Absinthe of malice

Van Gogh’s notorious drink of choice still a forbidden fruit in the United States

Photo Illustration by Craig Blamer

Booze, booze, wonderful booze … and no booze is more wonderful than the kind you are not allowed to drink. Witness the grand, Tommy gun-totin’ era of Prohibition, a precedent to the guarded, euphemism-loaded telephone calls in search of a plastic baggie with the bottom dusted with dried-out ol’ dirt weed.

Ah, the wicked allure of contraband. The Cuban cigar gripped erect by the supercilious jawline of celebrities and politicians, a roll of tobacco leaves yet denied to the proletariat. Hundreds of dollars expended to fly away to Amsterdam to smoke hash in a café before taking a train down to a fine restaurant in France to savor a fillet of horsemeat cooked medium rare. Time and money spent in the pursuit of an indulgence made attractive merely because it is forbidden fruit.

And yet, as tempting as the forbidden fruit may be, when it becomes readily available the allure is diminished: The truckload of Coors beer that, when finally found in any convenience store east of the Mississippi, soon began to be pronounced “curse” with a curl of the lip.

Witness the contemporary resurgence of the notorious liquor of yore, the legendary absinthe. It was called the Green Fairy (or la Fée Verte in its mother tongue) in its heyday, and the tales of witnessed madness are legion. The besoaked and besotted Vincent Van Gogh sliced off his ear while under the influence, the Green Fairy whispering in his remaining ear that the object of his spurned affections would most certainly appreciate the posted token of his ultimate devotion. And the asylums of turn-of-the-century Gay Paree were stacked to the rafters with the dissipated forms of crazy-eyed and twitching wretches that were consumed alive by the toxic temptation of a then very common bottle of hooch.

Visionary artistes like Wilde, Baudelaire, Hemingway and others also partook in the emerald-colored spirit that tasted so nasty that one had to burn a teaspoon of sugar over it and stir the syrup in to seduce the gag reflex into submission.

But then, like most surreptitious indulgences, the ritual is half the attraction …

The connoisseur holds the bottle of eagerly anticipated quaff to the light, admiring the preternatural emerald cast of the fluid contained within, thoughts wandering back to the halcyon days of gaslight and artists lounging in Parisian cafés set off from the rain-soaked cobblestones of the glittering city …

Although historically associated with Paris, it is generally acknowledged that absinthe originated in Switzerland, although the roots of the drink extend much further back. Papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt and Greece note the antecedents of the elixir, but it was with the emergence of a patent remedy by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland, that the fairy emerged from her wormwood cocoon and took wing.

… the tulip-shaped glass awaits, a specially designed vented spoon resting across the lip, posed above the serene surface of the measure. A cube of raw sugar rests in the bottom of the utensil, and five parts iced water is dribbled over the cube, the syrupy fluid spilling over the sugar and coiling down into the bitter alcohol that abides. The smell of anise wafts up from the witches brew …

Absinthe is a medley of a trinity of herbs: of fennel and green anise and, of course, the dread grand wormwood. Other herbs make the acquaintance of the recipe, but the trinity is the constant. The wormwood is the key, and the active ingredient contained in the plant is thujone. Although inaccurately considered to be a cousin of THC, thujone is said to produce a lucid drunk, an intoxication that still leaves one feeling clear-headed.

As Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, described the most popular drink in the galaxy: the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster “ … is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” Although a dance with the Green Fairy is more akin to substituting the lemon for a nice, warm down pillow.

the liquor takes on a cloudy hue as the osmosis begins, turning an opalescent white in an effect known as “louching,” a transition that imbues the liquid with an eldritch quality. The scent of anise wafts from the glass as you raise it to your lips …

Due to the classification of thujone as a neurotoxin, the liquor remains illegal in the United States. However, in much of the world, the ban has been discarded as the silliness it was, even when set loose at the dawn of the 20th century.

A symptom of the insidious temperance movement of that era, absinthe was blamed for many of the day’s sociological ills. An infamous murder trial attributed the actions of the alcoholic defendant on the side effects of the liquor, and served as an international flashpoint for legislation banning the manufacture and sale of absinthe. Absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, in the U.S. in 1912 and finally in France in 1915.

However, nearly a century later, the laws are as dusty and archaic as the reasoning behind them, and most civilized countries regard absinthe as they regard any other alcoholic beverage. The madness attributed to the drink is now accepted to be the result of the high alcohol content of the bootleg versions from back-alley distilleries (most absinthe made nowadays has a low level of thujone according to AbsintheSupply.net).

In the United States, consumers must wait about a month to receive the drink they ordered. However, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “The importation of absinthe and any other liquors or liqueurs that contain Artemisia absinthium is prohibited.”

… depending on the heritage of the absinthe, the fluid that crosses your tongue can either be the faint bitterness, balanced and crisp, associated with the French Pernod, or the cloying lemony sweetness of the Spanish version, or the straight-from-the-radiator causticness of the cheapest Czech form …

Indulgers in the Green Fairy are comforted by the packaged anonymity of the post, as parcels arrive to be opened like a toper Christmas in June. With the immediacy and ease of the Internet, one can quickly find a bottle of absinthe with his or her name on it. But, of course, that name means nothing if a postal worker intercepts the package on its surreptitious way to your doorstep.