The preserved facade of this former wine shop on Rue Pierre Semard in Paris is old enough to list absinthe as one of its wares.
When people think of Paris they often think of the fabled “bohemian life” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city was the artistic (and upskirt dancing) capital of the world. And when people think of those bohemian artists, they often think of absinthe, the green high-octane beverage that supposedly fueled their imaginations (and rotted their brains).
One of Edgar Degas’s most famous canvases is “The Absinthe Drinker,” depicting a woman seated in a café with a pale yellowish-greenish drink on her table and a vacantish-vapidish look on her face that’s supposed to evoke a connection between the content of her glass and the lack of content of her skull cavity. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was fond of absinthe and had himself photographed drinking it with fellow artist Lucien Metivet.
And also had himself photographed, possibly after one green goblet too many, hunkered over with his pants down on a beach, rendering the “no dogs” rule useless.
To shift from TMI to just plain I, here’s a rundown of the common wisdom about absinthe:
Point 1: Because it was concocted with wormwood, it caused brain damage.
Point 2: For which reason it was banned in France in the early 20th century.
Point 3: It was reauthorized in the late 20th century because they figured out how to make it without the original mind-mushing ingredient.
Now let’s examine these notions point by point.
Point 1: Wrong. It was widely thought, especially after seeing Toulouse-Lautrec’s vacation snapshots, that absinthe caused dementia due to its being flavored with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), along with a hefty dose of anise plus a good dozen other herbs. Modern-day analyses have shown that it did indeed contain thujone, a psychoactive chemical found in wormwood, but in quantities too small to wreak any real neurological havoc. Nonetheless, absinthe was reputed to be unlike any other alcoholic libation, capable of inducing a trance-like feeling of well-being and, in repeated stiff doses, hallucinations. Hence the drink’s nickname La Fée Verte — the “Green Fairy” who (pun alert) spirits you away to jamais-jamais land.
Point 2: Wrong again. France banned absinthe in 1915 because it was the most powerful and most popular alcoholic drink in a country with a serious alcoholism problem and an even more serious World War I problem.
There was, however, strong anti-absinthe sentiment in Europe, beginning in Switzerland, where the green fiend was outlawed in 1907. Prohibition there was essentially the result of a single incident: the ghastly tale of Jean Lanfray, a Swiss laborer who, one fine summer day in 1905, came home allegedly drunk on absinthe and killed his pregnant wife and two children before trying unsuccessfully to shoot his own head off. The case sparked a furor, but what the juste dire non à wormwood lobby failed to mention was that on the afternoon in question, in addition to two shots of absinthe, the remarkably parched Monsieur Lanfray had also consumed seven glasses of wine, six of cognac, two of crème de menthe and a cup of coffee laced with brandy (presumably to sober up).
Point 3: Anyone see a pattern here? When European regulations reauthorized the use of absinthium in food products in 1988, absinthe hit the shelves once again, and certain distillers revived the traditional recipes. In other words, if you buy a reputable brand, the Fée Verte you sip today is precisely the same tincture of Tinkerbell that made poster painters moon the seagulls more than a century ago (with the same negligible thujone level).
Meanwhile, during the ban, most absinthe makers had converted to the production of pastis, the anise-flavored aperitif known worldwide thanks to the Pernod and Ricard brands. In fact, Pernod was one of the first mass absinthe producers, founded in 1805. Since I abhor anise in general and pastis in particular, I didn’t pay much attention to absinthe when it became available again. Back in the Nineties I once tried a glass at a party, just to see what the fuss was about, and thought it tasted like some demented drunk had mixed pastis with sheep wormer.
Definitely not my thing. But last week a friend of mine from New York who happens to be an absinthe expert and enthusiast was in town. According to her, if you get a top-quality one and mix it up correctly, it has a good flavor, not too anise-y, and, I quote, “The buzz is great.” Not wishing to pass up a historically charged way of getting merdefaced, I decided to try some.
Ah, the sacrifices I make for the edification of my readers. Putting aside my aversion to all things anise, I accompanied my friend to absinthe ground zero in Paris, a small shop called Vert d’Absinthe on Rue d’Ormesson in the Marais (editor’s note: this shop is now closed) that sells only absinthe and absinthe paraphernalia. Of which there is an astonishing lot: the famous perforated spoons for adding sugar to the liquor, samovar-like contraptions for dispensing the water to dilute it, spoon holders, spoon-holder racks, spoon-holder-rack stands, spoon-holder-rack-stand mounts, spoon-holder-rack-stand-mount holders and so on.
There I purchased a bottle of V.S., one of the finest absinthes available, formerly known as Verte Suisse (literally “Swiss green”) until the government of the eponymous country forced the brand to change the name because they didn’t want Switzerland’s staid and proper image to be tainted by an association with a wicked tipple. Swiss policy seems to be:
See-no-evil financial services: good.
Falsely impugned distillates: bad.
We then repaired to my chambers, pried open the bottle and did the whole absinthe ritual, pouring the limpid green fluid gently into a tallish glass and sloooooowly adding cold water through a slotted spoon with a sugar cube nestled upon it. The sugar, meant to bring out the flavors of the herbs, is an option, but the water is a necessity: undiluted absinthe is 145 proof and is probably one of the few things known to man that can actually strip the chrome off a trailer hitch.
I had a glass. And another. And, I think, another. And, and, and… And the effect was the exact opposite of what I had expected. I was thinking that La Fée Verte would lull me into a mellow state of quiet contemplation, but there’s something in the herbs that acts as a rousing stimulant. As I began to feel the oomph of the alcohol, I also felt like I had just mainlined a liter of latte. I became talkative. And then very talkative. (Note to readers who happen to know me: yes, even more than usual. Yes, it is possible.)
I had lots of physical energy, and my thoughts were far from numbed. Ideas seemed to flow into my brain unbidden, one after the other, accompanied by an ardent desire to explain them all in detail. Except of course the ones that I forgot immediately because I had just had another idea and took off on a new tangent.
This went on for some time and I enjoyed myself immensely (unlike those present who had to listen to me). But I didn’t hallucinate. I didn’t see the Green Fairy. It’s probably just as well: I would have talked her flipping wings off.
© 2011 Paris Update
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