Raising the Bar: AbsintheBy Harry Leeds on February 04, 2008 - 9:30 am |
Or, a Short History and Summary of the Most Talked About and Formallly Illegal Liquor From When My Mom Paid for My Backpacking-Through-Europe Trip
Me at work on absinthe with a green fairy (NPH)
A lot of people have stories about absinthe. A lot of the stories begin with, “When my mom sent me to Europe,” and end with, “The next thing I remember...” Absinthe is bottled at a very high proof (132) and is supposed to be mixed with water before consumption, but, if you're like me, you took your teenage opportunity in Europe to drink as much as you possibly could.
Absinthe tastes kind of like a mixture between licorice and turpentine, but the interest in absinthe of poets, writers, artists, alcoholics, and French whores (In order: Poe, Wilde, Van Gogh and French whores) of the 199th century make most people throw aside the paint thinner taste and concentrate on how smooth it is to drink something green. Also, it’s not quite as bad if it is prepared properly (more on that later).
The rumors are that when you drink absinthe you see a green fairy, or at least have mild hallucinations (mild as opposed to the more intense hallucinations associated with acid). Because of the widespread use of the drink in the 1800’s, many people portrayed absinthe alcoholics as being tempted by a green fairy, or something of an olde time Star Trek alien babe (she’s green, you can’t touch her, but boy, you can dream).
A real controlled study of absinthe drinkers showed that despite the presence of thujone (the psychoactive in absinthe), most people reported the same number of hallucinations with regular alcohol as with absinthe. Perhaps people were lying to themselves because they’ve been waiting to drink it since their 15th birthday. “What?” you thought when you were fifteen, “A drink that I makes me see shit, you say?” And now that you’ve drank the stuff, you’re also really drunk and will say you’re hallucinating even if you’re not. Indeed, absinthe makes you drunk, fast.
This is why it's difficult to get an accurate description of the absinthe experience: most people don't remember. If you were lucky enough to pay the exorbitant $5 dollars in a Czech bar, you can brag to all your friends. Oh yeah man, you were cool for drinking that green thing at tourist prices.
Some people claim to have real hallucinations. Someone told me that he drank a whole bottle with his friend, and they both saw the bed stand up on it’s legs, and walk closer to them, threatening them (“You fucking assholes sleeping and fucking on me!” it said.) Another claims that they did see a green fairy, and they had a conversation about shoes. The most common story I’ve heard have been a lot of people who start to have conversations, then forget what they were talking about and stare at the wall, then try to start talking again, then wake up in a dumpster. If you’re expecting to have an imaginary green woman seduce you, though, you’re taking the wrong drug.
Absinthe used to be a thing that you only could get in Eastern Europe or from smuggling, since it was banned in the US. In reality, online liquor stores in Europe would happily ship to the US, and I have heard several anecdotes from people who say that real Czech absinthe came to their door in less than two weeks with no problems.
If you couldn’t make it to Europe and didn’t want to risk getting a call from customs (“Hello, is this Mike Hunt? We’ve found an illegal package addressed to you…”) you could only dream of tasting the stuff. Perhaps, though, you've seen absinthe kits popping up all around your neighborhood liquor stores, and you've been wondering, is this classic thing really legal?
Absinthe was banned in 1912 in the States (boooo!) after being banned in Brazil and Belgium (double boo!) in 1906 and the Netherlands (really?) in 1909. France (homos) banned it in 1915, which is surprising since I feel like French people like to drink weird green shit. This was due to misconceptions and mythologies about the crazy hallucinations that people see when they drink the stuff, and it's wild addictiveness (there is a scene in Euro Trip where a green fairy appears to talk with the guy -- absinthe is not as fun as portrayed in that movie, and neither is Europe, unless you do get to set the Pope’s hat on fire).
Part of the mythology was inadvertently propagated by the poets and artists who described hallucinogenic experiences on the drink. Oscar Wilde described tulips on his legs, but he was also extremely drunk and gay at the time, both of which would explain the quotation. Several Impressionist painters portray lonely bar scenes with absinthe drinkers, such as Degas. One Czech painting by Oliva shows a man being seduced by a green fairy (again, something that Wilde would have probably made up in his head anyway).
Some countries like Spain, the UK and the Czech Republic never banned the drink at all, and other countries realized that green liquor wasn’t a big deal. Finally, this February, the backward United States that already manufactures Colt 45 (yay!) decided to let up on the rules and we can drink absinthe again (double yay!). It's time to pay extra for some nasty tasting shit just because we can!
Some absinthe spoons
Not Your Great-Grandma's Absinthe
At some point when demand for absinthe was really low (because it was illegal), a distributor had the idea to glorify the process of drinking absinthe. Nobody likes to mix their alcohol with water, so he had the idea to add some fire. Slotted spoons aptly named absinthe spoons (carved in all kinds of crazy gothic styles) can be placed on top of a glass with a shot of absinthe. A sugar cube is set aflame, which burns off some of the alcohol and allows the caramelized sugar to drip into the brew. Finally, water is added to extinguish the flames. The result is a slighter milder, slightly sweeter version of absinthe than the classic absinthe and water combo. It also makes the formerly popular but proletarian drink into something more extravagant.
The absinthe now legally sold in the US isn't true absinthe, but it's quite close. Absinthe naturally has a anise-licorice flavor to it (except Czech style or Hausgemacht, home brewed absinthe, which tastes more like everclear and may be made with everclear.) The home brew absinthe kits are often herbs including wormwood and anise that you let soak in high proof grain alcohol for a week. It’s little more than a teabag system to make what should be a pure drink, so you might as well buy the real thing.
Wormwood is the ingredient that should be used in fermentation (though it doesn’t work that way in the home brew kits) that gives absinthe its hallucinogenic potential. A certain kind of wormwood his prohibited for food production in the US (artemisia absinthium) so US producers use artemisia arbrotanum, or southern wormwood. Absinthe is also allowed in the US if it has under a certain level of thujone, the hallucinogenic chemical created by wormwood. Other plants that are not prohibited have thujone in them, and sometimes those are used instead. As discussed before, though, you're not really going to hallucinate the way you want to: the effects will be extremely mild and you'll probably be too drunk to see anything out of the ordinary from your normal hammered state. Because the laws are unclear and somewhat lax about thujone content, depending on the source of the thujone, it's pretty easy to procure true absinthe in the states, and extremely easy to have some sent right to your door from Europe. And, in practice, says one manufacturer, you’ll be drinking the same drink that people drank 100 years ago.
“Absinthe Drinker” by Viktor Olivia sits in a pub in Prague
Why You Should Drink Absinthe
Several manufacturers and distributors have popped up around trying to sell you absinthe, and, if you're any kind of man, you have to try it. Considering its artistic 19th Century and outsider background, it's not surprising that lot of absinthe marketing has been geared toward Gothic young people, that 21-26 year-old demographic that wants a funny-colored drink that looks good against a black vinyl vest and fishnets (I'm talking about a boy, of course). The best example of this, of course, is Mansinthe, Marilyn Manson's liquor. Come on, now, this dude weighs like 100 pounds and he has tits, that drink must really fuck you up! This red absinthe is guaranteed to make people question why they didn't just buy wild turkey like usual.
Mansinthe: the manly absinthe!
If you’re a film student, or an artist, or really any kind of younger college student not studying sports management (but if you are, that's fine, too... I guess), absinthe is probably something that has crossed your mind as a fun weekend adventure, and now that idea can come to life.
I think that we should start drinking absinthe again. Okay, so it doesn't really make you see a green fairy, and you're paying a little bit more money when you could already be drunk for two-thirds the price. But up until now, if you wanted to cry and write poetry, all you had was red wine to get you through the night. Now there is an alternative: a high proof alternative with a cool ritual involving fire. Real artists drink themselves into self-discovery, right? And this drink is a classic. Tell your professors and your wife that you were too busy studying impressionism to come home last night!
Anyway, what right does the man have to tell you what you can and can't drink. Sweet licorice liquor with a history (you learned something by reading this article, didn't you?) is more than you can say for “Poland Sering” vodka, and anise is easy on the stomach. Absinthe is strong, tasty, and is a great opportunity to mix up your liquor cabinet. You can impress friends, whoever is sitting next to you (especially if you order a mixed drink with absinthe) and be the rage at all your favorite goth parties. It's a way to bring to style into your monotonous Georgii life, and worth the experience.
And, the fact is, if you’re trying to score a certain kind of chick, a good way to break the ice is, “So, have you heard of absinthe? I have some in my apartment…”
Note: I am not being paid by absinthe makers but if you want to, absinthe makers, that’s cool. Especially if you want to pay in absinthe.
Van Gogh's Absinthe. Sexy, huh?