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Ádám Oláh (Phoney)

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I've found this Hungarian 1956 novella from Géza Ottlik mentioning absinthe in a peculiar way. I didn't found an English translation, so I made my own from the relevant part (hope it's not very terrible to read for native speakers). The author was born in 1912, and the scene is supposed to be in Budapest, 1936.

 

 

"Fetch," said Alisz, "the violin of Mr. Ivan"
"Yes, ma'am."
The maid understood instantly. Péter started pouring. He also sprinkled a few drops of soda water in Alisz's glass. The liquid clouded white, milky, like pure alcohol. I had a look at the bottle. They were drinking absinthe.
I raised my glass towards Alisz in amazement.
"Do you know what it is?", I asked.
"Yes," she said. "Absinthe. We like it very much."
She smiled at Péter. At Adriani's, we often had mishandled wines, because none of Alisz, his brother, or her aunt drank any kind of alcohol, and neither they knew much about them. So the girl started drinking with this shameful liquor, the one the most storm-beaten sailors finish with. I had two gulps. It was so bitter it twisted my intestines. I felt like spitting for a whole hour. We talked instead.

 

I was always wondering if 20th century European references like this were inspired merely by the authors' misbeliefs or there was indeed some popularity of (probably home macerated) drinks intended to be absinthe, although without any understanding of how to make it or how it should actually taste. Several times, I was lead to believe that such recipes had popularity in certain circles before the 1990's, but was never able to check it for sure.
(I'm not sure why pure alcohol was supposed to get milky, but that's what it says. Might have been the fusel alcohol content of cheap distillates in the era.)

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I'm not sure why pure alcohol was supposed to get milky,

A lot of non-chill filtered alcohols will become hazy when water is added to it.

 

As for bitterness, there were plenty of low quality brands that could have very well been quite bitter. As modern experience shows, the lesser the quality of the ingredients and/or the lower quality of the production process, the nastier the product.

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The reason it surprised me is that such a response in Hungary should have meant something really extraordinarily bitter. Local traditional bitters have a bold, lingering aftertaste; they are somewhat less dry, but slightly more bitter than Fernet Branca, and they're consumed almost exclusively as shots. These being well known, even for a local who don't like them, it should have taken a KoS kind of bitterness to make them say something like that. I thought that kind of bitterness shouldn't come from distillation or oil mixing, even if it can be very nasty otherwise.

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It's possible they never actually tried absinthe, but heard stories. The last description I saw in a novel about absinthe said it smelled "metallic". :dry:

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I see that Ottlik translated many English writers, who often over describe the bitterness of absinthe.

I found this bio article that says he translated Hemingway (last paragraph)

http://www.hlo.hu/news/geza_ottlik_was_born_100_years_ago

So maybe Hemingway's description of "pleasantly bitter" got exaggerated.

 

Also, read again the quote in the story, that only a few drops of soda water were added. That would make even a good absinthe taste overpowering. If so, was that common in Budapest, or just something the characters did?

 

It is an interesting story. :euro:

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It's possible they never actually tried absinthe, but heard stories. The last description I saw in a novel about absinthe said it smelled "metallic". :dry:

I suppose the French managed to demonize absinthe to a degree that outsiders were made to believe that it tasted terrible, and that it was widely consumed only due to the special addiction it supposedly caused. Combined with the facts that wormwood is very bitter and the "apsinthion=undrinkable" myth was established even in the Belle Époque, it's no wonder novelists came up with the weirdest metaphors... and I wouldn't be surprised if some post-ban products were inspired likewise.

 

Grand Absinthe is the second most bitter herb in the world. Rue being the only one to top its bitterness.

 

I like bitter stuff like Zwack though.

It's worth knowing that the Zwack Liqueur exported to the U.S. is the "mild" version, if that's what you referred to. It's labeled Unicum Next in Hungary, aimed at younger generations who can't stand the bitterness of the old school stuff like the original Unicum or Ferencz Keserű. I can't really stand them, either, but "Next" is alright as far as I remember.

 

I see that Ottlik translated many English writers, who often over describe the bitterness of absinthe.

I found this bio article that says he translated Hemingway (last paragraph)

http://www.hlo.hu/news/geza_ottlik_was_born_100_years_ago

So maybe Hemingway's description of "pleasantly bitter" got exaggerated.

 

Also, read again the quote in the story, that only a few drops of soda water were added. That would make even a good absinthe taste overpowering. If so, was that common in Budapest, or just something the characters did?

 

It is an interesting story. :euro:

There's not much record on how absinthe was consumed in Hungary. All I know it was available in the Belle Époque in at least two major cities. Since Hungary didn't have much Internet access in the early 20th century :pirate: , I suppose most people didn't know what to do with it, and they just handled it like any overproof spirit. A 19th century Hungarian short story featured absinthe without any dilution. I'll try to dig that up, too.

 

As for the word "bitter", it could have been easily misunderstood by Ottlik, because if something is only mildly bitter (less so than unsweetened black tea), then we usually don't call it bitter in Hungarian, but something else that would translate to "bitterish". Saying "mildly bitter" doesn't even make much sense in Hungarian, and "pleasantly bitter" would assume that one finds distinct bitterness pleasant. As I've explained before, many Hungarians have some perverted fondness of very bitter drinks :dead:

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It's worth knowing that the Zwack Liqueur exported to the U.S. is the "mild" version, if that's what you referred to.

 

No, we have access to both Zwack (which I guess is Unicum Next) as well as what's being branded as Unicum (which says it's the old, original recipe.) My first experience with Zwack was labelled "Zwack", and was purchased abroad IN Hungary.

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Thanks for the info, Ambear. Indeed, "Zwack" should be Unicum Next, and "Unicum" is the original Unicum. Normally, these have been never labeled merely as "Zwack" in Hungary (it's Zwack Unicum / Zwack Unicum Next with "Zwack" written in smaller font), but duty-free or otherwise tourist-frequented shops may have had the export labeling.

 

I've also found the story I've mentioned yesterday. It's the novel Black Diamonds by Mór Jókai (full English translation at Project Gutenberg), written in 1870.

 

[Pg 175]

 

 


"Nevertheless, we must have a parting cup," continued Salista. "Where is the absinthe?" As he spoke he filled two large glasses with the green, sparkling spirit, of which moderate people, regretting this prudence, it may be, never drink more than a liqueur glass.
Count Stefan shook his head over what he considered a bad joke, but Ivan did not shrink from the challenge; he clinked his glass with that of the captain, and emptied it without drawing breath. Then, with his most courteous bow, he took leave of his host, Count Stefan, who on his side assured him it would always be a pleasure to receive so delightful a guest.
As Ivan made his way into the anteroom his step was steady, his air composed. Not so the marquis; the dose had been too potent for him. He insisted upon claiming Ivan's astrakhan cap as his, and, as there was no use arguing the matter with an inebriate, Ivan had to go home in the military helmet of a hussar officer. On the staircase the captain maintained that he could fly, that he was one of the inhabitants of the magnetic kingdom, and had wings. The others had all the trouble in the world to get him down the stairs. When he came to the first floor he thought of paying the Countess Theudelinde a visit, to thank her for her kind reception of his lecture, for he was the lecturer, and he was ready to blow out the brains of any one who contradicted him. He was with great difficulty got into a fiacre, and driven to his hotel. When he got there he had to be carried to his bed, where he lay in a deep sleep until late in the following day.

 

Note that the Hungarian original says champagne glasses, and doesn't explicitly mention a "sparkling spirit" but a "venomous liquid with angry green flash".

Edited by Phoney

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I'll have to read the whole story (Black Diamonds) later, but in the meantime I found this quote funny.

 


"They must be foreigners," he added, "since they spoke French
together." Peter's life as a sailor had given him some knowledge of
the French tongue.



"I shall be with them immediately," returned Ivan, who was busy
pouring a green liquid through a pointed felt hat. "Let them meanwhile
get into the usual miner's dress."

 

 

HMM, got to try that pointed felt hat method! :3872-DrunkBanana:

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