Dale and I were intrigued by the idea of trying absinthe, an alcoholic spirit that up until recently was banned in many countries. There’s a mystique surrounding this drink, also called “the Green Fairy,” a nickname referencing the drink’s green color (and no doubt thought up by someone who was more than a little schnockered at the time). It supposedly had hallucinogenic–perhaps even dangerous–effects on its users, and the most famous artists and writers were drinking it, in part because of its mind-bending properties. How could we pass up the chance to try this beguiling drink when we had the chance?
When we were in Antibes, an ancient, charming town in the South of France, we came upon La Balade, an absinthe bar in the basement of an olive oil shoppe. It’s not surprising that we’d have the chance to try absinthe in France. It originated in Switzerland but was very popular with the French. In the 19th and early-20th centuries, happy hour in France was known as l’heure verte (“the green hour”), and absinthe was the choice drink for many of the greatest writers and artists of the time, including James Joyce, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde. Ernest Hemingway made reference to absinthe in several of his fictional books and short stories, but he also drank it in real life, sometimes to his detriment. For example, in this 1931 letter, he wrote about practicing his knife-throwing skills after drinking a bit o’ the Green Fairy:
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”
And then there was Van Gogh. Besides being mentally ill, he was also an alcoholic who consumed a great deal of absinthe, as well as, it turns out, painting supplies such as turpentine.
Picasso loved absinthe so much that he created a series of sculptures dedicated to the process of preparing the drink. We saw this collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City this past December. Here’s one of the sculptures:
Absinthe became intimately associated with bohemian culture but also attracted the ire of conservatives and prohibitionists, who believed it had addictive, psychotropic properties that put both health and soul in peril. As the temperance movement gained strength at the turn of the 20th century, the tide started to turn against this popular drink.
Absinthe is made from herbs and plants, including anise (which gives it its licorice flavor), fennel, and something called “grand wormwood” (scientific name Artemisia absinthium), from which it gets its name. Studies of the time showed that chemicals in the wormwood were causing “absinthism,” the negative side effects related to consuming absinthe. Absinthe was believed to cause everything from epilepsy and tuberculosis to hallucinations, family ruin, criminality, and insanity.
Unfortunately, a tragic event in 1905 seemed to confirm these beliefs. When Swiss farmer Jean LanFray murdered his pregnant wife and two children after consuming two glasses of absinthe, major opponents used the event to highlight the drink’s dangerous side effects. Never mind that LanFray was an alcoholic who had consumed copious amounts of brandy and wine prior to drinking the absinthe; the Green Fairy was held solely responsible for his madness. A petition in Switzerland calling for an absinthe ban received over 82,000 signatures, and the drink became illegal there in 1908. Other countries followed suit, and by 1914 it was banned in many European countries as well as in the United States. Spain and Portugal were exceptions, and many people who continued to drink absinthe obtained it from one of these countries. (It’s thought that Hemingway smuggled his absinthe supply from Spain and Cuba.)
After languishing for decades, absinthe began to make a comeback in the 1990’s. Modern research revealed that the 19th-century studies were flawed and that absinthe was no more addictive or dangerous than any other alcoholic spirit. Absinthe itself does not have hallucinogenic or psychotropic effects; it turns out these were caused by the toxic contaminants added to cheaper versions of 19th-century absinthe.
The drink has enjoyed a revitalization in those countries where it was never illegal, and most other countries have now lifted their bans. Many brands of absinthe are available these days, and absinthe bars are popping up all over the place.
It has also attracted the attention of modern day artists, including Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, an avid absinthe fan who has created his own line of the drink, called “Mansinthe.” From what I read, it’s very highly rated!
Buyer beware: very few countries have industry regulations or a standard definition for what absinthe actually is, so producers can put an absinthe label on anything. Do your homework before purchasing.
Although some people drink it straight, absinthe is usually consumed after first diluting it with water because of its high alcohol content (45-74% ABV or 90-148 proof), a process called La Louche. There are different ways to prepare absinthe for drinking; the Bohemian Method, for example, involves dropping a burning sugar cube into the absinthe, igniting it.
In La Balade we were taught the French Method. First, we laid a specially-designed slotted spoon across the top of a glass containing absinthe. We then placed a sugar cube on top of the spoon and dripped ice water onto it, slowly melting the sugar and filling the glass until the mixture contained one part absinthe to about four parts water. The water came from an absinthe fountain, a pitcher with spigots that could control the exact amount of water being let out.
This process diluted the absinthe and changed it from an emerald shade to a milky green color (note: not all absinthe is green).
From a historical standpoint, it was pretty cool to partake in a ritual that one of my writing heroes, Ernest Hemingway, obviously participated in quite often. There was something romantic about the painstaking preparation, and it was also exciting to consume something so exotic—the Green Fairy! Oh my! The bar itself was cozy and intimate and, because it was underground, it felt like we were some place secret, like an illicit speakeasy.
That being said, neither Dale nor I much cared for the absinthe itself. We didn’t like the licorice flavor, so we only had one glass each, so disappointingly it didn’t give us much of a buzz (or a psychotropic experience, of course). There are different kinds of absinthe and also absinthe cocktails, so perhaps one day we’ll give it another go. For now, I’m just glad that we took the opportunity to try such a unique drink while visiting a beautiful part of France.