Readers of Literary Kicks are familiar with the picture of French poet Paul Verlaine that decorates every page. The poet appears to be in a stupor. In front of him is a flagon of green liquid: absinthe. The very name implies decadence and depravity. We imagine artists and writers of the Belle Epoque in Paris, sitting in cafés, drinking absinthe, and perhaps having hallucinatory visions. We think of Van Gogh, a notorious absinthe drinker: did he cut off his ear while in the throes of the drink? Numerous famous paintings depict absinthe drinkers, often in sordid surroundings, such as “The Absinthe Drinker” by Edouard Manet. Adding even more to its sinister reputation is the fact that absinthe was once outlawed in France, most of Europe, and the United States.
A lot has been written about absinthe and its effects, but perhaps one of the most compelling descriptions is from Ernest Hemingway, also a noted absintheur . In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan carries a leather-covered flask filled with absinthe. At a crucial point in the early part of the novel, he dips into his dwindling supply: “It was a milky yellow now with the water, and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, … of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy.”
After years of prohibition, some varieties of absinthe have recently become legal again in the United States. In France, the drink has been legal since 1988. I heard that a shop had opened up in Paris devoted solely to selling absinthe and absinthe related items. I had to find out for myself. Is this mythic drink the devil’s tool, or “liquid alchemy”, as Hemingway built it up to be?
Vert d’Absinthe is a tiny shop located at 11 rue d’Ormesson in the Marais district of Paris. I hopped off the metro at the Saint Paul stop, and found the narrow street. Looking into the shop window, I saw an impressive array of absinthe paraphernalia and Art Nouveau posters glorifying “La Fee Verte” as it was once called. Inside, I chatted with the shopkeeper, who was extremely knowledgeable about the history and use of absinthe. He told me that at the end of the 19th century, absinthe had become the most popular drink in France. At the same time, the wine industry was devastated by the phylloxera epidemic. Phylloxera, an aphid-like insect, destroyed some of the best vineyards in France. When the wine industry finally recovered, it had to fight against an entrenched absinthe to regain its spot as France’s drink of choice. Heavy lobbying by the wine industry, joined by an unholy alliance with various temperance leagues, caused the French government to ban absinthe in 1915.
In the ensuing years, researchers studied wormwood. The French government had demonized wormwood as the ingredient in absinthe which induced hallucinations and criminal behavior, but this turned out to be false. It was not the hallucinogenic drug that it was made out to be. In 1988, the European Union quietly legalized the use of a regulated amount of wormwood to produce absinthe, and “La Fee Verte” was back in business. The old producers, such as the legendary Pernod Fils, which created the original absinthes, had long since stopped making absinthe or gone out of business. However, new distilleries sprang up to take their place. These new distilleries have been able to create absinthes that are virtually identical those prior to the ban. The shop Vert d’Absinthe sells only fine absinthes that are made from the old recipes. If you buy one of their brands you will be drinking a product that is identical to what Henri Toulouse Lautrec was wont to sip at the Moulin Rouge.
The shopkeeper at the Vert d’Absinthe, Monsieur Plais, instructed me in the art of preparing a proper absinthe. Absinthe is bitter by nature, due to the wormwood and other herbs it contains. To aid in sweetening the drink, it is sold with a serrated spoon. The spoon is placed over the top of a wide mouthed glass, preferably an absinthe glass (which can be seen in front of Verlaine on the Literary Kicks picture). A dose of absinthe is placed in the bottom of the glass. A cube of sugar is placed on the spoon. Ice cold water is then dripped onto the sugar cube very slowly, so that the sugar dissolves and mingles with the liquor. At the same time, the slow drip of water releases the herbal oils and “opens” the taste of the absinthe. In the process the absinthe goes from a pale green color to a milky yellow-green. Absinthe is very high in alcohol content — around 72%, compared to bonded bourbon, which is only 50% — so you add water to taste. If you like a strong drink you add about six parts water to 3cl (one fluid ounce) of absinthe, more if you want a lighter drink. If you find the idea of dripping water into your glass of absinthe to be tedious, Vert d’Absinthe sells a “fontaine d’absinthe”. This is a device that was found in Paris bars back in the heyday. It is a container that holds ice water, with four spigots that can be opened to slowly drip water into the absinthe glass. Thus four absinthe drinkers at a time could prepare their drink without worrying about spilling water or pouring too fast.
After chatting with M. Plais a while longer, I bought my first bottle of absinthe. He recommended a Verte de Fougerolles, which he said was identical to the old time absinthes, and a good brand to start with. It was Friday afternoon. I ran some errands and then returned home. I was the hour of the aperitif, “l’heure verte”. Time to try the absinthe. I prepared my absinthe as instructed. I didn’t have an official absinthe glass, but I had one that was quite similar. I put the dose of liquor in the glass, and began to slowly pour the ice water over the sugar cube, being careful not to get any ice in the glass. Absinthe is served without ice. The raw liquor has an anise smell to it, but the addition of water brings out the fragrances of the other herbs as well. The liquid went from the pale green of the liquor to a milky yellow-green, very much like pastis.
I finished dripping the water into the glass. I lifted the opaque liquid to my lips and took a sip. The taste was very complex, but very pleasant. I could taste anise, and a slight bitterness that was masked by the sugar. Despite the high alcohol content, it did not taste strong; neither did it burn my mouth, nor my throat when I swallowed it. I took another sip. This was indeed a very nice aperitif. I slipped on a CD. A little music to enhance the mood. I began to experience a nice, mellow buzz. Unlike whiskey, which tends to dull the senses, absinthe brings about a clarity of mind that is unusual in an alcoholic beverage. I didn’t experience visions or hallucinations, just a feeling of well-being and a sharpening of the senses. The music sounded better than usual.
I imagine that if you drank several absinthes, you might reach a state of intoxication that would resemble that of Paul Verlaine on the LitKicks logo. But one or two as an aperitif is very nice. I did have an idea for a piece of writing while enjoying the effects of the drink, so perhaps it serves as a liquid muse as well. But I might have had the same idea while drinking a glass of wine. At any rate, I have now joined the ranks of those who have experienced “La Fee Verte.”