The Allure of Absinthe
Return of the Green Fairy
by Jennifer Rosen
1860, 5:00 pm, l’heure
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.
The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva (1861-1928)
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.
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
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
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
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,
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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