An Affair To Remember With The Green Fairy

Absinthe

The strikingly translucent emerald elixir glides down my throat and for an instant I think “Hmm, this isn’t so bad.” An instant later I am painfully reminded that I often speak too soon. A fire has erupted in the roof of my mouth and is quickly spreading – instead of blazing down my throat like any strong drink I’ve ever had, this flame backdrafts north. It picks up speed in the back of my throat and quickly overpowers my nasal passages. As it travels through canals I never knew existed in the human skull, I take note; a strange and intriguing consciousness takes hold and I try to create a map in my mind of the inferno. How far can it possibly go? Will it penetrate my brain? Soon enough, and after what seems like ten tortured lifetimes, the fire loses fuel and settles in my earlobes… Ah.

Ever since first learning of absinthe, and its somewhat seedy reputation, I had been eager to try it firsthand. Until recently however, I had resigned myself to being satisfied with tales of eccentric European artists gaining fame from its appeal while simultaneously losing their minds to its addiction. Fortunately, 2007 saw a reemergence of absinthe as a legal drink in the US and across Europe, and it allowed countless curious folk like myself to finally have the opportunity to see what artistic giants like Hemingway, Picasso, and Van Gogh really saw in that most fairest of maidens, the Green Fairy. It seems the road leading to absinthe’s latest surge in popularity is the result of a centuries-long journey with just as many twists and turns as the absinthe still smoldering my tonsils.

Absinthe is a drink that is perhaps more infamous in history, reputation, and myth, than any other liquor in the Western world. Produced in a varied form as early as 1550 BC, by the ancient Egyptians, and having a recorded place in history through ancient Greek practice and lore, absinthe has been regarded for its medicinal properties for over 400 years. Modern absinthe is commonly described as a spirit distilled from multiple combinations of herbs – the most common ingredients include grande wormwood, green anise, and Florence fennel. Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) is the primary ingredient in all recipes, and contains the notorious toxic chemical thujone. The alcohol content of absinthe is uniquely high, and hovers around 68%. Also unique to absinthe is its striking green hue. The second stage of distillation releases chlorophyll into the solution, thus producing the vibrant color that led people to nickname it “La Fee Verte,” or “The Green Fairy.” It is believed that the French doctor, Pierre Ordinaire, adopted the recipe for modern absinthe from the Henriod Sisters while living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1789; boasting a whopping alcohol concentration of about 72%, the drink was prized by locals as a cure-all elixir. Once the Doctor’s recipe changed hands a few times it finally ended up with the family that would propel its popularity to new heights: in 1797, Major Dubied, his son, and son-in-law, opened the first absinthe distillery, the Dubied Pere at Fils, in Couvet.

Absinthe’s grand-scale popularity was largely due to the horrors of war – the 1840’s found thousands of French soldiers in Africa fighting foreign diseases. Absinthe was used to treat every ailment from malaria to water contamination, and when the troops returned home they brought their taste for the licorice-flavored drink with them. Within twenty years, cocktail hour in Paris had been dubbed by the bourgeoisie as “The Green Hour.” But Absinthe’s rise to stardom was perhaps most influenced by a plague of grape phylloxera, which wiped out two-thirds of the vineyards in Europe toward the end of the 19th century. The price of wine skyrocketed and left the middle class thirsty for a fitting surrogate. It also didn’t hurt that the liquor’s intriguing complexity of flavor and high alcohol percentage seemed to coincide with a burgeoning Bohemian culture that was eager to dabble in anything that might enhance or alter one’s relationship with reality.

Many of the greatest artistic, literary, and philosophical minds of the era were frank proponents of absinthe. Pablo Picasso thrust himself onto the world stage as a true visionary by introducing an entirely new genre of painting and sculpture – Cubism. By incorporating multiple angles, perspectives, and proportions into one cohesive image, Picasso challenged spectators to question conventional notions of reality and beauty. It is not unreasonable to credit absinthe, at least in part, with Picasso’s early inspiration and impressive body of work. From around 1907 to 1914, Picasso reached the peak of his cubist phase while deeply inspired by the advertisements lining his favorite Parisian cafes and bars. A famous print ad for the absinthe distillery Pernod Fils, by Charles Maire, hung in Picasso’s studio and is reflected in many of his most famous cubist pieces – his 1912 “Bouteille de Pernod et Verre” is a stunning rendition of the original. Similarly, one of Picasso’s finest cubist sculptures, the “Verre d’Absinthe,” bears an uncanny resemblance to a bronze casting of an Absinthe Junod glass with a real absinthe spoon and bronze sugar cube, which was used as a promotional novelty by the company. Bearing the same dimensions and comparable shape as the original piece, it is difficult to deny Picasso’s source of inspiration for his iconic sculpture. It is fascinating to study how the Green Fairy acted as Picasso’s muse in many cases, and how she influenced how and what he painted.

Even before Picasso’s affair with absinthe blossomed, other notable artists had begun to address social, moral, and ideological issues by creating scenarios that explored the individual’s relationship with the Green Fairy. The absinthe drinker – also the title of numerous renowned works – soon took center stage and characterized the attitudes of a bohemian generation that was disillusioned by archaic societal standards. Often portrayed as a sullen, isolated individual lost in thought, the absinthe drinker was commonly positioned alone with only his or her glass of absinthe for company. A few artists that explored the trying love affair many endured with La Fee Verte include Eduoard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Marie Verlaine, and of course Vincent Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the eagerness of such liberally minded influences to translate their sometimes sordid rendezvous with absinthe left them, and the drink itself, open to much skepticism and ridicule.

For every artist and absinthe enthusiast there was a starch opponent to the corrupt and unsavory lifestyle it was assumed to encourage. The same qualities of the drink that so many loved also spurred thousands to condemn its consumption as a step in the direction of sin, insanity, and unlawfulness. The growing temperance movement sweeping the globe at the turn of the twentieth century sparked a great amount of interest in the exact affect thujone had on the human body. The chemical that is highly toxic in high doses was widely believed to carry hallucinogenic properties, and was accused by many of inducing severe cases of alcoholism, or “absinthism”. In an effort to ban it altogether, staunch opponents blamed absinthe for any display of social corruption whenever they could. In 1905, a Swiss man named Jean Lanfray murdered his entire family and unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide after coming off a drinking binge of numerous types of liquors, wines, and coincidentally two glasses of absinthe. The media frenzy that ensued resulted in the prohibition of absinthe in Switzerland, in 1907. It was only a matter of time before the ban spread across Europe and crossed the pond – the US banned absinthe in 1912.

Ironically, after eighty years of a virtually absinthe-free world, the British came to the rescue in the 1990s, when the liquor importer, BBH Spirits, discovered that the UK had actually never legally banned the sale of absinthe. Absinthe was soon imported from the Czech Republic sparking a revival in the public’s love for the Green Fairy. After representatives of the absinthe brands, Lucid and Kubler, lobbied intensely to overturn the 1912 ban, the US welcomed the Green Fairy’s reentry, in March of 2007. Absinthe is now not only imported but produced in The United States, and has been welcomed once more with open arms. Regulations are soundly in place that dictate alcohol content and the amount of wormwood allowed in most brands, but the art of absinthe distillation and presentation is surely not lost.

My years of curiosity are more than satisfied when I sit down in the quiet café, Currant American Brasserie, late one night to experience my very first absinthe. It is immediately obvious to me that I made a wise decision coming here for my first taste: mixed patterns of black and white stripes, spots, and florals, flirt with vibrant splashes of red and lend an air of mischievous exuberance to an otherwise sophisticated space. I must be gleaming with excitement when I order the drink because my server chuckles politely. He brings forth the French brand, Absente, and explains that it is made with the original prized recipe of botanicals, but that “Petite Absinthe” has replaced the original grande wormwood, offering a less bitter taste. The translucent green liquid is poured into a Pontarlier style reservoir glass – the ridges in the glass mark the amount of absinthe to be poured. A slotted spoon is placed over the glass and a sugar cube is set on top. The next step in the presentation is called “the fire ritual” and is actually a modern addition that began in the Czech Republic – the sugar cube is lit on fire and allowed to drip into the absinthe. Once it has melted, I am wowed by a large fountain of chilled water set on the table, and I listen intently as the server explains that the water is added in a 5:1 ratio. The addition of the sugar and water separates the water-soluble elements from the herbs that do not dissolve and produces a milky opalescent solution. This process is called “louche,” and allows many of the more subtle flavors to come forth from the intensity of the anise.

Having been absolutely seduced by the ritualistic preparation and presentation, at last it is time to taste. While my first sip of pure undiluted absinthe left me reeling, the flavor of the sugar-water combination serves well to cut the intensity of the herbs. Subtle flavors of mint, cinnamon, and coriander come to the forefront and entice the senses with hints of Christmas, freshly cut grass, and an almost forgotten memory of my grandmother’s cookies. Never has a drink carried such weight and emotional ties. As I sit quietly nursing the milky drink before me, I am impressed that each sip exposes a new flavor and reference point. I’m beginning to understand its appeal.

The Green Fairy never stopped in to lend me a hallucination that night, but I do believe I was visited by ghosts – artists of past, freethinkers of yesterday, and adventurous palates of now, all joined in to welcome me to the club.

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