August 18 - 24, 2004
T H E D R U G I S S U E
The Absinthe Underground
A century ago, absinthe was banned in the U.S. and France.
Now it's the hippest drink in Seattle—if you can find it.
by Michaelangelo Matos
There are worse ways to spend a weekday evening than having a pseudonymous 47-year-old ex-goth feeding you illegal substances. My host on this balmy July night is "Hiram," who maintains the Wormwood Society, a loose, invitation-only conglomeration of Seattle absinthe enthusiasts. The taboo alcoholic beverage of 19th-century painters, poets, and musicians, still outlawed in this country, has a small and devoted following, especially locally, and few are more fervent than Hiram, who is letting me sample his wares.
In the dining room of his neatly kept Fremont apartment sit two doves in a cage near the window, cooing loudly in the background. At the center of the dining table is a large glass water dispenser, framed about halfway down by four small brass spigots, into which Hiram empties a large bag of ice, then fills it from a gallon jug of water. Nearby are several shot glasses, a couple of drinking glasses, some slotted spoons, a small tray of oblong sugar cubes, and several bottles of greenish-yellow, yellowish-green, and in one case, orangey-red liquid with odd labels that seem as handcrafted as the stuff in them. This is the absinthe that we will be sampling, and the accoutrements that will smooth the ride.
As Hiram pours a spoonful of the François Guy brand into a shot glass, I dip a pinky in and bring it to my mouth. Instantly, my tongue and upper lip feel as if smoke is seeping through them. Some ice water and sugar enter the shot glass; after a slow stir, I take my first drink. Not bad—the aniseed that flavors the absinthe gives it a taste akin to a stern licorice, but not very bitter at all, as I'd anticipated. And though it's clearly alcoholic, there's less of a pure rotgut kick than I'd expected, given absinthe's reputation as the most demonic of all alcoholic beverages—a reputation that led to the stuff being banned in the United States in 1912, three years before France declared it illegal.
After another shot of a second flavor, Verte de Fougerolles, Hiram prepares a full glass. "A lot of my absinthe friends make fun of me for liking this stuff," he says, "but it's my favorite." The third sample is Blanche de Fougerolles, and it's the first he prepares with the full-on treatment: sugar cube over slotted spoon atop glass, the water melting the sugar one drop at a time. Watching this is mesmerizing—and as the first two shots work their way through my system, it gets more mesmerizing by the drop. The drink takes five minutes to prepare, and one sip later I know why it's Hiram's favorite: It goes down not like alcohol, in fits and gulps, but like water with hints of licorice. I swallow the entire drink in four gulps. And that's when my head gets as cloudy as the liquid.
The absinthe ritual is a key part of its appeal. "It focuses you and puts you in a particular headspace," says Barbara Mitchell, a local music publicist who imbibes. "The experience is as much in the ritual and preparation of it. That's something missing in everyday life."
So, for the most part, is the substance itself. But it gets around. Hiram traces much of its newfound popularity to the 1992 movie Bram Stoker's Dracula and the video for Nine Inch Nails' 1996 single, "The Perfect Drug," both of which made absinthe a goth-scene fixture. More recently—and, according to absinthe purists, more damaging—was 2001's Moulin Rouge, which included a sensational absinthe scene featuring copious flamework. According to Hiram, burning a sugar cube before adding it to a glass of absinthe is not only inauthentic, it ruins the drink's taste. Still, he reasons, "How exciting is it to put absinthe in a movie if you can't set it on fire? Because fire's cool."
Like marijuana, absinthe is something more people in the Seattle arts community seem to have tried than not. The difference is that pot is essentially mainstream now; absinthe still has underground cachet. And that forbidden-fruit aspect has plenty of allure in an ever-more-permissive society.
This isn't to say absinthe is completely forbidden. For one thing, despite rumors to the contrary, absinthe was never banned in Spain or England, which is one reason it underwent a bump in popularity in London during the mid-'90s, as reported in British style magazines like Dazed and Confused. For another, Seattleites can, and frequently do, travel over the border, to Vancouver, B.C., to acquire it.
Long-standing fans of the stuff don't recommend this, though. "The stuff they sell in Canada is called Hill's, and it's crap," says Seattle Weekly Information Systems Director Andrew McCarty, who became interested in absinthe four years ago. "They've added some wormwood back into it, but for the most part it's not worth touching."
"The folks that don't know about the quality stuff only know [absinthe] by reputation," says Hiram. "They go up to Vancouver, pick up a bottle of Hill's—these are the guys that are knocking back shots of Jägermeister and peppermint schnapps all night. It's a drinking sport."
"You can order it online and get it imported relatively safely," he says. "If they catch you with crates of the stuff and you are obviously trying to import enough to sell here, then you can be in trouble. But it's not a controlled substance. Absinthe itself is a product that you aren't allowed to bring into the States, just like Cuban cigars. It's not a criminal offense. The penalty for attempting to bring in a prohibited product is the value of the product itself—basically, they take it away and you go on."
"It's amazing how many people [in Seattle] have it," says Mitchell. "I'm not sure how everyone has come to be in possession of the bottles that they have. The friends that I know that are into it up here are definitely artists, primarily musicians—kind of the people you would expect." Mitchell feels that it's part of a shared, if clandestine, community here. "It's something that isn't readily available to everybody."
Most local connoisseurs prefer French and Spanish brands, and a few make their own—hardly surprising in a city as microbrew and DIY-culture friendly as Seattle. Take "the Reverend," the handle of a 33-year-old Seattle native who's been making his own absinthe since he was a teenager, when he was introduced to it at what he describes as a downtown religious temple that he attended. He and his brother, a microbrewer, are working on an absinthe beer: "We're trying to see if we can use wormwood as a hops alternative."
The Reverend walks me through his absinthe recipe: dried herbs, green anise, fennel, lemon balm, vodka, purified water, as well as a pair of customized "preventatives, to keep people from overdoing it," that are not in regular absinthe—opium poppies ("It gets people too stoned to drink too much") and lobelia, which triggers the gag reflex. "It keeps people honest; it keeps your alcoholic friends from killing themselves. Most people just screw the sugar cube and the water and all that. They just drink it right out of the bottle and get whacked. So I add lobelia to mine at the end, so if you drink too much, you end up puking so you can't OD on it—because you can literally OD on it." The preventatives, he says, were inspired by an incident at Evergreen State College, which the Reverend attended, when someone who'd drunk his stuff "took a crystal decanter and took a guy's face off with it. Now I only give it to really close friends." Home brewing is a common enough practice among absinthe fans, but it's one that Hiram universally disdains. "You can't make absinthe at home," he declares. "You can if you've got a still, but you've got to really know what you're doing—you could blow yourself up, burn your house down. It's dangerous. People don't realize that you actually have to distill the stuff in order for it to really be absinthe."
Drinking a lot of absinthe is a kind of two-way street: You're recognizably drunk, but the dragging murkiness you get from beer or vodka is replaced by a sensual alertness that's generally foreign to heavy alcohol consumption. It's not unlike the difference between smoking marijuana and smoking hash. Or, as Mitchell puts it, "It's like the difference between smoking pot and eating pot brownies. It's more of an entire-body sort of buzz."
Of course, analogies like this bring us to a sore subject among hard-core absintheurs—the misconception that absinthe, a spirit, is in fact a narcotic. "My favorite comparison," says Hiram, "is [from] the '60s, when there was a big thing going around about how banana peels would get you high. People circulated all kinds of incredible detailed recipes and formulas. And it's complete horse shit. The hippies made it up intentionally to see how far it would go, and people still believe it now. That's almost exactly what's going on with absinthe—with the exception of the fact that [absinthe's psychoactive ingredient] thujone by itself really is not a narcotic. But it really does affect the nervous system—it really does cause [epileptic] seizures when you take it in a pure form. That's where the bad rep came from."
"If you drink enough of it for long enough, you can get auditory and psychosis hallucinations, not, like, LSD hallucinations," says the Reverend. "But anything that damages your nervous system is going to do that eventually."
Such seizures are the reason absinthe was outlawed in the United States and in various European countries (France, Holland, Belgium) in the early 20th century—a status that has contributed more than its share of myths about the beverage. Culturally, absinthe is best known for its central place among Paris' bohemian artists circle in the 19th century. When a series of natural disasters swept the French countryside in the 1890s, it took the region's wine production down with it—more than 70 percent of it was deemed undrinkable. To make up for the loss, cafés began offering a wider variety of spirits, leading the French to an all-time apex in alcohol consumption. By the turn of the century, the French were drinking 1.5 million gallons of absinthe per year—which in the booze market of the period totaled a mere 3 percent.
An aperitif originally bottled by the Pernod family in the French city of Pontarlier in 1805, absinthe is extremist by nature. In addition to pure alcohol and the aniseed, absinthe contains wormwood, an herb containing the drug thujone, whose properties had already been nixed for medical use by mid-19th-century doctors for the excellent reason that it caused convulsions in lab animals. But in Paris, where absinthe could be purchased for less than a third of the cost of a loaf of bread, the stuff's popularity rose—especially among writers and artists. Playwrights Oscar Wilde and Alfred Jarry were devotees. Poets Paul Marie Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud's tempestuous relationship was fueled by it; Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist while tanked on the stuff, while Vincent Van Gogh (who painted Still Life With Absinthe in 1887, the same year Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed him sitting with a glass of it) is rumored to have famously cut off his own ear while under its influence.
Incidents like that—as well as that of Jean Lanfray, who in 1905 shot his wife and daughter to death while drunk on absinthe, among other things—helped lead to a moral panic that caused a public backlash against the beverage. It was banned from Belgium in 1905; Holland followed suit five years later. In the U.S., absinthe was smote a good five years before the 18th Amendment, which led to prohibition, was passed.
If Seattle has an absinthe underground, it's a fractious one—which figures, given the secretive nature of the product. Few of the people I interviewed knew each other, and opinions vary wildly over the "proper" way to enjoy it. "There is an element of the ritual that is practical—diluting it to a point where it's palatable—but beyond that I think any ritual that you come up with that has meaning to you is the ritual you should be engaging in," says Mitchell. "I don't believe in re-creating something just for the sake of that's how it has always been done. I think it's about making it your own."
Hiram, a purist, disagrees; for him, there are correct and incorrect procedures. "People still haven't been informed as to what authentic absinthe is," he says. "And you can't really blame them. I spend way too much time online correcting people—I take it way too personally. But the Wormwood Society is incredibly eclectic—it's got a little bit of everybody. We're getting the folks [who have] tried the homemade stuff and it's not all it's cracked up to be, and then they're like, "Oh my gosh, people are still making the real thing in France, and this is the stuff that's being made a hundred years ago—how can I get in on this?' Those are the folks that we're beginning to attract."
Authentic or not, absinthe isn't going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, Mitchell claims to have an absinthe cocktail, "The Babs," named after her at the bar of London's Notting Hill Arts Club. "I don't know if it's a cocktail I would create for myself—it kinda tastes like a melted mint-chocolate-chip ice-cream cone. But," she says, "it's on the permanent drink menu." Could Seattle aficionados contribute to a broader absinthe revival? As Starbucks devotees will note, it wouldn't be the first time the city has helped make an addictive European beverage popular.
With additional reporting by Daphne Carr.