Absinthe - Searching for the Green Fairy

Northeast Magazine - July 2003

 

I'm feeling slightly felonious. The paraphernalia is in place on the kitchen table. With care I pour a 1 1/2-ounce measure of the iridescent clear green liquid and pour it into a tulip-shaped glass. I place the specially designed spoon across the top of the glass. This modern silver-plated spoon is slightly concave and is essentially a sieve or a strainer. I place a pure white sugar cube on the spoon and slowly drip 5 ounces of ice cold water through the cube. The cool water dissolves the sugar cube mingling with the verdant liquor below. The elixir turns milky and opalescent. It smells pungent and distinctly liquorice. It tastes alluring and chillingly delicious. There's a lucid sweet bitter tang. It makes my tongue slightly numb.

Rest assured I'm not drinking Absinthe, but a copy called ‘Absente’, Real Absinthe is the famous 'Green Muse' found in the dives and bars of late nineteenth century Paris - the nefarious and infamous choice of poets and artists alike. It's been banned in America since 1912.


A short history


Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, an exiled French scientist, invented absinthe in Switzerland in 1792. He created an all-purpose remedy using local herbal ingredients. Used as a cure-all, he named it 'Absinthe' after one of the main active ingredient Artemisia absinthium or wormwood. Likened to a narcotic, 'thujon' is the active ingredient found in wormwood. He nicknamed it "La Fée Verte," - "The Green Fairy"

'Absinthe' means 'undrinkable' in Greek because it was so bitter. Curiously in Russia the plant is ominously called chernobyl. Wormwood is a common enough plant. I have it growing in my garden as a formal hedge. From early times wormwood was used in medicine and magic. In ancient Egypt it was used to treat pains in the anus caused by demons. The Greeks recommended wormwood soaked in wine to aid labor in childbirth. Hypocrites prescribed it for jaundice, rheumatism, anemia, and menstrual pains. It was a seen as a cure-all for a variety of other complaints, including depression, worms and bad breath. It was used to stimulate digestion, treat heartburn, epilepsy, labor pains, gout, kidney stones, colic, headache, flatulence and was, would you believe, used as an antidote to drunkenness. It was also added to wine to make it more intoxicating. In Roman times it was customary for the champion in chariot races to drink a cup of absinthe leaves soaked in wine to remind him that even glory has its bitter side. In mediaeval England a popular drink called "Purl" was composed of hot ale and wormwood. French soldiers fighting in Algeria during the 1840's used Absinthe to relieve fevers and dysentery and began popularizing it back home in France.

Absinthe was the inspiration for poets and artists in the bohemian society of France at the end of 19th Century. In Paris "L'heure verte", the "green hour" in the late afternoon became a daily event at many Parisian clubs and cafes.  Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde and Picasso sang the elixir's praises even as they succumbed to its dangers. Wild cocktails were formulated. Toulouse-Lautrec combined absinthe and cognac to make a special concoction called atremblement de terre, or 'earthquake.' Consumed by such geniuses absinthe filled the cafes and the clouded minds of France before the onset of The Great War. In America Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and President William Howard Taft drank it in New Orleans' Old Absinthe House. Jack London and Ernest Hemingway drank it too. It became a symbol for anarchy. It was also blamed for causing madness and death and a couple of high profile murders in Switzerland blamed on absinthe led to its ban there in 1908. The specter of war and an unholy alliance between abolitionists and the wine industry in France led to it's being banned there in 1915. Most of the world followed except for Spain, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and England where it was never popular.

For 75 years absinthe was virtually forgotten. I can remember in my Art history classes at college memories of the tumultuous absinthe-stoked times in France. 'The Absinthe Drinker ' by Degas that caused such a stir in Victorian England, and Van Gogh's absinthe besotted bender that led to his infamous ear decapitation. And as Robert Burnand wrote,"...absinthe poisoned the Parisian in a delicious way, at least giving him fertile imagination.." But many thought it had got a bad rap, being blamed for acute alcoholism and syphilis induced madness.


Absinthe Now


Absinthe is making a comeback. In Europe and the States it's becoming hip and cool. The likes of Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson use it to enhance their mystique of borderline madness. Films like 'Murder By Numbers' and 'Moulin Rouge' have rekindled interest in absinthe and Paris of the nineteenth century. And despite its banned status internet sites abound with information about this forbidden substance.

Original absinthe is a highly coveted find among the louche set and highly collectible. In a cellar of a house he moved into, Charles Monahan, editor of Connecticut magazine found a bottle of vintage Pernod Absinthe made in Spain after Pernod fled after its French and Swiss factories were shut down. He sold it for $650 on the internet but suspected it was probably resold for over $1000. He mused "It seemed to demand a very special occasion (like the end of the world) or a moment of borderline insanity for me to open it and drink. Fact is, I didn't really trust my addictive personality. So the absinthe is out of my life, although I'll always wonder, "What if . . . ?""

Part of the present allure of absinthe is that it's a look back into a vanished era. It was a product of a flourishing boheme time of being entranced by the moment and the unhurried sipping of a magical liquid. One of the American movers for the current resurgence of interest is Betina Wittels who lives in the Southwest. Her website www.allthingsabsinthe.com is a cornucopia of information about absinthe and antique paraphernalia surrounding the ritual aspects of absinthe and the Victorian era in which it flourished.

Mostly written in French and published in Europe, there are few English books in the USA about absinthe. One of the best is "Absinthe - History in a Bottle" by Barnaby Conrad III written over a decade ago. It's loaded with images and anecdotes of the colorful history of Absinthe. This year Speck Press is publishing Wittels 'Absinthe; Sip of Seduction. ' - a look at the contemporary climate and culture of absinthe.


Health matters


Thujone is the active ingredient in Absinthe. Taken in excessive amounts it is a hallucinogen and a convulsive. According to the extensive list of food additives permitted that can be added to food for human consumption issued by the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services there are several other plants that contain thujone including Yarrow, Tansy, Oak Moss and white Cedar as well as Wormwood. They can be used in America if the thujone is removed. But absinthe is not the only liquor that contains wormwood. Vermouth, Bitters and Chartreuse reputedly all contain small amounts.

Wormwood is mentioned in many herbal medicinal guides. Used correctly and in moderation, herbal teas made from wormwood can be used as a stomach tonic and can be applied externally to bruises and sprains. But let's not make any mistake about this, thujone in its pure state is a poison. Be warned, last year a young man ingested a homemade infusion of wormwood and thujone oil. He had a fit, suffered renal failure and nearly died.

The original absinthe of the late nineteenth century was many times stronger than what is made now. Cheaper versions used questionable alcohols and were often adulterated with Copper sulphate, Antimony Chloride and other doubtful additives to give the desired color and clouding effect. And nobody really knows if it's the thujone or some other element in the wormwood that produces the attributed effects. And some of the other ingredients of absinthe and pastis, hyssop and anise can have similar effects in large doses. Modern distillation processes are controlled and considerably safer. It's the distillation process that melds the various herbal elements safely together.


Legal Concerns


From talking to various sources it appears absinthe enjoys a similar status to Cuban cigars. Based on the Food and Drug Administration rule banning commercial production and sales of products containing thujone, it is only illegal to sell absinthe in the United States, but to drink it and possess it for personal consumption is not banned.

Winston Guthrie of the Absinthe Buyer’s Guide, www.absinthebuyersguide.com explains the many difficulties facing the importation of Absinthe into the United States for commercial distribution. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) requires an official of the manufacturing company to submit a method of manufacture and a list of every ingredient used in a product's manufacture. Any alcoholic beverage is required to be thujone free. Any manufacturer seeking pre-import approval and marketing a product as Absinthe would require the submission of a sample to be tested by a BATF certified Certification Laboratory. Any product certified as thujone free would not be real Absinthe.

Jeremy Hill, market manager of the Czech Absinthe Sebor marketed out of England maintains that exporting absinthe into the United States is perfectly legal. He states "We are able to sell Sebor absinth on our website to the good people of the USA as the actual transaction happens in the UK where Absinthe is permitted. It is of course the responsibility of the purchaser to ensure what he is bringing into the USA is permitted. The regulations regarding shipping from the UK are to say the least gray. I would not wish to upset things, as it would spoil it for our customers. Suffice to say we ship to the U.S. It is also readily available in the duty free shops at all major U.K. airports."

And marking an important moment in the return of absinthe in Europe, Tescos, a large supermarket chain in England, has recently announced it is stocking La Fée, a 138 proof French absinthe making it widely available beyond certain style bars and specialist outlets.


The Absinthe File


Even at the age of 55 I'm still intrigued by the forbidden. As an artist I'm interested in this so-called harbinger of insanity and inspiration of artists.

Now I'm feeling very felonious. I'm in the kitchen again but this time I have the real thing. I'm listening to Eric Satie's melancholic piano music 'Gymnopédies.'  I can imagine him playing this while imbibing absinthe at the famous Montmartre cafés  'La Chat Noir' and 'Café du Rat Mort.' I continue with the ritual of the glass, the spoon and the sugar cube. This is a Swiss absinthe that I've acquired through the Internet. The cold water drips onto the sugar cube and the dissolved essence of sugar trickles into the clear green liquid forming clouds and swirls of sugary opalescence. The infusion of sugar is supposed to heighten the effect of the absinthe. Real absinthe has a complex bitter-sweetness unlike the mock absinthes. Raising its temperature is supposed to help too. A flamboyant Czech technique requires soaking the sugar-filled spoon in the absinthe before setting it alight and allowing the caramelized sugar to drip into the drink before diluting it. But when I tried the sugar burnt with a blue flame, hissed and sputtered but nothing dripped. It made a mess on the kitchen table.


Tasting Notes


In the spirit of scientific and artistic investigation my wine-tasting group also spent an evening tasting various real and unreal absinthes. My dining room was decked out like a French café with blue and white checkered tablecloths. My antique collection of 'Ricard' water carafes and ashtray were used to hold cold water and sugar cubes. We ate lashings of oil-cured olives, and a provençal specialty -  simple thin crust pizzas adorned with caramelized onions and anchovies.


The Pastis, Mock Absinthe and Absinthe File


Pastis and Mock Absinthe


Most Mediterranean countries have a version of an anisette and licorice -flavored drink used as an aperitif. These are all diluted with water.


Achaia Clauss, Ouzo - Greece. Clear colored turning milky with water. Nice depth to the nose. Good simple flavor on the palate. One-dimensional. Sweet on the palate with a good grip on the finish. Readily available. 92 proof - 750 ml - $19

 

Razzouk Arack - Lebanon - grappa-like on the nose. The alcohol brings the earthy flavors forward. Coarse and a bit rough around the edges it actually has quite complex flavors. This is similar to Raki from Turkey. 100 proof - 750 ML - $24


Ricard - France - widely available in the States, it's reckoned to be the best of the regular French Pastis. Light mustard greenish color. Intense anise. Very good, full and smooth but lacks the depth of real absinthe. 90 proof - 750 ML - $25


Absente - France - imported from France and marketed by Michel Roux, the same guy who put Absolut Vodka on the beverage map. It uses the less potent herb Southernwood instead of Wormwood to give the bitter flavor. It has a similar chemical and taste profile of absinthe. It's one-dimensional and a little out of balance but it still had delicate liquorice herbal overtones. A pretty good substitute. It's available in most large package stores. - 110 proof - 750 ML - $42

.

Charbay Pastis  anise-licorice aperitif -  U.S.A. - from a well known flavored vodka producer this was the only American version I could find. Because they felt that French pastis was superior to anything exported here, Miles and Marko Karakasevic decided to make a version for their pastis aficionado wife and mother Susan in their small production distillery in St.Helena, Napa Valley. Slight dust on the nose -  clean, tasty and beautifully balanced with a smooth aftertaste of anise and licorice - Only 54 cases produced - available from the distillery only -  90 proof - 750 CL - $59


The Real Thing


Everyone preferred the real thing. Though contemporary absinthes are pale shadows of the original stuff that often contained 25 times as much thujone modern absinthes are cleaner and more refined with no undesirable additives. These were all prepared with cold water poured through the cube of sugar. I've put them in order of preference.


Oxygene - France - illegal in France this is made only for export. The group favorite overall. Bright sweet, spicy and full flavored. Herbaceous nose and beautiful herb/spice on the palate. The long deep finish revealed it's true complexity. Several saw parallels to Chartreuse. - 110 proof - 750 CL - $160


Suisse La Bleu No 3. - Switzerland - handmade by individual farmers in the Swiss county side this is described as the connoisseurs absinthe. It's the most refined and complex by far. Though not displaying the milky green color of the others it still has a mesmerizing  pearly louche when water is added. Floral and intensely perfumed, it has wonderful bite and spiciness. Smooth, delicate and feminine. Very difficult to obtain - unknown proof - per liter - $200.


Sebor Absinth - Czechoslovakia - note that the Czech spelling leaves off the 'e' . Very similar to Suisse La Bleu, but much simpler. Electric green opalescence. Intense spicy nose with a complex bittersweet palate. Sweet lime. It has an aftertaste similar to Campari. Good balance between sweetness and tartness and the complexity of the nose translates to the palate. Marketed out of England - 110 proof - 500cl - $45, plus $15 for delivery from the United Kingdom.


Absenta Mari Mayans, Collectors 70 - Spain -made in Ibiza, Spain in a distillery founded in 1858. At 140 proof it's the most potent alcohol-wise. Vibrant emerald green  - the brightest of them all.  Has a straightforward anise nose. Full flavored but does not have complexity on the palate. Very aromatic and smooth with a distinct tang at the finish.  It's also appears sweeter and has a long sugary anise finish. This was recently awarded a silver medal at an International Wine Competition. - 140 proof - $110


Trenet - France - blue emerald green. Light and delicate perfume. Doesn't have the intensity of the above but it does have soft delicate alluring qualities. - 120 proof - 700 CL – $45


La Fée – France – a Parisienne absinthe with its distinctive “all seeing eye’ label. Deep creamy green with a lively anise nose. Smooth with a good ‘kick’ A good all round absinthe which is now readily available in England – 136 proof – 700 CL - $35



To find out more about Absinthe check the following websites


www.allthingsabsinthe.com

www.absinthebuyersguide.com

www. feeverte.net

www.seborabsinth.com

www.eabsinthe.com

www.speckpress.com/speck/home.htm

www.charbay.com


Postscript


As journalist Tara Grescoe said about his date with the Green Fairy in a seedy Barcelona bar recently "I'm really drinking to danger -- and to the grateful realization that, in this world in which people are increasingly protected from themselves, there are still places left where we are free to choose our own poison."

From my tasting group, one had a veritable headache next morning. Another divulged that he had intense wild dreams of gargoyles. As for myself I did feel a clarity and lucidity of thought after drinking it. And later I had brilliant green dreams of wildly riding an electric green bicycle through verdant French landscapes, and vivid action dreams of fighting with the French Resistance.