Absinthe Minded

Shedding light on the fabled, if murky, history of the legendary liquor.

Recently I was at the Memphis wine auction benefiting the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Lots of great wine flowed and lots of money was raised for a wonderful cause. I tasted a 1982 Chateau Mouton, 1983 Chateau Mouton, 1934 Chambolle Musigny, Burgundy from David Tate, Au Bon Climat from Daniel Sledd, Cote Rotie from Tom Cassidy, and even some White Burgundy from Ben Wheeler. Towards the end of the evening, someone offered me some absinthe from the turn of the century. I tasted it and . . . wow. I almost forgot to write this article. I"d tried absinthe once before and it became a long night, so this time I wisely just had a sip.

So what is this absinthe all about? Well, the first absinthe was created in the eighteenth century and came from either the Czech Republic or Switzerland -- both claim it. Its name is derived from "Artemisia absinthium," the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood and one of its ingredients, thujone, a natural chemical compound that is the source of absinthe's alleged mind-altering properties -- properties that can produce hallucinations, delirium, madness, and even death.

These psychedelic properties made it a muse of sorts for the "creatives" throughout history. It was the drink of choice for famous playboys like Casanova and Oscar Wilde. Picasso and Van Gogh painted under its influence. Hemingway was an avid absinthe drinker, as was Edgar Allan Poe. And although the identity of Jack the Ripper remains a dark secret, quite a few amateur sleuths claim he was driven mad by his addiction to what became known to many as "the green curse."

Absinthe is usually jade-green in color and is high in alcohol content (usually 50 to 70 percent alcohol as compared to less than 14 percent in wine) with a proof as high as 140. For reference, Jim Beam bourbon is 80 proof.

Nothing tastes quite like it. The flavor comes from different herbs used in the distilling process, and is most often compared to licorice. Its unusual color comes from the chlorophyll in the herbs. Among those plants and herbs used are: anise, hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm, angelica, and wormwood.

Is it legal? Yes and no. True absinthe is not considered a controlled substance, but it can"t be sold in bars, restaurants, wine shops, or liquor stores here in the United States. Any reputable liquor store may have a version of absinthe available, but (thankfully) not the same form of absinthe that induces madness. This does not mean you should drink the whole bottle. Like any other alcoholic beverage, moderation is key.

Absinthe: A Users Guide

There is a certain mystique to the fabled absinthe, what with the stories of debauchery at the Moulin Rouge and the legendary artists who created masterpieces under its heady influence. But how popular is it today? According to Larry Spence, sales rep for Joe's Wine in Midtown, the green stuff isn"t exactly flying off the shelves.

"We probably sell about a case [12 bottles] or so a year," says Spence. "Most people that buy it are getting it as a novelty item. For some, it's a rite of passage of sorts."

Being the intrepid researchers we are, we bought a bottle, got some pointers from Spence on how to drink it, and headed back to the magazine offices.

Our bottle of Absente, a product of France with a cool 110 proof, set us back $42, and came packaged in a box with seriously psychedelic art and a curious spoon-shaped strainer.

"Since the absinthe itself is somewhat bitter, you drink it with a bit of sugar, and that's where the spoon comes in," explained Spence. First, choose a hi-ball or "rocks" glass, then rest the strainer across the top of the glass. Place one or two sugar cubes on the strainer, and slowly pour the absinthe over the cubes to sweeten the bitter liquor. Then sip. Slowly.

Of course, we didn"t have the sugar cubes on hand, so three staffers sipped it sans sugar. Comments ranged from "It's good -- like drinking Twizzlers candy," to "Wow, it's kind of refreshing, like drinking mouthwash," to "Hmm. That's got nothing on moonshine. Now that stuff is potent. I"ll bring some in tomorrow."

I guess that says more about the staff than it does about the absinthe.

Nevertheless, the product can be found in almost any liquor store around town, and while it is an impressive 55 percent alcohol, it's not the "enlightening" elixir found overseas.

"I just got back from a trip to Amsterdam, and stopped in at the Absinthe Bar there," says Spence. "The stuff they serve is the real deal." Did he try any? "Actually, I didn"t" laughs Spence. "I didn"t feel like hallucinating, I guess."

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