A Drink of Absinthe

French La Boheme Litkicks

Readers of Literary Kicks are familiar with the picture of French poet Paul Verlaine that decorates every page. The poet appears to be in a stupor. In front of him is a flagon of green liquid: absinthe. The very name implies decadence and depravity. We imagine artists and writers of the Belle Epoque in Paris, sitting in cafés, drinking absinthe, and perhaps having hallucinatory visions. We think of Van Gogh, a notorious absinthe drinker: did he cut off his ear while in the throes of the drink? Numerous famous paintings depict absinthe drinkers, often in sordid surroundings, such as "The Absinthe Drinker" by Edouard Manet. Adding even more to its sinister reputation is the fact that absinthe was once outlawed in France, most of Europe, and the United States.

A lot has been written about absinthe and its effects, but perhaps one of the most compelling descriptions is from Ernest Hemingway, also a noted absintheur . In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan carries a leather-covered flask filled with absinthe. At a crucial point in the early part of the novel, he dips into his dwindling supply: "It was a milky yellow now with the water, and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, … of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy."

After years of prohibition, some varieties of absinthe have recently become legal again in the United States. In France, the drink has been legal since 1988. I heard that a shop had opened up in Paris devoted solely to selling absinthe and absinthe related items. I had to find out for myself. Is this mythic drink the devil’s tool, or "liquid alchemy", as Hemingway built it up to be?

Vert d'Absinthe is a tiny shop located at 11 rue d'Ormesson in the Marais district of Paris. I hopped off the metro at the Saint Paul stop, and found the narrow street. Looking into the shop window, I saw an impressive array of absinthe paraphernalia and Art Nouveau posters glorifying "La Fee Verte" as it was once called. Inside, I chatted with the shopkeeper, who was extremely knowledgeable about the history and use of absinthe. He told me that at the end of the 19th century, absinthe had become the most popular drink in France. At the same time, the wine industry was devastated by the phylloxera epidemic. Phylloxera, an aphid-like insect, destroyed some of the best vineyards in France. When the wine industry finally recovered, it had to fight against an entrenched absinthe to regain its spot as France’s drink of choice. Heavy lobbying by the wine industry, joined by an unholy alliance with various temperance leagues, caused the French government to ban absinthe in 1915.

In the ensuing years, researchers studied wormwood. The French government had demonized wormwood as the ingredient in absinthe which induced hallucinations and criminal behavior, but this turned out to be false. It was not the hallucinogenic drug that it was made out to be. In 1988, the European Union quietly legalized the use of a regulated amount of wormwood to produce absinthe, and "La Fee Verte" was back in business. The old producers, such as the legendary Pernod Fils, which created the original absinthes, had long since stopped making absinthe or gone out of business. However, new distilleries sprang up to take their place. These new distilleries have been able to create absinthes that are virtually identical those prior to the ban. The shop Vert d'Absinthe sells only fine absinthes that are made from the old recipes. If you buy one of their brands you will be drinking a product that is identical to what Henri Toulouse Lautrec was wont to sip at the Moulin Rouge.

The shopkeeper at the Vert d'Absinthe, Monsieur Plais, instructed me in the art of preparing a proper absinthe. Absinthe is bitter by nature, due to the wormwood and other herbs it contains. To aid in sweetening the drink, it is sold with a serrated spoon. The spoon is placed over the top of a wide mouthed glass, preferably an absinthe glass (which can be seen in front of Verlaine on the Literary Kicks picture). A dose of absinthe is placed in the bottom of the glass. A cube of sugar is placed on the spoon. Ice cold water is then dripped onto the sugar cube very slowly, so that the sugar dissolves and mingles with the liquor. At the same time, the slow drip of water releases the herbal oils and "opens" the taste of the absinthe. In the process the absinthe goes from a pale green color to a milky yellow-green. Absinthe is very high in alcohol content -- around 72%, compared to bonded bourbon, which is only 50% -- so you add water to taste. If you like a strong drink you add about six parts water to 3cl (one fluid ounce) of absinthe, more if you want a lighter drink. If you find the idea of dripping water into your glass of absinthe to be tedious, Vert d'Absinthe sells a "fontaine d'absinthe". This is a device that was found in Paris bars back in the heyday. It is a container that holds ice water, with four spigots that can be opened to slowly drip water into the absinthe glass. Thus four absinthe drinkers at a time could prepare their drink without worrying about spilling water or pouring too fast.

After chatting with M. Plais a while longer, I bought my first bottle of absinthe. He recommended a Verte de Fougerolles, which he said was identical to the old time absinthes, and a good brand to start with. It was Friday afternoon. I ran some errands and then returned home. I was the hour of the aperitif, "l'heure verte". Time to try the absinthe. I prepared my absinthe as instructed. I didn’t have an official absinthe glass, but I had one that was quite similar. I put the dose of liquor in the glass, and began to slowly pour the ice water over the sugar cube, being careful not to get any ice in the glass. Absinthe is served without ice. The raw liquor has an anise smell to it, but the addition of water brings out the fragrances of the other herbs as well. The liquid went from the pale green of the liquor to a milky yellow-green, very much like pastis.

I finished dripping the water into the glass. I lifted the opaque liquid to my lips and took a sip. The taste was very complex, but very pleasant. I could taste anise, and a slight bitterness that was masked by the sugar. Despite the high alcohol content, it did not taste strong; neither did it burn my mouth, nor my throat when I swallowed it. I took another sip. This was indeed a very nice aperitif. I slipped on a CD. A little music to enhance the mood. I began to experience a nice, mellow buzz. Unlike whiskey, which tends to dull the senses, absinthe brings about a clarity of mind that is unusual in an alcoholic beverage. I didn’t experience visions or hallucinations, just a feeling of well-being and a sharpening of the senses. The music sounded better than usual.

I imagine that if you drank several absinthes, you might reach a state of intoxication that would resemble that of Paul Verlaine on the LitKicks logo. But one or two as an aperitif is very nice. I did have an idea for a piece of writing while enjoying the effects of the drink, so perhaps it serves as a liquid muse as well. But I might have had the same idea while drinking a glass of wine. At any rate, I have now joined the ranks of those who have experienced "La Fee Verte."

8 Responses to "A Drink of Absinthe"

by Bill Ectric on

Wouldn't you know it? Politics and money derail another freedom.

Reminds me of the hemp ban in the 1930's (not that I was alive then). Companies like Dupont were developing new synthetic fibres from plastic, which competed directly with hemp for making rope and other related products. Big business lobbied for the prohibition of Marijuana and movies like "Reefer Madness" came out.

Nice article.

by michaelamichael on

I don't know anything about the subject so cannot add anything. Well, I know more now than I did before.

To quote Bill Ectric: "Nice article".

by Steve Plonk on

Whatever happened to "laudenam"? Back on the Oregon trail they used it to soothe concussions.

Now, like absinthe, it has become illegal in many places. There used to also be "tincture of paregoric". Now I have rarely seen it in drugstore shelves. Of course, now, a relative of the plant,"salvia", has been made illegal in many states in this country.

These things happen. See earlier posts: Like Bob Dylan, I have been inspired to hear "Music in the Air" and write down songs and poems lyrics set to music. I keep a journal, and at a later date I use these "brainstorm inspirations", under the influence of "St. Mescalito", the patron saint of those that use substances, to "speed dial" the utilization of the muse. There is a nice little cactus button that is illegal in many places. So true, and yet so sad...My warning is that some of these fruits lead to substance abuse, however, in some inspired dreams come the blessings of visions and real creativity result. Verlaine and Rimbaud were such gifted individuals as was Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. One must have a strong constitution to withstand the pull of substance abuse. The creative landscape is permeated with the poor gifted died too soon dead. Look at Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin,Syd Barrett, Curt Cobain et al. So, with the urge to use substance and see visions come the dire warnings to remember those who led unfortunate lives in regard to these practices.

by geoff on

Apparently the banning of Absinthe in France in 1915 was done to in an effort to make the French troops a little more focused than they had been.But, as Hemingway suggests, who wouldn't want to dose themselves with the stuff under such circumstances. Jumping out of a trench and walking in to heavy machine gun fire probably seemed not such a bad idea after of few slugs of the good juice.

I once bought a bottle in Prague (the velvet revolution had been and gone and it seemed most of the population had agreed that all that was left to do was to get drunk and stay drunk) Anyway, I wouldn't describe the effect as being that of a "liquid muse" but the hangover was of the life threatening variety ... probably a moderation issue, I suspect.

Good to hear our French friends are again serving the stuff.

by stevadore on

This was a great article. I never knew the half of it, esp the part on how to drink it. Now I know! Thanks for the post.

by mtmynd on

Brought back some old memories from the mid-60's. I was in Japan compliments of Uncle Sam and had an evening off from the ship. I went into town solely to have a few drinks and sat down at a neighborhood bar. I was surveying the alcohol selection and much to my surprise I spotted a bottle of absinthe on the shelf. I couldn't resist. I had read stories about early artists like Van Gogh and Manet that had enjoyed the "green fairy."

I ordered a glass. Not ever having partaken of the drink before I knew nothing about it. Obviously the bartender knew as much as I did and poured some in an apertif glass. The smell, as you wrote, was a delightful anise, very licorice like. I took just a small sip and enjoyed the taste. I continued just sipping on this small glass until it was empty. The bartender asked if I'd like another to which I said yes. I was feeling quite unusual - not buzzed from alcohol but more of a head trip.

The feeling increased as I sipped my second drink. I had not gotten past the half way mark when I knew I had enough! I slid off the barstool and headed outside. Headed was an appropriate word - I felt all head and no body. Similar to a kite-like experience, my head guided me down the street with no feeling from the neck down. Most curious.

I enjoyed the feeling but unfortunately, never was able to have anymore absinthe. Good to see it is now making a comeback. I believe there's a fellow in California who has gotten permission to distill the drink now.

by TKG on

Hello Michael, a quite well done and enjoyable article. Thanks to you and Levi for putting it up.

Here is a van Gough painting of Abstinthe on a table, without spoon, from an article a recent article by German scientists on Abstinthe called " Absinthism: a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impact.

Co-incidentally I had a conversation just the other day with someone who was talking about measuring thujone levels in Absinthe, now that it is making a comeback, with a gas chromatoagraph mass spectrometer we recently got use of.

What's interesting about both the recounted Abstinthe experiences here is that both you and mtmymd made clear the effect was not the same as alcohol. The thujone definitely does have pharmacological properties. It acts as a GABA-A receptor antagonist. Alcohol, qualuudes and other depressants act on this receptor to potentiate its signaling, whereas this compound in Abstinthe has the opposite effect. There are a lot of different variations on this receptor throughout the brain and they have subtle differences in pharmacological sensitivities, but at the face of it it seems perhaps Abstinthe acts as a type of classical "goofball" -- ie mixing a depressant with a stimulant.

As far as I could tell, products (food or drink) in the US cannot have thujone in it as it is toxic at high enough doses and can cause seizures.

Voyons nous la voie lactée

by infil on

Hi peeps,

Thought I'd just answer a few questions and point out a few pharmacological/hiptalk issues:

to Steve Plonk, laudanum is opium dissolved in alcohol, and is therefore illegal and has been for some time because its the demon dope.

to TKG, a goofball is a nembie, barbiturates. A *speedball* is a stim/downer combo, where the downer is usually an opiate. The classic combo being coke and heroin, but it can be done with pretty much anything. Methadone and ritalin is big in New Zealand.

"I tend to find heroin boring and coke fake, but a speedball, a speedball is different" - anon, Erowid.org

In fact the genesis of the term, I believe, was in the Korean war, where soldiers who were into their junk wondered what would happen if they dissolved their go pills into the dropper with their fix.

Add new comment