Still Life with Absinthe

The tipple of choice for fin-de-siecle decadents

| May/June 1998

Called the cocaine of the 19th century, absinthe was so central to that era's artistic life that it appeared in the paintings of masters ranging from Van Gogh to Picasso, and in the writings of such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Emile Zola. No wonder it piques the fantasies of today's explorers, especially those who travel to Czechoslovakia, Spain, and other parts of Europe where it can still be sampled. Be forewarned, however: Despite its renewed celebrity status as Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor's "perfect drug," the stuff can be nasty, and its active ingredient, wormwood, even nastier. (Last September, a leading U.S. medical journal reported renal failure in a man who drank essential oil of wormwood.) In this piece from The Idler (Winter, 1997), Black Box Recorder musician and writer John Moore describes his flirtation with the Green Fairy.

One winter, studying the bottles in a Prague bar, I noticed a particularly inviting one filled with emerald green liquid that looked like it could inflict damage. It was absinthe. I knew a little about absinthe but, like most people, I thought it had been banned and was gone forever.

Before taking a sip, I studied it. Its scent was pungent and alcoholic, its color spectacular. It seemed to catch the light and looked quite unnatural. The first mouthful exploded on my tongue and vaporized up through my nostrils. I had to swallow it quickly. I could feel its intense heat running down my throat, burning its way into my stomach. What little taste there was, was dry and bitter, tinged with aniseed. It had a real afterburn. I felt like it had been injected, not swallowed. There was no gradual seeping into the bloodstream -- this was the bloodstream. Armed with a glass of water, I finished it, then ordered another glass. A friendship had begun.

I soon learned how to drink absinthe properly. Of course, you can drink it neat (preferable for the first glass, otherwise you miss out on the burn), but the best way is to add sugar and dilute it with water. This gives drinking absinthe a ritualistic feel, like using intravenous drugs. Both involve spoons, fire, and patience: similar means to a not completely dissimilar end.

Pour the absinthe into a glass (narrow is best, because it reduces evaporation). Fill the spoon with sugar, then dip it into the absinthe. Once the sugar is soaked, light it and hold it over the glass until it melts into the absinthe, which catches fire; this is when you add the water. Sometimes it is difficult to put out the fire; you may have to blow on it.

Absinthe's effects are different from those of standard drinks. I am not sure whether this is due to the ingredients or the fact that the alcohol is twice the strength of most other spirits (70 percent by volume). Drinking absinthe has a relaxing effect -- the first few glasses, at least. It is very warming, perfect for a hip flask on a winter's day. As far as I can remember, I have never had hallucinations while drinking it, but it does produce vivid dreams, invariably surreal and obscene.

The drink is made by soaking dried wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, still found in health food shops and used to kill intestinal parasites) in ethyl alcohol, along with herbs to hide the bitter taste. Aniseed is the dominant flavor, although fennel, hyssop, and lemon balm are also used. The Oxford English Dictionary describes wormwood as "an emblem of what is bitter and grievous to the soul"; in Russian, it is chernobyl. Found everywhere, it is native to Asia and Europe, where it grows along what is said to be the path the exiled serpent took from Eden.

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