WS In Other Media
- Created on Monday, 11 February 2008 00:00
- Written by Don Mayhew, Fresno Bee - Fresno, CA
While it's unlikely that the anise-flavored aperitif, which more than a century ago in France rivaled wine in popularity, will ever again enjoy that kind of widespread acceptance, the people who drink absinthe display an extraordinary passion for it.
That has as much to do with the lore and ceremony surrounding the drink as the flavor itself, which can be bitter and complex -- a nice way of saying it's often an acquired taste.
"It's not particularly flavorful," says Ken Fugelsang, an enology professor at California State University, Fresno, who touches on the distillation of absinthe during his wine production class. "It can be very bitter."
But what absinthe lacks in savory sweetness, it more than makes up for in cultural cachet.
It was the choice of drink by many of the influential artists and writers of La Belle epoque, among them Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Verlaine. It appeared in the paintings of Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso. It's said Van Gogh was driven to cut off his ear while under its influence.
Add to that the elaborate way absinthe is traditionally served -- either set afire with a sugar cube or mixed with chilled water poured over a sugar cube -- and you've got an intriguing drink.
"I just pulled up eBay," Fugelsang says. "There were no fewer than 58 different absinthe kits and spoons and special sugars to use."
Marcel Nunis, Fresno playwright and founder of the Rogue Festival, first tried absinthe six years ago.
"The theater of the whole thing is attractive," he says. "When you have to burn something, it just looks illegal."
For nearly a century, it was.
According to Robert C. Lehrman, the attorney who represented Swiss absinthe manufacturer KÃÂ¼bler in its effort to reverse the ban, the drink made a convenient scapegoat early in the 20th century, both in Europe and the United States.
"Lots of people were drinking lots of absinthe," he says. "It was also a time of economic troubles. You had people lying in the street, drunk. They may have been plain alcoholics, or unemployed, or this and that. But absinthe got scapegoated because it was so hugely popular."
When a Swiss man killed his pregnant wife and two children in 1905 after drinking absinthe -- and Creme de Menthe, cognac and soda, more than six glasses of wine and a cup of coffee with a bit of brandy, as it turned out -- absinthe took the fall. The Swiss soon banned it, with other countries following suit the next few years. The United States outlawed it in 1912.
The ban happened almost effortlessly. But if absinthe doesn't make the heart go plunder, what made it such an easy target?
Lehrman says French winemakers were struggling to control many diseases afflicting their grapes. To compete with absinthe, they waged a disinformation campaign.
"You can see a lot of posters from the era where the grape growers are saying on their propaganda, 'Wine and milk are good for you, absinthe is the devil's brew,' " he says.
The hysteria surrounding absinthe often involved one of its ingredients, wormwood, which contains thujone. For many years, thujone was considered a hallucinogenic. Recent scientific tests indicate that it's not. Wormwood itself was never illegal and can be purchased at many health food stores.
Mike Newton of Fresno has added a touch of wormwood extract to Pernod for years in an effort to create his own absinthe.
"For many years, Pernod was what was left of absinthe," he says. "The ban originally wasn't based on anything close to reason and science."
Lehrman concurs: "It's pretty much just alcohol. That is the predominant thing that would affect your behavior. You don't get too much more of an effect beyond what's in vodka."
Nevertheless, the ban stood for nearly a century. Absinthe persevered, available mostly in Czechoslovakia and Spain. The years deepened its mystery, a secretive forbidden fruit, until the Internet came along.
Connecting cultishly small but devoted audiences to one another is one of the things the Internet does best. Lehrman says absinthe benefited tremendously. Online communities gathered (www.wormwoodsociety.org is a particularly good example), and absinthe became available on the black market throughout Europe and North America.
"Absinthe was coming in in large quantities," he says. "There was a thriving trade, even two years ago, right before the change in U.S. policy."
So the federal agencies lifted the ban. But such was absinthe's notoriety that one of the requirements to sell it in this country is that the brand name must be printed larger on the bottle than the word "absinthe."
"They're sort of testing the waters," Lehrman says. "Will people be alarmed about this? Will people criticize them?"
Absinthe is available at a few liquor stores in the Valley. Lucid, KÃÂ¼bler and St. George's (an Alameda distillery) absinthes all have been approved for sale in this country.
But few, if any, of Fresno's popular bars have begun serving it. Partly, that's because the liquor is expensive (more than $60 for a 750-milliliter bottle). It's also because serving absinthe is time-consuming.
Tim Stookey, bar manager at the Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, says few places have yet to embrace it, even in his city.
"It's going to take a bit of consumer education before you see it emerging as something that's in high demand," he says. "The absinthe drip requires a certain amount of equipment. We got the absinthe before we got a lot of the equipment."
Instructions for a traditional serving of absinthe begin with an ounce or so of the aperitif poured into a parfait glass.
A special spoon -- Stookey described it as a trowel with holes in it -- is placed across the top of the glass, and a sugar cube set on that. Then chilled water is poured slowly over the sugar, letting it drip into the alcohol.
That creates a cloud, or louche, in the glass. Absinthes are judged on their louches, which should be neither too thin nor opaque. Between 5 and 7 ounces of water is typically poured into the glass before it's drunk.
The alcohol content in absinthe is very high -- 60% or more. So it's not consumed straight. As a writer for Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail put it, "Both the alcohol and the anise oils are too strong and will immediately disable your palate."
Stookey compares the taste to the scents one experiences on a nature hike, "the same kind of smell you'd get if you went through a snowfield in the Sierras, that real sagey, bright sort of smell."
He's as interested in adding absinthe to old-fashioned cocktails as he is in drinking it by itself.
"It's a nice ingredient," he says. "You add a sweetness and a bitterness and a vegetal note. A little dab will do you."