Spirits: The Seduction of Absinthe

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If spirits can be likened to nobles—if a Speyside malt is, say, a Scottish laird—then this infamous elixir is surely the de Sade of the still. Criminal, sensual, and enigmatic, its name evokes decadence, lurid nightlife, and dangerous intoxication. Its mystique has furnished inspiration for paintings and poems, and its hallucinatory allure has made disciples of demimondaines and café society alike, many of whom have sworn that it opens new doors of perception, but at a high price: descent into madness and degradation.

Officially banned in several countries, absinthe (nicknamed the Green Fairy, after its delicate peridot hue) began as a Swiss health tonic in the late 18th century. A Frenchman named Pernod imported the first absinthe from Switzerland in 1797 (yes, they’re related). Distilled from Artemisia absinthium (also known as wormwood) and flavored with aromatic anise and fennel, it became a popular aperitif in the mid-19th century when phylloxera ravaged the grapevines of Europe, making wine both scarce and expensive. The active ingredient in absinthe, thujone, contributed significantly to its popularity and its infamy. This molecule is similar to menthol and, according to absintheurs, intensifies intellectual, imaginative, and sexual powers. Naturally, the liqueur became an integral part of the literary and artistic scene of Belle Epoque Paris in the late 19th century. Devotees included Verlaine, van Gogh, Degas, and Hemingway, who all immortalized the fairy in their work.

The party came to an end in 1905 when an absinthe-besotted Swiss farmer murdered his family. With the help of the temperance movement and the winemakers (who had by now recovered from the vine blight), Switzerland, France, Belgium, and the United States banned absinthe, an edict that has remained until just recently, when it became available again in France. It was apparently never officially prohibited in Britain, where several brands are available on web sites and at London department stores.

Largely as a consequence of its dubious career, absinthe has recently enjoyed a resurgence among the cognoscenti. A plenitude of web sites, such as www.eAbsinthe.com and www.feeverte.net, offer history, detailed reviews of different absinthes available for purchase, and of course the requisite équipement, without which no respectable connoisseur would touch a drop. Absinthe prices vary: A liter bottle of Logan Fils, a premium absinthe, can be had for $209; others retail for approximately $45. Beyond the virtual world, the curious may visit the Musée de l’Absinthe near Paris in Auvers-sur-Oise, where cellular biologist Marie-Claude Delahaye has assembled a comprehensive collection of absinthe-related memorabilia and art.

Though modern absinthe has lower alcohol content (55 to 70 proof) than earlier brews and proponents argue that its toxicity has been unjustly exaggerated, absintheurs continue to revel in the legends that lurk beneath the Green Fairy’s diaphanous veil, flaunting their knowledge of absinthe’s rich arcana and consuming the liqueur in elaborate rituals that employ specialized paraphernalia. Much of the thrill of drinking absinthe derives, after all, from the ceremony and accoutrements. A heavy tumbler with a tall, tapered shape is the classic absinthe glass; you pour a few ounces of the green elixir into the glass, and then set a flat, pierced, trowel-shaped silver “spoon” on the rim. On this you place a sugar cube, carefully trickling chilled water over the sugar, which in turn drips water into the absinthe. At this point, the magical transformation that has so transfixed absinthistes through history occurs: The mixture turns a cloudy opaline, and the dreamy reverie that is the absinthe drinker’s goal begins with the first sip.

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