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"The Goddess! What is the fascination that makes her so adorable and so terrible?" Aleister Crowley.
The Green Faery, Goddess of "Le Heure Verte" has any drink in history been more celebrated, or more maligned? But what precisely is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a high alcohol spirit derived from various herbs; the three most important and defining are green anise, Florence fennel, and Grande Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium), the Holy Trinity of Absinthe. Other ingredients can include hyssop, melissa, star anise, dittany, sweet flag, angelica, coriander, nutmeg, juniper and veronica. These are combined in an alcohol base; for real absinthe, eau de vie, or white grape spirits. Other so called "lesser" absinthes use alcohols based in grains, beets, or potatoes.
The active (as in psychoactive) ingredient in Absinthe is the Grande Wormwood. Artemisia Absinthium contains thujone, a chemical superficially similar to THC the active ingredient in Cannabis. Thujone in high doses is a dangerous poison, causing convulsions and death, but you would die of alcohol poisoning long before reaching lethal doses even drinking the bitterest Absinthe. In small doses, it is claimed to have effects on creativity and intuition.
The Green Faery has often been called the patron Goddess of Inspiration, courted by such luminaries as Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, Arthur Rimbaud, Guy de Maupassant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Verlaine, Pablo Picasso, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and Aleister Crowley. I'm not sure that last one is considered an endorsement.... Vincent Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec are the most famous Absinthe aficionados, the green drink being blamed for the painter's lifelong mental problems. Oscar Wilde once described the sensations of Absinthe as feeling as if he had tulips on his legs as he left the bar. Of course, knowing Oscar, that could just be a double entendre (tulips.... Two lips)
Absinthe has been blamed for everything from homicidal rages, to the habitual rudeness of the French. As was reported in the popular media of the day, "Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country." It is erroneously attributed to be a powerful hallucinogen (near lethal doses of Thujone will cause hallucinations. So will near lethal doses of cough syrup.) Whatever the case, the critics against Absinthe are almost as creative as the producers of Reefer Madness.
But now to the drink. To prepare (or to louche) Absinthe, one ounce is poured into a glass. Then a slotted spoon is placed over the top, and iced water is slowly dripped over it. This distributes the sugar evenly through the mixture, helping mask the bitter wormwood. Three to five ounces is appropriate to one ounce of Absinthe. As this is done, the clear liquor is rendered an opalescent white, with a hint of green to it, turning vaguely translucent, but mostly opaque.
The scent is heavy on anise and fennel, smelling like nothing so much as, well, a shot of Nyquil. The scent is also reminiscent of licorice. Drink it in; the scent seems to prepare the body for the taste.
If you can't stand Nyquil, if you think Licorice is the nastiest thing on earth, then this aperitif may not be for you. However after the first sip, as the liquor slaps your taste buds about and calls them demeaning names, the flavor of licorice washes over you, and then subsides. It is still a strong note, but other herbals come out to play; citrusy notes and hints of burns from the potent spices (coriander always shines through for me, though others don't notice it as much.) And behind it all, the bitter bite of wormwood, mitigated by the sugar.
The sensation of drinking Absinthe has always reminded me of having a head cold, and inhaling something strongly laced with Camphor; your head opens up, and feels slightly dizzy, and wrapped in cotton. That is the sensation. It's action on the bloodstream is very rapid, more so than mere alcohol can account for. After that, it turns fairly quickly (it is 110 proof, after all) to a pleasant buzz.
There is far less muting of the senses that one experiences with say, Tequila. Nor does Absinthe make me sleepy, and I am a sleepy and merry drunk. No, there is a lucidity to the buzz that is at odds with anything I have ever drunk before. I can see why it was so very popular.
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