During our adolescence, there are certain things that we all aspire to experience once we’re “old enough.” Some are quite commonplace, like driving or having sex. Some are more particular to our own personalities, like (for me for instance) getting a suit made on Saville Row, skydiving, dining under the stars at Lasserre with my wife, authoring my own comic book, and drinking absinthe.
I forget when I first read about absinthe. I may have first heard of it through an early teenage fascination with impressionist and post-impressionists painters, many of whom both depicted absinthe consumption and were themselves avid fans of the stuff. I heard the rumours that when consumed in large amounts, absinthe could induce hallucinations and visions, and that this was a great source of creativity and inspiration for some of the early 20th Century’s most celebrated writers, people like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Rimbaud. The fact that it was a banned substance, illegal in almost all of the Western world, made it even more exciting and exotic. I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s version of ‘Dracula’, staring open-mouthed as Gary Oldman’s Dracula seduced Wynona Ryder’s Mina Harker over glasses of the Green Fairy.
Absinthe, for the uninitiated, is an extremely strong distilled anise-flavored liquor made from extracts of wormwood. According to popular histories, absinthe was invented by a French doctor, Dr Pierre Ordinaire, in 1789. It was said that he discovered the plant wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) while in exile in Switzerland. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to create a 136 proof (68% alcohol) elixir, which he employed in his treatment of the sick. As with so many other medical remedies (like Coca-Cola for example), absinthe was soon commercialized and by the early to mid 1800s was being sold by the bottle as a popular liquor.
During the early 20th Century, many countries, including the USA and France, where the bulk of it was being produced, outlawed this potent drink. Absinthe was a curious drink, with slightly (at the time) inexplicable properties. Visions, as mentioned earlier, were a reported side-effect. It was also known to have “miraculous restorative powers.” Essentially, what was really happening was that people were getting high from it. The principle active ingredient in absinthe is thujone, which comes from wormwood. Thujone is chemically similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which many of you might recognize as the principle active ingredient and psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Which means that people taking absinthe were simply getting stoned and drunk at the same time.
My first taste of absinthe came in 1997. At the time, absinthe was illegal (and I believe still is) in the United States and across most of Europe. Only Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic hadn’t banned it. And despite having visited, worked and/or studied in Europe many times prior to 1997, I had never visited any of these three countries. But in the Fall of 1997, I had quite my job and decided to spend a month with a friend from university slumming around different parts of Europe. In particular, I had planned to visit my closest friend from my first few years in primary school, whom I had just recently reconnected with after having lost touch for over a decade, and who was living in and working as a journalist in Prague.
It was great seeing her, and despite having not seen each other or spoken in 12 years, we were amazingly similar. We spent a fantastic week together, touring the sights and the many, many bars that were fast becoming a haunt for young expatriates who had heard of a scene akin that of Paris in the 1920s. And it was during this heady week that I tried absinthe, real absinthe, for the first time. It was powerful and delicious and also quite fun. I like the fact that absinthe requires specific accessories. To drink it properly, you set a specially-designed, perforated “absinthe spoon” over a glass, in which a bit of the gorgeously clear green liquid is poured. On the spoon, you place a sugar cube. Over this you pour cold water. The water dissolves the sugar into the drink, and as the water reacts with the liquid, it takes on a milky complexion. The water and sugar is used to offset the liquor’s strong, bitter taste, making it a delightfully refreshing, albeit still strong drink.
Here in Singapore, we can’t get the real stuff. I once carried a small bottle into the country though. My wife S, myself, my brother and 2 friends helped drink most of that bottle on one night, with rather memorable results. Especially for one friend in particular, who was gulping down Absinthe martinis—an ice-cold vodka, absinthe, and sugar syrup concoction I had come up with that night. Suffice it to say she passed out in the parking lot at the end of the evening, but not before attempting to French kiss my wife.
One gourmet store here brings in something called Absente, an absinthe like liquor that claims to be “Absinthe refined” and that’s legal all over the world. Instead of using wormwood, Absente’s manufacturers use a botanical cousin called Southern-Wormwood, which I am going to assume does not contain thujone. Absente is also a tad weaker, at 55% alcohol as opposed to the normal 68%. That said, it looks the same and has an almost identical taste and flavour. Which suits me fine, at least until I can get my hands on another bottle of the real thing.