Think the Left Bank of the Seine, Van Gogh, striving artists and other fringe-y Bohemians. Think a drink so magical, so powerful, that it’s actually a drug – thought to contain a neurotoxin so potent that it’s responsible for permanent brain damage. The drink is Absinthe, the Ecstasy of its day, and its sale was banned by France in 1915. Several European countries, as well as the US, followed suit.
Absinthe, an herbal concoction traditionally made with the medicinal wormwood, does not taste like the magical drug its rep builds it—it’s kinda like a slightly astringent Pernod, or a more complex anisette. Or, even, as our addle-brained husband says, like liquid Good and Plenty for adults. But then absinthe was never about flavor, it was more about ritual—with a special slotted spoon that bridges the rim of the glass, suspending a single sugar cube over ice. As you pour the clear, emerald green liquid over the cube, and into the ice below—the clear liquid becomes a cloudy opal, the point when “the fairy” is released. Or so goes the myth, anyway.
Years of scientific analyses of pre-ban samples of Absinthe (like this one at UC Berkeley) have discovered that alpha-thujone, a chemical in wormwood, was the likely cause of epilepsy-like symptoms in heavy absinthe drinkers—agonies that were observed in suffering-artist-types Van Gogh, Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe. After some pressure from distillers, the nearly century long American ban on Absinthe was lifted in March ‘08, when it was proven that modern Absinthe is essentially thujon-free. Post-ban versions of the drink, legally required to be thujone-free, have been commonly available ever since. (Though, don’t tell anyone, we smuggled home the traditional, thujone-containing Czech Republic version pictured here.)
If you’d like to see what the centuriy of buzz is about, you can sample the fairies from five Absinthe distilleries at Pour www.pourmtkisco.com <http://www.pourmtkisco.com/> – go in now, before owner Anthony Colasecco reduces his selection to a top two or three. Sadly, there’s no room left at Pour Mount Kisco’s December 9 Absinthe event, when Colasecco and New York Bartender School’s James Bumberry will be discussing and comparing the new crop of thujone-free Absinthes on the market. Still, you can duck in any time. Wear a beret, bring a pack of Gauloises, and prepare for a night of decadence.