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Absinthe-minded: Then and now

india Updated: Aug 23, 2010 15:29 IST
Vir Sanghvi

At least part of the joy of drinking alcohol comes from the sense of doing something naughty. I guess it is a throwback to how we felt in our teenage years when booze was strictly forbidden. A dash of rum slipped surreptitiously into a glass of Coke became a daring adventure. A beer, drunk on the quiet, tasted better because it was forbidden. And a glass of champagne made us feel glamorous and grown-up.



As we grow older, alcohol becomes all too easily available and so we long, subconsciously at least, for that sense of forbidden pleasure. I know grown men who will quite happily spend an evening without alcohol when they are on the ground. But when they are on a domestic flight, where drinking is banned, they will smuggle vodka into the aircraft, foiling both airport security and the cabin crew. So it is with dry days. Seldom is the urge to have a drink stronger than when it is prohibited by law.



I guess this sense of illicit pleasure explains the current craze for absinthe. You get it in fancy bars nowadays and I frequently see passengers buying bottles at duty-free shops. It is a rage with many young people and tough guys of 20 try and impress their girlfriends by downing absinthe shots in one gulp.



Rude Food

The glamour surrounding absinthe – a drink that tastes a lot like Pernod, Ricard or any other pastis – stems from its history as a banned substance. For many years, European governments prohibited the manufacture of absinthe because it was said to contain a convulsant poison and to cause hallucinations. At the end of the 20th century, the ban was lifted by most countries (it is now legal throughout the European Union) and absinthe went on to become a rage with jaded consumers who had tired of all the normal liquors and wanted something that had an extra kick.

Views on absinthe now fall into two categories. There is a new generation of young drinkers which regards absinthe as a sort of virility test and proof of manhood. And there is an older generation that scoffs at the new craze and argues that the absinthe currently available in the market is a watered down version of the real thing, a sort of absinthe-lite that has none of the dangerous effects of its deadlier ancestor.

As far as I can tell, both positions are flawed. In the old days, absinthe was heavily alcoholic. Many of the great artists and writers of the 19th and early 20th century succumbed to the lure of what they called the Green Fairy. Oscar Wilde said, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” (Clearly, the old dear had been drinking.)

The likes of Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and even Picasso loved their absinthe. Because many of these artists were drunks/mad/reckless, this added to absinthe’s allure as a forbidden substance. In 1907, a French Temperance League demanded a ban on the drink, arguing, “Absinthe makes one crazy and criminal and has killed thousands of French people... it disorganises and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.” Such hysteria led to the inevitable ban which lasted till about a decade ago. The controversy over absinthe did not relate to its 70 per cent plus alcohol content. It related to one of its constituents, the plant wormwood. Opponents of absinthe argued that wormwood was a poison, that it caused convulsions and was a psycho-active toxin.

As far as wormwood goes, there is something in the objection. Wormwood contains a derivative essence, alpha-thujone, which is indeed poisonous if consumed in massive quantities. But then, many things are poisonous if you drink them by the bucket. And wormwood is also used in many other liqueurs, including Benedictine and Chartreuse, and appears in most vermouths. (The word vermouth is itself a corruption of wormwood.) Nevertheless, the current EU law insists that no absinthe can contain more than 10 milligrams per kilo of thujone.

This leads to the snobbery about the absinthe available in the shops today. New drinkers believe it offers a link with a glamorous past. Know-it-alls say this is rubbish. The current version of absinthe is so watered down and so devoid of wormwood (or its active ingredient, thujone) that it is unlikely to have any of the dramatic effects associated with the drink in the last century.

The truth is complex. It is true that much of the absinthe sold in bars today is not the 70 per cent plus alcoholic drink that had them dancing all night in the 19th century. Many absinthe brands now bottle a product that is not much more alcoholic than vodka. So, you can drink it as you would vodka or gin without worrying about getting too drunk too quickly.

But the thujone factor is the key. Yes, it is true that thujone levels are restricted by law. But it is also true that even when no such laws existed, the absinthe that was so controversial that governments banned it rarely contained more than seven milligrams of thujone. So, if you believe that today’s absinthe is watered down because the alcohol content is lower, you may have a point even though higher alcohol versions are also available. But if your concern is that the psycho-active component has been reduced, rest easy. This is the original Green Fairy, the stuff that Oscar Wilde drank while he frolicked with other fairies.

If you want to try absinthe, here are some things you should know. First of all, if you don’t like saunf or the liqueurs that taste like it (pastis, ouzo, etc.) then don’t waste your money on absinthe. You won’t like it. Secondly, you can drink it just as you would drink pastis or any other liquor. You can have absinthe shots, you can dilute it slightly with water, you can have it on the rocks, or you can top it up with anything you like. There are no real rules and the ones that did exist died out a 100 years ago.

There is, however, a traditional way of drinking it which is intriguing because of the ritualistic aspect. You take a large tumbler and put two or three cubes of ice in it. Then you pour about half an inch of absinthe into the glass. Next you take a perforated silver spoon and hold it over the tumbler. Place a sugar cube on the spoon and then slowly dribble cold water over the lump so that it falls into the glass. The sugar will neutralise the bitterness of the wormwood but the real point of the ritual is a chemical reaction. As the water hits the absinthe in the tumbler, it will magically change colour and become a cloudy substance. Some people set fire to the absinthe but I have never seen the point of this. If you want to burn off the alcohol, then just buy lower-strength absinthe.

Thirdly, absinthe can be used to make cocktails. I would substitute it for pastis in any cocktail that requires Pernod or Ricard. In my experience, you can float absinthe on top of a vodka cocktail with interesting results. There are, however, famous cocktails designed for absinthe. In the old days, before America banned absinthe, it was virtually the house drink at the many bars in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The New Orleans Sazerac is often considered America’s first cocktail and was probably invented at the Absinthe Room Bar in the 19th century. It takes its name from the French Sazerac-du-Forge cognac which was an original ingredient. The cocktail died out in its original form once absinthe was banned and later versions used pastis and bourbon.

According to the American food writer, James Villas, the classic Sazerac is made with two ounces of bourbon, to which you add one and a half teaspoons of sugar and six dashes of bitters. In an empty glass, you pour in a little absinthe (around one tablespoon) and then spin the glass so that the absinthe coats the sides of the glass. Then you pour in the bourbon, sugar and bitters.

It does not sound terribly exciting to me. But then, I am not keen on whisky cocktails so perhaps there is a point to the cocktail that I have missed. Certainly, it is world famous. Should you drink absinthe? I’ll give you my two bits. It is a refreshing drink with a solid body to back up the saunf-like tang. If you – unlike most Indians – are a pastis fan, then I guess it makes sense to experiment with absinthe.

Otherwise, I suspect that the joy of drinking absinthe lies in the rituals (the pouring of water to cloud the drink, etc.) rather than the taste. And of course, there is the history. A drink that was banned in most of the world for nearly a whole century has a daring outlaw image that ordinary liquors simply cannot compete with.

As for the health aspects, I suspect they were always over-exaggerated. The great painters who drank themselves silly on absinthe were probably pickled old drunks anyway. If it wasn’t absinthe, it would have been something else. Absinthe has been legal for most of the last decade and there are few reports of drinkers suffering convulsions or poisoning themselves. My sense is you’ll try it once and then move on. But then, that’s what life is about. Try everything once.