A red-head French painter created a timeless painting of France, cut off his own ear, and gave it to a prostitute. A gruff American writer traveled to Cuba to experience so-called legendary ‘liquid alchemy’ and wrote a book about an old man and the sea. An Australian film director wrote a musical about a can-canning brothel in Paris where the protagonist experiences hallucinations at the hand of the ‘green fairy’. A notoriously creepy Gothic musician developed his own brand of Absinthe called, no joke, ‘Mansinthe’. He should’ve called it ‘Personal Jesus’ -- that's more stylish and ten times more insulting.
These famous imbibers have led society to believe that the moment we meet the green lady, we'll start hallucinating. Conventional wisdom tells us that we’ll try to cut off our own ear because we're in a tiff with a friend, and nothing says ‘payback’ better than a severed earlobe. As much as I'd like to believe absinthe would allow me to see a scantily dressed Tinker Bell floating above my head as I sit at my green typewriter typing out words in green ink, wearing my green ascot, blowing green smoke out of my cigarette, I know that's simply not the truth. You wouldn’t believe how many people watched Ewan McGregor sing and dance his way through a paper bag in Moulin Rouge and then proceeded to march down to Br X to order absinthe, because, y’know, hallucinations and shit. Let's get this straight right off the bat: If you're hallucinating on absinthe, it's because you drank so much absinthe that your body gave up the ghost and those hallucinations are, in fact, whatever after-life you're experiencing. It's not possible now and it was impossible back then for Hemingway to hallucinate.
Inebriation from absinthe is not any different from your drunken nights slugging back shots of tequila and dancing sloppily to a Lady Gaga remix with those two girls who desperately wanted to get down. I hate to break it to you, but absinthe gets you drunk just like everything else -- it's all exaggerated. You will experience a sort of minor euphoria from drinking absinthe, but it's the surprising flavor and high proof that sets you back and not the teensy tiny traces of hallucinogenic chemicals.
Following me so far? Are you past the idea that you can ‘trip out’ on this spirit? Still have your ear attached? Good -- let's move on to the history then.
Just like my first post on the old fashioned, I'm going to give you a hearty-yet-short summary since there seems to be so much history, speculation, and confusion regarding absinthe. There are several sources you can learn from that will explain in detail a little more than I will, so get to it and do some studying after you're done reading my Ugly Drunk ramblings.
To understand the history of absinthe, you must first understand the three main herbs, also known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ in the business. The Holy Trinity is comprised of green anise, Florence fennel, and grand wormwood. All three of these are known to have different medicinal uses and make up a majority of absinthe made today and in the past. Wormwood has the biggest historical presence and was the most commonly used by doctors and healers all across the world. In 1790, a French doctor by the coolest name ever -- Pierre Ordinaire -- moved to Switzerland where he extracted and refined the healing properties of wormwood, creating an elixir to cure everything from malaria to anemia to whatever the hell that thing is growth is on your thigh. Years later, after a few money-filled handshakes, the recipe was put in the hands of Henri-Louis Pernod, who started the first absinthe distillery in Switzerland.
The potion's many uses became well known in Switzerland until the artsy-fartsy French got their hands on it. As is French custom, they begged. The Pernod family opened a second distillery in France where it was distributed to French troops to ward off malaria. It became so wildly popular that every café and bistro would be full to the brim with demands of Absinthe. This concoction was to be poured down the throats of aristocrats, lowlifes, and artists and became commonly known as The Green Hour, or if you want to get fancy with it, l'heure verte'.
The green fever continued up until the early 1900s when paintings and writings started to depict absinthe as being villainous and harm-inducing, right in-step with the birth of prohibition. It didn't help that in 1905, a story broke out of a man named Jean Lanfrey who murdered his entire family and took his own life after a single day-drinking binge. Absinthe was pin-pointed as the cause for the murders even though Jean had only had two glasses of absinthe amongst his hours and hours of guzzling a wine and cognac. The Temperance Movement (the really hip people responsible for more prohibitions than you can shake an empty bottle at) of the 1900s and French wine makers used this story to their advantage and encouraged a ban on absinthe in France. This had a ripple effect which then spurned other countries into pushing absinthe off many shelves all across the world.
It was a legendary, mythical, unicorn-of-a-spirit, until curiosity about absinthe peaked once again in the 1990s. Absinthe had not been completely forgotten in the U.K., where it had never been banned because it never took off. The Queen didn't drink it, so why would anyone else? Several brands made desperate attempts to bring absinthe back, but were viewed as inferior products to that of the absinthe of old because they didn't contain the third essential ingredient, wormwood. It wasn't until 2007 when absinthe returned to its roots in an unlikely place – America. Wormwood was allowed once again in absinthe as long as it contained less than 10 mg of thujone, as regulated by the FDA and whatever other acronym associations regulate shit.
In much higher doses thujone is known to make you trip balls, but only a small amount will even survive the distillation process. Once again, the amount of thujone and hallucinations in Hemingway's green-fairy-muse-seductress were greatly exaggerated -- those damn bohemian expats put too much emotion into everything. Absinthe is now available for purchase in all fifty states, but you absolutely must make sure to do some homework before you start asking for a fancy absinthe drip. A lot of absinthes out there are substitutes using southernwood (Artemisa Abrotanum) in place of grand wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium), but your bartender should be able to help you pick out some good brands -- brands like Kubler or Pernod.
Two words of advice if you do choose to enjoy an evening with the green fairy at Bar X: First, please don't come in and ask for it when we're balls to walls slammed on a weekend night and expect it to magically make itself. It's quite the process, and the line of twelve people behind you who have to wait for the absinthe to Louche (which is the process of diluting the Absinthe with water and, if preferred, sugar) will kill you, and we won’t stop them. Second, please don't drink enough absinthe to try and incur a hallucination – you’ll only get too drunk to function. We love our jobs, but we hate cutting you off because your inebriated state of mind leaves you to believe your newest artwork -- which you just scribbled on a napkin -- will be featured at the Louvre when you die. Here’s a tip: it won't, it sucks, save the painting and thought-provoking existential ramblings for home.
A side note on preparing absinthe: There are several ways to prepare absinthe. You can drink it by itself or, like many other spirits, dilute it by adding water, also known as la louche (French for opaque) ritual, which will release more of a bouquet of flavors than drinking it neat. Depending on the color of the brand of absinthe you're using, they come in an array of colors -- green, white, or pale blue, just to name a few. Once you start pouring the water (ever so gently, if you please) over the sugar cube, it will become cloudy like a witch's brew on Halloween. The traditional French method of preparing absinthe is done with a proper absinthe spoon, a Pontarlier glass, a sugar cube, and one part absinthe and three-to-five parts water. I personally enjoy the Kubler brand of absinthe. Yes, you can light the sugar cube on fire, however, this is not traditional and, in my opinion, improperly affects the flavor of the absinthe. If you absolutely must know more, this method is commonly known as the Czech or Bohemian method.
If you don’t feel like drinking a full glass of absinthe, there are several cocktail recipes out there that call for absinthe as a rinse or in small portions. This will add a savory licorice smell and taste, and can be experienced at Bar X in one of our most popular and classic drinks -- The Sazerac.
This cocktail has so much history that if I were to start writing about it now, it would take up another article. You'll just have to wait for that, but in the meantime, here's how I prefer my Sazerac.
• 2 oz. cognac (traditional) or rye
• 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
• .25 oz simple syrup or a sugar cube if you feel like muddling again (see my article on the old fashioned)
• Absinthe rinse on glass or .25 oz absinthe thrown in with the rest of it Stir over ice until properly diluted and pour into chilled glass. Garnish with lemon twist.