Absinthe Minded

Why can’t we get absinthe?

Sometimes the Burning Question crew suspects that the editors wish us jail time, disfigurement, death or worse.

It's not that they necessarily hate us, mind you. They just have this thing about deadlines. More than once they've sent "goons" around to "teach us a lesson." Fortunately, these goons are really editorial interns resembling Richard Simmons, circa 1982, so we dispatch them rather quickly.

This week, however, they asked us to pursue a particularly disturbing Burning Question, fraught with romance, danger, delirium and missing appendages: Why can't we get absinthe?

The drink belongs to a previous century and another country. It requires ceremony, time and a world still accustomed to wonder at little things.

Absinthe was delightfully green and wickedly volatile. Introduced by Henri-Louis Pernod in the 1790s, it became the most popular concoction in France, sans aucun doute. (Not sure what that means, but it sounds cool.) When mixed in the preferred method--placing a sugar cube over a glass of absinthe and slowly dripping cold water over the cube until it dissolves into the glass--the drink magically changed into a color resembling those horrible seafoam dresses often worn by bridesmaids. "It seems like such a reclusive drink," muses Jordan Lowery of Whisky Bar. "It's not a social drink; it's a discipline."

Oscar Wilde said "a glass of absinthe is the most poetical thing in the world." Toulouse-Lautrec sketched it. Manet and Degas painted it. Picasso sculpted it. An entire generation of artists and writers succumbed to la fee verte, the green fairy. The period just after work became l'heure verte, the green hour, when sunlight ebbed into amber, and glasses filled with a greenish hue. Prim 19th-century women loosened up under the green fairy's spell. Charles Baudelaire claimed that wine, that opium even, failed to compare to "the poison that spills from your eyes, your green eyes, lakes where my soul trembles and is turned upside down." Of course, he could have been writing about cats.

But absinthe had a kick. The French served it at 140 to 150 proof. Wormwood lent it a bitter taste (hence the sugar ceremony) and a touch of the drug thujone, reputedly hallucinogenic. Wilde died in his 40s, as did Baudelaire. Paul Verlaine ended up a withered shell. Van Gogh was reputedly stewed on the green stuff when he charged at Gauguin with a razor then hacked off his own ear.

Abolitionists and others blamed absinthe for earless artists, epileptic fits, delirium and all kinds of fun behavior. The United States banned la fee verte in 1912, following a high-profile absinthe-induced murder. France followed suit in 1915 (the French downed 10.5 million gallons of the stuff in 1913). Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and others shelved the stuff around the same time. That pretty much answers the Burning Question, except that Spain still produces a 134-proof absinthe. Barnaby Conrad, author of Absinthe: History in a Bottle, barely recalled trying a homemade batch, remembering nothing until finishing some coffee the next morning. "It came to me," he wrote, "that at some point in the previous evening, I thought I knew the answer to life. Only now I had forgotten it." Lowery tells of a friend who tried some in Spain. "He said it tasted like shit." Oh, well. The Greek word for absinthe, apsinthion, translates as "undrinkable." The Czech Republic also churns out iffy versions. The British never banned it either, though they don't produce absinthe commercially.

Pernod still exists, as well--now a wormwood-free, licorice-flavored shadow of its former self. The Library Bar in the Melrose Hotel stocks Pernod, though bartender Manny Murillo admits the bar doesn't sell much. "The people who order it are older," he says.

"That whole group of liqueurs--ouzo, Pernod, Campari--don't sell," Lowery agrees.

Ah, well. The Burning Question crew went after the most reasonable facsimile readily available in the States, Absente. It weighs in at 110 proof and uses southern wormwood for bitterness. Southern wormwood packs smaller doses of thujone, well within the 10 parts per million allowed by federal law.

Absente hit the American market about a year ago but has yet to catch on. We found a bottle at Sigel's and picked up a box of sugar cubes at Tom Thumb, determined to test Wilde's absinthe thesis. According to Wilde, each glass of la fee verte twisted the consciousness in a different direction. "After the first glass," he said, "you see things as you wish they were." After two and a half Absentes--roughly equivalent to one of the original--some of the Burning Question crew began advocating an Atlanta Rhythm Section reunion.

"After the second glass," Wilde said, "you see things as they are not." Well into the fifth glass, we suddenly recognized the subtle, ironic wit of Adam Sandler films. We also saw a B-17 apparently bombing Carrollton.

"Finally," said Wilde, "you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

We didn't make it that far.

(Editor's note: For the record, we would like to state that we rarely wish our deadline-inattentive staff to suffer anythingworse than death.)

 
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