Sunday, December 6, 2009

Adventures in Absinthe

Absinthe is the most misunderstood of alcoholic drinks, demonized for over a century and blamed for everything from insanity, hallucinations and artistic tendencies. Once banned in the United States, absinthe is back, albeit a tamer, safer version yet one containing wormwood, fennel and other herbs. In France in the 1800s and early 1900s, absinthe was a popular beverage among the bohemians and artsy types. Painters and writers would get together, drink absinthe and do brilliant things, which gave the drink, nicknamed "the Green Fairy" its legendary cult status. Yet the drink was made illegal and thought to contain toxic properties that made those who imbibed it murderers, perverts and lunatics.
So the drink had its forbidden mystique, and was banned from sale in the United States until recently.
A friend bought a Lucid Absinthe Suprieure kit, which contained a bottle of absinthe, two glasses and an absinthe spoon. She brought it to my place and we tried the absinthe. The box's titillating text reads "Let Yourself In", almost daring you to try the strong spirit that made so many 19th century intellectuals inebriated. The black cat on the bottle is reminiscent of the Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), a 19th century cabaret in Paris' Montmartre district. I knew that once this licorice-flavored drink laced with forbidden wormwood hit my lips, I'd have trippy hallucinations like Hunter S. Thompson on an ether binge. The furniture in my living room would come to life and talk to me like in some disturbing 1930s cartoon when anthropomorphism proved not creepy but entertaining.
Still, I wanted to give absinthe a chance. After all, it was unfairly maligned by the government, the same government that declared marijuana illegal because William Randolph Hurst wanted to kill hemp production for selfish business reasons. Maybe this alluringly sexy libation called absinthe wasn't as bad as the critics made it.

For consumption, absinthe, which has a high alcohol volume of 45 percent to 74 percent, must be diluted with water. Using the glasses that came with the Lucid set, we poured a small portion of absinthe. At first, the stuff had an anise smell, like Greek ouzo. The liquid wasn't bright green, like a St. Patrick's Day green, but a pale yellowish green. A sugar cube is placed on the slotted absinthe spoon, which rests on the glass's rim. Cold water is poured over the sugar cube, which slowly dissolves and drips into the absinthe below. The process, called louching, gives absinthe a milky color, and makes it palpable for drinking, in my opinion.

We then drank the absinthe and, much to our surprise, we didn't experience any hallucinations. We didn't go insane or paint any Impressionist masterpieces. We didn't murder prostitutes in cold blood and then compose poems about it.
Instead, the absinthe, the most forbidden and mysterious of all spirits, tasted pretty bland. It tasted like watered down licorice. We didn't even get buzzed, not even a little. Maybe we needed to add more absinthe or use colder water. Maybe we needed to guzzle the drink down quicker, not sip our glasses out of fear that the wormwood would rot our brains. The experiment into absinthe on our first night was a bust, a grand experiment into pushing boundaries and getting whacked out on thujone-laced liquor and freaking out on a psychoactive binge. We were hoping to wander the alleys at 3 a.m. muttering pig Latin and making lewd comments about Madame Pierre Gautreau. Instead, we found ourselves let down by slick marketing and delusional hopes of absinthe fucking us up.

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