The Madness of Absinthe
At the first cool sip on your fevered lip, you determine to live through the day, life’s again worthwhile as with a dawning smile you imbibe your absinthe frappe – Glenn MacDonough
The Green Muse. The Green Fairy. Absinthe has many monikers, yet most people have never heard of this elusive alcoholic beverage. Those who have agree, absinthe may be the world’s most mysterious and provocative drink. A bitter, emerald green sipping liqueur, absinthe owes much of its mystique to the 19th century writers and artists who sang its praises – the likes of Van Gogh, Wilde, Baudilaire and Verlaine. In their day, many believed absinthe fostered creativity. It was also cheap and easy to get, and at 140 proof, it offered a fast train to oblivion. Cafes in Paris teemed with patrons enjoying a glass of “the drink of Parisian abandon” at five o’clock each afternoon – l’heure verte.
In America, New Orleans was a haven for absinthe aficionados. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Aaron Burr are said to have visited The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Ernest Hemingway became a 20th century fan, referring to absinthe in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls: “One cap of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month.”
These days, absinthe is bottled primarily in the Czech Republic – it seems the Czechs began manufacturing the aperitif immediately after ridding themselves of those party-pooper Communists. Perhaps as a result, absinthe is now making a comeback, particularly in London’s trendy Soho district. It’s easy to see why. Bohemian pundits and poseurs the world over have long been intrigued by this seductive beverage, thanks to its romantic history.
There’s just one problem. Absinthe has been illegal in America and most European countries since the early-1900s. Why the taboo? It seems the drink had become a little too popular by the beginning of the 20th century. France, the country most often associated with La Fee Verte, consumed 36,000,000 liters of absinthe in 1910, up from only 700,000 liters in 1874. Clearly the cultural elite were not the only ones nipping absinthe. Yet fear of bohemian “artsy” types did help to bring about its prohibition. Absinthe, however, was charged with more serious crimes as well, such as causing hyperactivity, hallucinations and insanity.
The offending ingredient is said to be thujone, a byproduct of the wormwood plant from which absinthe is made. It’s actually thujone that is illegal, due to its supposed narcotic affects, and it is generally believed to be the culprit behind all those strange health problems that stemmed from years heavy absinthe drinking. Many argue, however, that since absinthe is about 75 percent alcohol, alcoholism alone could have caused similar symptoms in those afflicted. Due to the unavailability of absinthe in most countries, no recent studies have been conducted to confirm or deny the theory that thujone is actually harmful.
My own fascination with absinthe began when I was about eight years old. My father was a cartoonist and painter, and he kept several books on fine art in his studio. While perusing photos of paintings by the world’s great artists, I began to notice that many 19th and early 20th century painters shared something in common – the strange word “absinthe” in the titles of their works. These include Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe; Van Gogh’s Absinthe Glass & Decanter; and Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker. A couple of years later I did a report on the painter Toulouse-Lautrec. I remember writing that his favorite drink was the “earthquake,” a mixture of absinthe and cognac.
By the time I made it to graduate school I had learned all about absinthe, but my curiosity didn’t disappear, it increased. I read Les Miserables, in which Victor Hugo portrays the character Grantaire mixing beer, brandy and absinthe prior to facing death in the barricades. I was intrigued by Oscar Wilde’s meditations on absinthe: “The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.”
I really wanted to try this stuff. Never mind that I can’t walk a straight line after two glasses of chardonnay, absinthe was clearly the sexiest drink on the planet and I was determined to have it. But one can’t exactly walk into the local liquor store and ask for a bottle of absinthe. So my lust for the forbidden remained unsatisfied. That is, until the birth of the Internet.
It was almost too easy. Surfing through dozens of web sites devoted to this once unobtainable beverage, I discovered there were thousands of “outlaws” just like me, and buying a bottle of absinthe was suddenly as easy as ordering a sweater from the Gap. Just point and click. In about two weeks, a bottle was delivered to my door. It had finally arrived -- The Green Goddess in all her glory, manufactured in Prague and shipped out of London. Hills Liquere, the manufacturer, even assures us that absinthe no longer causes insanity, due to how it’s made and the small amount of thujone added.
I started calling my friends. Most thought I didn’t need to drink absinthe to go insane. Clearly I was already out of my mind. “You’ll hallucinate!” they cried. “There’s no way I’m drinking that stuff! It’s illegal!” Like that’s ever stopped them before. Then I found a taker. He even had something new to add to absinthe lore.
“You have Romulan ale!” he shouted.
“S’cuse me?” I replied.
“In Star Trek, the Romulans drink a green liquor that’s illegal everywhere else in the galaxy. It’s based on absinthe.”
“Uh-huh. So…do you want to try some?”
“Should I wear my Klingon costume? I don’t have a Romulan outfit.”
“OK, and I’ll dress like a French cancan dancer.”
When the big night arrived, I opened the bottle with a different friend (sans costume). My research taught me that true absinthe drinkers poured a shot of the aperitif into a glass, took a perforated spoon, put a sugar cube on it, then delicately dripped tiny drops of ice cold water over the sugar cube. As the water dripped into the glass, the absinthe would transform from emerald green to a lovely opaque color.
We didn’t have any sugar cubes, so we poured granulated sugar on the spoon. We didn’t have anything designed to drip water either, so we poured it from a glass. This didn’t work out too well. We ended up just mixing some water and sugar into the absinthe. It was finally time drink…La Fee Verte. I thought of two things: first, a statement made by Butthead – “thith ith the coolethst thing I’ve ever theen”; second, a statement made by Alexander Dumas: “Among our Bohemian poets absinthe has been called ‘The Green Muse.’ Several, and unfortunately not the poorest, have died from its poisoned embraces.” Hmm. “Oh, what the hell,” I thought, “I’m not exactly a poet. I’m just writing an article for an Internet web site. Down the hatch.”
I stopped gagging when the burning subsided. If this was all Vincent could afford to drink, no wonder he chopped off his ear. My friend said it tasted like licorice-flavored Nyquil (there’s anise in absinthe). Be that as it may, I’d been waiting a long time for this moment and I wasn’t about to give up without a fight. I added more cold water (the colder the better, I’ve found).
Absinthe is an acquired taste, to be sure, but by my second glass I had mixed just enough cold water and sugar to make the concoction palatable. Now, after having “enjoyed” several glasses, I find it downright appealing. It’s important to remember that absinthe is a “sipping” liqueur -- and I can’t emphasize sipping strongly enough. I don’t care how dope you think you are, this stuff ain’t for chugging. It should also be noted that its affects do appear to differ somewhat from regular alcohol, or so it seems to those of us who have tried it. Absinthe offers a spacey, mellow high.
It’s possible that my enjoyment of absinthe is all in my head, thanks to a lifetime of romanticizing the drink, but it makes little difference to me why I’ve grown to like absinthe, if only in very small, infrequent quantities. It calls to mind a passage from a play that was presented to the English in an attempt to dissuade them from accepting this “evil” French drink. It was a sort of Reefer Madness for Victorians. The passage stated: “Let me be mad…mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world.” For some reason, they thought this was a bad thing.