Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dancing With The Green Fairy

Tonight, I had my first taste of absinthe.

As you can see, it's Lucid, one of only two legal brands available in the United States. (More on that in a bit.) Lucid is real absinthe, not absente, missing no ingredients and distilled in the traditional way. It's imported from France for the US market and is a new product this year. No, it obviously doesn't have a very traditional bottle, but then that's about the only thing about it that's not.

Absinthe, of course, is most associated with the bohemian era of 19th century Paris. It was declared illegal in most of the world around 1915, including a large part of Europe and the United States. While it was popular with artists and writers, it gained the reputation among the mainstream of a hallucinogenic drug, dangerous to both the mind and body. Even though there wasn't really any evidence that absinthe specifically or directly caused serious health problems, its use scared conservative governments into banning it. (Sound familiar?)

Obviously, this prohibition just made the legend of absinthe grow. When I was in college, there were all sorts of stories floating around about people who had imported illegal absinthe from underground distilleries in Europe and then promptly gone insane immediately after drinking it. Of course, nobody could actually verify these stories because the subjects in question were always locked away in mental hospitals. Absinthe's effects were said to be like really bad acid ("bad" as in bad trip bad, not as in weak). Of course, we all wanted to try it... but nobody knew where to get it. (This was in the early days of the internet; there was no such thing as an "absinthe store" online.)

Absinthe's been making a little pop culture comeback lately too. One of my favorite movies, Moulin Rouge, features it pretty heavily, in all its da-glo green glory. The film even stars Kylie Minogue as a sexy, modern "green fairy":

The cast in Moulin Rouge are seen setting their absinthe on fire before drinking it - a practice that real drinkers at that time and modern purists apparently wouldn't be caught dead doing:

Anyway, fast forward from 1915 to 2007 and absinthe's legal again! I think that deserves an exclamation point, because this was a ban that lasted longer than the prohibition on any other drug we have, and now it's gone. Actually, it wasn't absinthe itself that was illegal; it was quantities over 10ppm of the chemical thujone that were illegal. Modern chemistry and testing techniques have now revealed conclusively that most vintage absinthe was already below this threshold, and modern absinthes replicating the original recipes are too. So, voila! Absinthe is, by default, again legal in the United States and much of Europe.

For an absinthe to be sold in the United States, it needs to go through testing and have its thujone level certified. So far, two brands have: Switzerland's Kubler and France's Lucid. Seems appropriate - these were the two biggest absinthe-producing countries in the classical era. If these brands prove popular - and the guy at the liquor store tonight told me they have been - then you can bet more brands will go through the testing and certification process for sale here.

A little digression. There has long been a liqeur available called "absente". If you go in to a liquor store and ask for absinthe, this is probably what they're gonna give you. It even happened to me tonight at a store that actually carries Lucid - they first pointed me towards the absente. Absente is not absinthe. (Neither is "Czech Absinth", by the way.) Absinthe must be made with grande wormwood or it's not absinthe, and absente is not. It's made with southern wormwood. This herb has no thujone (hence its legality) and it tastes different. It would be like making wine with, I dunno, pomegranates instead of grapes. They're both berries, but that doesn't mean they're the same. It wouldn't be wine, it would be some sort of fermented pomegranate juice.

There's a full "ritual" that goes along with drinking absinthe, and it involves creating a "louche" by pouring water over a special slotted spoon into a special glass full of just the right amount of absinthe. Absinthe glasses often have individual chambers showing just how much of each ingredient to pour in, and the slotted spoons are made such that they fit right over the lip of an absinthe glass and allow for a sugar cube to be placed for the water to pour over (the sugar cube is optional).

The louche is important - you can't just drink absinthe straight. Well, you can, but I don't think you'd want to. For one thing, it is extremely strong, both in flavor and in alcohol content - Lucid is 62% alcohol, or 124 proof. But also, there is a chemical reaction that happens when you add water (as you can see the guys in the movie above doing) that releases the infused herb flavors from the alcohol molecules. It's actually really interesting to watch, because it turns the absinthe from almost crystal clear to a milky white (or green). I've never seen a drink where adding clear water changes the liquid from clear to opaque.

We haven't bought our accessories yet, so we had to just use wine glasses and a fork. Kinda low rent. Worked well enough, though.

Here's a glass of straight Lucid absinthe:

You can see it's not really bright green, almost more of a dull yellow. Some absinthe is greener, but anything that's really bright like in the movie still above is artificial. (I'm sure they're really drinking Hi-C or something anyway.) There is artificially-colored absinthe out there, and I'm not gonna say there's anything wrong with it, but I prefer my things natural. Neither of the legal absinthes in the United States are bright green. From what I've seen, Lucid's pretty typical color for a natural verte or "green" absinthe, though - you could think it was greenish tinted, and I could see where the drink would get a reputation for being green based on this. But it's obviously been exaggerated over the years.

Here we are making the louche. I think next time we're not gonna use sugar... it probably depends on the absinthe whether you'd want to or not. Lucid's pretty sweet even with the tiny bit of sugar we used (only the very top of the cube dissolved in the water).

You're probably wondering at this point what it tastes like. Well, the most prominent flavor is anise, which is like liquorice. To me, it tastes pretty similar to J├Ągermeister, which I always associated with college frat parties. I'm not sure if I like it yet. You only need to use a tiny bit in each glass, so I've still got plenty of the bottle left to decide.

And how's the buzz? Well, no hallucinations, I'll tell you that. It does feel somewhat different from being drunk on alcohol alone, though. It's a heavy feeling; it's like feeling drunker than you really are. I felt pretty trashed after finishing a glass, but I was able to talk normally and move around normally, so I wasn't really that drunk. I will say that it was a little disappointing, though - I'm still here, not in any insane asylum. And I wrote this only a couple hours after drinking it - does this sound like the ramblings of a drunk person suffering from hallucinations? (Wait, maybe I really am in an insane asylum!)

There are some who say that it's absinthe with high thujone levels that can cause hallucinogenic effects, and that's what sets them apart from brands like Lucid. There's a big debate about this, though, because there's no evidence to support it, and like I said, there's plenty of hard physical evidence now that popular historical brands of absinthe had very low thujone levels. It's thought more likely that it was cheap brands of absinthe laced with artificial chemicals that caused these and other side effects.

Oh well, so the legends probably aren't true. Just another one of my young adult fantasies dashed! But still, you know what? I love the history, I love the ritual. I'm gonna try to make myself like this stuff.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:31 AM

    Nice post, I really like it. it was interesting to read. And i definitely will try to find this thing in Poland :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I began drinking Lucid brand absinthe, mainly out of of my extreme frustration with outdated laws that prohibit the sale and possesion of marijuana, the real drug of choice for all educated,intelligent, and civilized individuals.

    I will say that Lucid brand absinthe produces a state of intoxication that is a great deal more romantic and marijuana-like than red wine or hard liguors with high alchohol content, and it does soothe the anger and frustration that can sometimes be overwhelming when all you want is marijuana, and you realize that the only thing preventing you from being able to find it and have it is the same ignorance and stupidity that allowed it to become prohibited in the first place, during a time when meth emphetamines were the most widely prescribed drug in America.

    We know that marijuana is one of the most harmless substances one can enjoy and that it's medicinal effects are many. THC may even be a chemical neccesity for humans to use THC.

    My point is this.That's we really want. We want an end to prohibition. We want to make the most of our lives and savour our short time in this life...without having to suffer the idiocy and stupidity of anyone and everyone who has anything to do with the prohibition or unavailability of marijuana.

    The only reason Absinthe has recently become legal, if it is in fact real absinthe I've been drinking...is because people naturally prefer marijuana...and anyone lucky enough to have it will always buy it instead of some lame ass alcoholic beverage, often consumed alonged with niccotine ciggerates by the same assholes who criticize pot smokers.

    Fuck thujone. Fuck Absinthe. Fuck Ted Breaux. The nightmare of prohibition must end this year. Just give the American people back thier crop. I don't care what company makes the profit...just do it. We don't want any fucking wormwood...we want marijuana. The American economy deends on the drug market....so cut the shit. It's bee seventy years since they busted Robert mitchum. Prohibition only serves rat fuckers like Jesse James Hollywood.

    The people have spoken...Give us our crop.

    Lucid absinthe is better than bacardi 151...but we really want is that wonderful of herb.

    The idiots have been in charge for too god fdamn long....and I just can't can't stand it anymore!!!!

    Fuck alcohol ,big tobacco, and a highly corrupted pharmaceutical industry. We know now. The people know abpout the scam. Give us our crop...now!!!!!

    This is the only reason anyone gives a rat damn about "thujone" Gimme a fuckin break!!

    ReplyDelete

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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