer Rosen

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva (1861-1928)
The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva (1861-1928)

Paris, 1860, 5:00 pm, l’heure verte, (the green hour). Thirty thousand cafés come to life as waiters trickle ice-water into glasses of emerald-green absinthe, causing the crystaline liquid to “louche” milky-white, and exude intoxicating aromas.  

Baudelaire sips while trading bons mots with Oscar Wilde. Lautrec cuts his with Cognac, his signature Tremblement de Terre, or Earthquake. Van Gogh adds turpentine, Picasso prefers cubes (of sugar and ice) and Poe dilutes his with tears.

Today, you can legally partake in absinthe, thanks to the European Union pointing out a loophole in the U.S. ban. Absinthe is a 150-proof liquor based on anise, fennel and wormwood. These and other herbs give the fabled Fée Verte (Green Fairy) her grassy color. When the chlorophyll dies, absinthe turns, like fallen leaves, to a dark amber hue that's highly prized in absinthe circles.

Time out! Cut the poetry and back up a moment. You mentioned wormwood. Isn’t that why absinthe was banned? Doesn’t that stuff make you hallucinate and write depressive poetry and chase your mother around the kitchen with a boning knife?

Actually, no. The ban was courtesy of the good folks who brought you Prohibition. They wanted blood, and absinthe was a convenient fall guy. Although wormwood and its psychoactive ketone thujone are toxic in large amounts, absinthe contains very little. Less, for instance, than that other drink whose name is German for wormwood: vermouth.

Once the province of the wealthy, by the late 1800s absinthe is cheap and plentiful. Meanwhile, a worldwide temperance movement is brewing. Big problem for France, where wine is considered both food and medicine for grown-ups and kiddies alike. Wine producers are a powerful lobby and not about to go down gently. Especially since they’re still smarting from a root louse invasion that all but destroyed their industry.  

The ensuing shortage has caused workers, used to quaffing wine like water, to substitute absinthe. Except it’s five times stronger than wine.

The resulting wave of drunkenness mirrors the gin-soaked ghettos of England’s industrial towns. To make things worse, absinthe is the hip choice of artsy-fartsy bohemians, a suspicious crowd if ever there was one. So the idea is hatched by an unlikely coalition of wineries and temperance crusaders: instead of banning alcohol, let’s just ban absinthe.

Absinthe is a 150 proof liquor based on anise, fennel, and wormwood

Driving the movement is one Dr. Valentin Magnan, whose clinical studies indicate absinthe causes hysteria, epilepsy and projectile excretion (no, don't try to picture it). He also notes a general decay in habitual users, a condition passed on to their offspring. He coins a syndrome: absinthisme. Someone might have pointed out that his studies were all on guinea pigs dosed with enormous amounts of pure wormwood. Or that the hereditary, decaying condition looked an awful lot like fetal alcohol syndrome and plain old drunkenness. Or that other effects like vomiting and vertigo came from illegal adulterants in cheaper bottlings. But something else happened that made the scourge all too obvious. In 1905, Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray brutally murdered his pregnant wife and two children, after having consumed one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, six glasses of Cognac, five liters of wine and two glasses of absinthe.

And that was it. Alas for modern adventurers, rumors of absinthe-caused hallucinations, euphoria and other whackery seem unfounded.  At most, it might cause unusually clear-headed drunkenness and vivid dreams. Although it has been definitely proven to make the heart grow fonder. (Glad we got that out of the way.)

Probably the allure that keeps absinthe in the drug-myth hall of fame is one shared by all self-respecting psychoactives: the ritual. Being a somewhat bitter concentrate, absinthe requires the addition of water and sugar. But you can’t just dump them in. The beauty is in how the oils precipitate, one at a time, releasing layer after layer of herbal aroma, “louche.”

The correct thing is to place two sugar cubes on a specially made slotted spoon. Then hold a pitcher of ice-cold water high and let it drip down ever so slowly onto the melting sugar cube. Go too fast, and you’ll release the oils all at once and ruin the effect.

If you’ve seen the movie Moulin Rouge, whose frenetic cutting probably produced far more seizures than absinthe ever did, you might think you’re meant to light the sugar cube on fire. Don’t. The flammable liquid is likely to erupt in an eyebrow-searing inferno. Far from a tradition, this travesty was invented in the ‘90s by makers of cheap Czech Republic Absinth(sic), to make their ersatz product fashionable and a little less revolting. Note the missing “e” and give it a wide berth.

The Holy Grail for absinthe enthusiasts is the 100-year-old pre-ban bottle, which you can still obtain for a hefty sum. Good modern absinthe is not cheap, but a little goes a long way.

Once you’ve got a glass or two in you, you might want to practice your high-kicks. It’s only a matter of time for the can-can.

Read more by The Cork Jester by checking out her book, The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine.

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