No one’s really sure who invented the wormwood-infused green spirit, although the most common story is a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire in Switzerland sometime in the late 1700s. However, it’s booze, so the actual answer is inevitably some desperate alcoholic after closing time with nothing but random ingredients lying around.
Absinthe has also garnered itself a long-debunked reputation as an hallucinogenic. Wormwood apparently contains a neurotoxin called thujone, but the amount of thujone in the drink is infinitesimal when it’s there at all, and the real effects from absinthe come from the fact that it’s just damned alcoholic—138 proof, although that doesn’t tell me too much, personally. I rate the alcoholic content of any beverage on an official scale of “really enjoying a Ben Stiller movie” to “brokering peace accords among my neighbor’s lawn furniture,” with the latter being the lowest percentage and the former being the highest.
Still, as a result of its reputation for driving people mad, it was banned in the U.S. during the Prohibition-y days of the early 1900s. About a hundred years later, in 2007, we basically corrected a book error and made it a legal substance again.
So, because I never could pluck up the courage to buy some myself (see first paragraph), my wife bought me a bottle of it for Christmas. This particular brand, Grande Absente, came with both its own reservoir glass and slotted spoon. Because you don’t just drink the stuff, you ritualize it.
For my first ever sampling of the green fairy, I nipped the liquid raw. It tasted exactly like licorice, and then it tasted like someone was burning said licorice in my mouth without a fire permit…138 proof, indeed. Like Ouzo and Sambuca and, well, black jelly beans, absinthe contains anise, which gives it that licorice flavor.
We followed the directions, poured a mere two ounces into the glass (which had a bulge at the bottom that measured those two ounces with exactitude), placed a slotted spoon across the mouth and then set a sugar cube on the spoon. Some recipes say to first dip the cube in the spirit and then light it on fire, but apparently that’s just a flourish and we don’t do flourishes in my house. Incidentally, some also say that the sugar cube is unnecessary, as well, and was originally used as a general method for killing the taste of bad liquor. Sounds plausible to me, but I always thought the cure for bad liquor was doubling it.
Once the spoon and sugar cube were set up, we slowly trickled about three ounces of cold water over the cube and through the slots of the spoon. As the water mixed with the absinthe, the pale green liquor turned milky to a degree commonly described as opalescent, since the occasion for using that word is rare. The change is called the “louche” and is due to the non-water soluble elements of the drink separating out.
Post-ritual, the taste of the absinthe was a sweeter version of licorice, with no arson at the end. Somewhat pleasant, but strong and definite, and not really something you can chain-drink easily. Fortunately, that wasn’t on my agenda anyway as it wasn’t one of my regularly scheduled drunken nights. In fact, it ended up taking me half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, to finish a single glass.
Actually, it was the only drink I had that night, because the taste didn’t really compel me and because my wife didn’t like it enough to share a drink/enable me. And Harry Potter himself was too busy learning that Snape really was a good guy despite killing Dumbledore even though that had been telegraphed in every movie since the first—and only good—one.
A few days later on New Year’s Eve, we mixed the absinthe with champagne to make Ernest Hemingway’s fabled concoction Death in the Afternoon. I remember it tasting weird, but New Year’s Eve is hardly the time to trust one’s critical faculties.
After that first drink of absinthe, I had planned on retiring the still-full bottle to a shelf in my study as a decorative piece, much like my crystal skull full of Dan Aykroyd vodka, bottle of Writer’s Block red wine, and the thin vial of dandelion wine left over from the summer I tried it because Ray Bradbury told me to.
However, I’ve returned to the absinthe a few times. The taste has grown on me, although it’s probably been more for the same reason people climb Mount Everest. Also because we’ve been down to vermouth and marshmallow-flavored vodka for about a week.