Of all the flim-flam, farradiddle and flummery surrounding drinks, perhaps none shares the levels of notoriety that bedevil Absinthe. The favourite tipple of artists, poets and assorted bohemian types, it has a reputation of being a true devil’s brew, rotting brain and talent alike, a dangerous destroyer of men and minds. Those who partook of the Green Fairy could expect visions, dreams and hallucinations; it was a drink like no other. The list of aficionados is long and legendary – Van Gogh, Lautrec, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Wilde, to name but half a dozen. With such a pedigree, it is hardly surprising that the drink developed its association with scandal, sin and sinners.
|Degas - The Absinthe Drinker|
In 1905, a Swiss labourer called Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and his two infant daughters. He had drunk two glasses of absinthe earlier in the day, and the outraged Swiss called for the drink to be banned. The fact that he had also had seven glasses of wine, six glasses of brandy, two coffees and cognac, and two crème de menthes was conveniently ignored. Absinthe was banned, first in Switzerland, then France, the US, and most other countries (but not, unusually, the UK).
The taste for anise-flavoured spirits (like ouzo, raki, sambuca or arak) was satisfied by pastis, invented by Paul Ricard in 1932. Other brands, including Pernod and Pastis Henri Bardouin, followed. Like absinthe, pastis goes cloudy when water is added – known as la louche – but unlike absinthe, pastis does not contain Grand Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) or Green Anise. Wormwood contains thujole, a supposed hallucinogen, although thujole is also found in tansy, sage and vapour rub! Other drinks, including Benedictine, Chartreuse, and Vermouth, also contain traces of thujole. Vermouth takes its name from the German for Wormwood – wermut. Closely related is Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), which takes its name from Mu – a bug or fly, and wort – herb or root, in Old English. The Old English called what we call herbalism wort-cunning.
In the Ukraine, Wormwood is called Чорнобиль – Chernobyl, which has caused some more literal-minded bible-readers to link the 1986 disaster there to the Book of Revelations and the third star named Wormwood (8:11), and thus an imminent apocalypse.
To prepare absinthe, and pastis, a measure of the spirit is poured into a glass and iced water is added, to a ratio of 1:5 or so, according to taste. Sometimes, lump sugar is placed on a special slotted spoon and the water is dripped onto the sugar, sweetening the drink.
A more modern (and, frankly, simply wrong), variant is to soak the sugar lump in absinthe and then set it alight, allowing the melted caramel to drip into the drink.
Special water carafes, usually bearing a brand advertisement, are common in French bars.
|Verres de Pastis Henri Bardouin|
Also available, like these two I bought in Dinan, are special pastis glasses. Recent investigations have shown that Absinthe is no more dangerous than any other alcoholic drink. Thujole is not an hallucinogen, although large amounts can cause muscle spasms, nor is it related to THC, the active element of cannabis. The bad reputation is most certainly due to exaggeration and hyperbole, and the desire of some absinthe drinkers to seem to be ‘different’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘artistic’.