Rain pattered through the limbs of river birches, smacking against my purple umbrella as I sat on our bench. Ignoring the water soaking through the seat of my skirt, I sipped absinthe and watched the glimpses of pale sunset through grey-violet clouds.
No, this is not the opening of my next novel. This is what I did Saturday night. I should probably explain.
The Week from Hell
Thanks to therapy and medication, I am not given to periods of deep depression and seclusion that border on agoraphobia. Last week, however, was a major exception.
I suppose it was a combination of my husband leaving for some training and other personal problems that created the storm from which poured insomnia, inability to focus, restlessness, and this strange feeling that my brain was on fire. I described this to a friend of mine and she said it “sounded like finals week”. Not exactly helpful but at least I wasn’t so alone.
On Saturday, I found myself in a liquor store standing in front of three bottles of absinthe. I remembered reading about writers and artists turning to absinthe to help get the muse going because of the spirit’s peculiar ability to lend a buzz while evoking mental clarity. Some people even claimed to have more heightened senses of smell and sight, which is probably due to the lowering of inhibitions (freeing the mind) while still being able to appreciate ones surroundings.
The sane part of me squawked that alcohol never solves anything. But I was on five hours of sleep in a week of consistently short nights. I’d barely been able to write anything other than a blog post. I was desperate. I bought the one good bottle they had, went home, passed out for twenty minutes, and woke up feeling like an idiot for spending so much money on liquor. But, hey, since I had it….
Short History on Absinthe
Legend has it that absinthe was invented in Switzerland by an exiled French doctor, but there is a 17th century manuscript that appears to contain a recipe for what we call absinthe today. Either way, absinthe burst onto France’s popular scene in the late 19th century in response to soaring wine prices (thanks to an epidemic of a tiny root lice decimating entire crops). This green (or clear) spirit proved to be the fuel for the Belle Époque, the Beautiful Times. I highly recommend this article from The Wormwood Society for a more in-depth explanation of the history of the green fairy.
Absinthe is sometimes put on the same list as LSD and ecstasy, but the reality is very different. It doesn’t cause any hallucinations at all and the chemical called “thujone”, which naturally occurs in wormwood, also occurs just as naturally in other culinary herbs like sage and rosemary. In fact, chemical tests on absinthe from the late 19th century show that those vintages could be marketed in the US today because of their low thujone levels.
The myths about thujone and absinthe were started by the Temperance Movement, who pointed to detoxing drunks as proof that absinthe was deadly.
My Date with the Green Fairy
Having watched a couple of Youtube videos and read a few articles, I felt prepared to make my first glass. I had bought a bottle of Mansithe by Marilyn Manson, which is reviewed as being spicy with a nice balance of anise and fennel.
When I opened the bottle, the strong scent of black licorice with a spicy undertone kicked me in the face. But after that, the scent mellowed. I breathed it in and fell in love. It was like my childhood and an herb garden had been distilled into a bottle. After carefully pouring a shot into a wine glass, I enacted the ritual of pouring ice cold water over a sugar cube into the absinthe, turning the clear green liquid into an opalescent, pale green, like pale jade. (This process is called “louching”)
My first taste…if only I could go back to it. It was mildly sweet from the sugar cube and rich with licorice. Rolling it around on my tongue, I picked up on a smoother taste beneath it, which was probably the fennel or the wormwood. I swallowed and peppery spice bit into the back of my tongue on the way down. That was probably the coriander.
Warm alcohol bloomed in my gut and I reminded myself that absinthe has a very high alcohol content (hence why you water it down). I think it was the alcohol more than anything that settled the nagging restlessness and burning in my mind. I actually did manage to write that night, as if the green fairy slipped into my mind to remove whatever was blocking me.
I made a second glass. Outside, it began to gently rain and I was just tipsy enough to think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch it rain while drinking this?” I fetched an umbrella from the car so I could sit on the bench swing by my rose garden without worrying about rain getting into my glass.
Sipping the absinthe, I was able to enjoy the buzz of alcohol while keeping enough of my wits about me to appreciate my surroundings. The air did feel sharper and as poetical allusions regarding the color of the sky wafted through my mind, I could tuck them away with the assurance I would remember them later. When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t walk entirely straight, which goes to show that absinthe should be drunk with a great degree of respect. I am not a lightweight but my first date with the green fairy left me wobbling like a college freshman with her first Smirnoff.
A Word of Caution
Before you run off to the liquor store, you should know that absinthe affects everyone differently. No two absinthe experiences will be exactly the same. I’ve heard of people who have drunk it and never noted anything particularly special. Also, alcohol is never an answer for problems like depression. You’re better off seeing a therapist for that.
Also, do your research. Not all absinthes are made the same. Some are fake and others are “substitutes” for those who can’t handle the anise flavor–and they don’t always advertise that. Find out what your local store carries and then research it. If your local store doesn’t carry it, you can order online. I highly recommend The Wormwood Society, which has a wonderful database of information and reviews. Also, American Absintheur has a crash course on choosing and drinking absinthe. Finally, click here and here for videos on the subject.