Absinthe. This drink has always been a mystery to me, as it has long been unavailable in so many countries, foremost being the USA. As the favored drink of the highly creative, and the reality-challenged – Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley – I have always wondered if absinthe could somehow favorably augment my own reality or aid in accessing my own personal well of creativity.
Absinthe is a highly alcoholic (90 – 148 proof) spirit distilled from herbs and flowers, notably green anise (chlorophyll is what provides its characteristic green color), sweet fennel, and Artemesia absinthium, otherwise known as ‘grand wormwood.’ (By the way, wormwood, according to a track sampled in The Orb’s album Orblivion, is ‘Chernobyl’ in Russian). Although the medicinal uses of wormwood date back to ancient Egypt, and have existed for centuries in many cultures, absinthe was first created as a distilled spirit around 1792 by an ordinary French doctor, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, in Switzerland. It began to be distilled and bottled by a number of manufacturers, and gained popularity up through the 1840’s, during which time it was given to French soldiers as an almost certainly ineffective treatment for malaria. The troops returned home, bringing their love for absinthe back with them. By the 1860’s absinthe had become so popular, among all social classes, that 5 pm was referred to as ‘l’heure verte’ (the green hour). By the 1880’s, mass production of absinthe was in full swing, and by 1910 the French were drinking 36 million liters of it per year, which is actually very little, compared to the amazing 5 billion liters of wine. (The population of France was roughly 39 million people at that time).
The ingredients and its medicinal origin point to its flavor. I stumbled upon absinthe for the first time, last week, many times, in Luang Prabang, a small and splendid town in Lao, and purveyor of many things French. So, having stumbled upon it, I had to try it. It’s a bit like a cross between Scope and Robitussin, slightly sweet (to try to cover up the bitterness), heavily alcoholic, a bit minty, in a licorice sort of way, and somehow medicinal. Like a French Jagermeister, it is the sort of drink which makes you feel that, in spite of all the alcohol, because of its weird herbs roots and bark kind of taste, it must be doing you some kind of good. Maybe. I was served my absinthe in a glass, with ice. There are far more complex methods of serving absinthe, using special glasses, spoons, sugar cubes, fire, ice and all sorts of contraptions invented by the French. The ritual and the kit undoubtedly add to the sense of dark mystery and appeal. But what is interesting, and which I was able to experience through the ice, is that absinthe, like some other French spirits, becomes cloudy when exposed to water. This process occurs because many of the compounds in absinthe, when released from the alcohol, are not soluble in water, thus creating the cloudy opalescence called louche in French.
In France, in 1914, as a result of an international temperance movement, and, perhaps more forcefully, local winemakers’ associations, absinthe was banned. At around this same time it was also banned in a number of other countries where it had become popular. It had long been vilified as a drink of the morally decrepit, but at the time of its ban, critics raged full-on, stating that absinthe provoked insanity, criminality, tuberculosis, epilepsy and degeneracy. What, you might now be asking, made absinthe in particular, such a treacherous potion? It is the presence of thujone, a ketone which acts on GABA and 5HT-3 receptors. Interestingly, thujone has a molecular shape similar to that of THC, and for this reason researchers assumed incorrectly that it functioned in a similar manner. Actually, the effect of thujone in absinthe is highly overemphasized, as it occurs in only minute amounts. In extremely high dosages thujone can cause muscle spasms and convulsions, thus perhaps the accusation of absinthe’s being a cause of epilepsy. Dr. Valentin Magnan, who studied alcoholism in the mid-19th century, noted that among alcoholics it was only drinkers who suffered seizures and hallucinations.
While I certainly wasn’t hoping for a seizure, I went ahead and had a second glass of absinthe, along with a large Lao beer, hoping for some hallucinations or at least other-worldly type phenomena to occur. Sadly, they did not. Perhaps it was the absinthe that stirred my creativity, or perhaps just the expectation, but I did go back to my hotel room and make two drunken drawings, one of which I’ve included here. The first is of my bathroom sink, which is lower in position to the mirror into which I would have to look in order to draw the obligatory absinthe self-portrait. The sink was easier to adjust my neck and face to look at, and I found it quite comfortable and interesting to continue looking there, rather than to raise my head and look in the mirror. So, after staring stupidly at it for a short while, I drew it. Following that I quickly scratched out a fairly tortured looking self portrait.
Since the 1990’s, absinthe has undergone somewhat of a revival. This started when a British importer, BBH spirits, realized there had never been any British law against the importation of absinthe. They began importing from countries, such as the Czech Republic, where absinthe had never been illegal. Now there are over 50 French produced absinthes, available in France, Lao PDR and elsewhere. In 2007 the wryly named Lucid brand absinthe became the first absinthe to gain approval for import to the US. Even more recently, a number of micro-distilleries has been producing small batches of high-quality absinthe throughout the USA. Aficionados of goth rocker Marilyn Manson can show their appreciation by drinking his own personal label, Mansinthe. So you too can now look for absinthe in your nearest liquor store or trendy bar. Just don’t be caught gargling or grimacing while you imbibe.
Sources: Wikipedia (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Absinthe#Modern_revival)