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Absinthe minded

The truth behind the peculiar elixir

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“Absinthe has a wonderful color, green. A glass of Absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of Absinthe and a sunset?” — Oscar Wilde

Well, besides the fact that I have never tried to punch a police officer after seeing the beautiful glowing orb cross the horizon, then … nothing.

Recently, it was brought to my attention that many people in Tacoma may not have a strong grasp of what absinthe truly is. So, while bartenders spend their nights having no choice but to drown out the insipid yipping of hipsters, douche bags, pretentious debutantes and horrible writers (myself included), they can help put a metaphorical gag in the mouth of the clueless barflies who spend their nights explaining to deaf ears why absinthe makes you hallucinate. I pray to God that these pubprentrenuers consider reading this article instead of using it for a coaster.

To get a full sense of what absinthe is all about, I went to Paddy Coyne’s (Eighth and Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma) where bartender Joe Korbuszewski took me and two friends (Lynzi and Trish) on a tour of three different varieties of absinthe. Check it.

11:19 p.m.

Absinthe, derived from the word Artemisia Absinthium, originated in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland and began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinairre around 1792. Luckily for him, this discovery came on the heels of a complete medical failure when Ordinairre tried to cure leprosy with “whip-its.” Some of absinthe’s most famous bad boy devotees have included Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, Aleister Crowley, Ernest Hemmingway, and Oscar Wilde. The first distillery, Dubied Pere et Fils, opened in 1797 in Couvet, Switzerland, and thus set the stage for the world’s most controversial spirit.

I sat down at the packed bar and was immediately greeted by my good friend Joe. The convoluted murmur of the pub occupants along with the light clanking of glasses provided the symphonic backdrop for a night where inebriation would be reached one sugar cube at a time.

We started with St. George Absinthe. This is fitting because St. George Absinthe Verte, produced by St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., became the first brand of American-made absinthe to be legally produced since the ban. Absinthe was specifically banned for commercial production and sale in the United States in 1912 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is primarily because “the man” believed that if you drank this liquor you would most certainly rip the tags off your mattress, jaywalk and tell little children that Santa Claus is actually physically addicted to milk and cookies and spends his Christmas nights trading stolen goods from the past year in exchange for Santy’s “medicine.”

Luckily, it took only 95 years for America to realize that absinthe is probably all right and make it legal again.

Col. Joe began the age-old preparation of a true glass of absinthe. This preparation is not to be confused with the Czech style, which was made famous in the early 1990s, in which a person pours absinthe over a sugar cube and then lights the poor innocent sweetener on fire. Although this method evokes oohs and ahhs from underage sorority chicks, it will add a burnt marshmallow taste to the absinthe.

Quoting a Spike Lee “joint,” I asked Señor Joe to “do the right thing. “ With a stoically perturbed look on his face, he slowly poured ice-cold water over a sugar cube that had been placed on a slotted spoon. I watched in quiet admiration as the insoluble components of the absinthe (anise, fennel, star anise) came out of the solution and clouded the drink, creating a milky opalescence called the “Louche.” While I truly believe that anyone who drinks alcohol should give absinthe a try, I’m not sure if I have acquired this taste yet. (I also have yet to acquire a taste for saying “acquired taste”). It sort of reminded me of really bad tequila mixed with really good mouthwash. Most people would describe it as having a black licorice taste, which comes from the anise. The trick is that you absolutely have to “Louche” the absinthe to bring out the herbal undertones. Otherwise, a straight shot of absinthe will hurt you.

11:27 p.m.

I already felt drunk. Suddenly, I began to notice that the attire of the woman across the bar, whose new love for bingo was closely analogous to the sight of her beloved grandchildren learning how to walk, had changed from blatantly ostentatious to somewhat resplendent. No longer was the sound of Celtic music making me long for a life-threatening earthquake to reshape the landscape of the South Puget Sound. No. I was oddly at peace and ready for my next glass of the “Green Fairy.” Later I would refer to this time period as “the calm before the storm.” Shortly after I grabbed the second microphone at Puget Sound Pizza and aided an unwilling participant in singing “Under Pressure.” People being subjected to water boarding have carried a better tune than I did on this night.

The true production of absinthe is done by either distillation or cold mixing. Even though most countries don’t have a legal definition that you must follow to make absinthe, where one is needed distillation is the sole permitted process. The process begins by choosing which herbs to use. Generally, the basis of absinthe comes from the “Holy Trinity” of grande wormwood, green anise, and Florence fennel. You then take your base spirit, which is about 97.3 percent alcohol and generally made from beet or grape alcohol, dilute it to about 85 percent, and then stir in the crushed herbs. Let this macerate overnight and then pour the distillate out. Finally, the coloration process, which is accomplished by straight maceration. Typically petite absinthe, hyssop, and melissa are added, and the chlorophyll from these ingredients gives absinthe its famous green color. Chlorophyll plays the same role in absinthe as tannins do in wine. The absinthe is then aged for several months before it is bottled and released.

In March of 2007, Lucid and Kubler became the first genuine absinthes legally imported into the United Stated since 1912. In 2009, my slovenly appearance was revealed as my comrades in arms figured out that I had been wearing my shirt inside-out all day. Professor Joe pours ice-cold water slowly over the sugar cube to reveal yet another milky “Louche” produced by Lucid. This absinthe has a bit higher alcohol content than the first but tastes very similar. It is after I finish this glass that the night takes a fairly dramatic turn.

11:38 p.m.

I started giggling, and after about 15 minutes of this fit, I noticed that I was nowhere close to stopping. I was inexorably chained to this freight train of uncontrollable giddiness. I was just a passenger, and I prayed that Harrison Ford wouldn’t defenestrate me from the bar and proclaim boldly that I didn’t have a ticket. So, this begs the question: Are the myths true? Was I “tripping balls”?

The biggest myth concerning absinthe has to do with the primary volatile in wormwood, thujone. Thujone is a GABA antagonist and known to be a dangerous neurotoxin. While it can produce muscle spasms in large doses, you would most certainly die of alcohol poisoning before you ever got to that point from drinking absinthe. So, while Vincent Van Gogh was busy sawing his ear off, he wasn’t doing it specifically because he had had a glass of absinthe. He was doing it because he was bat-shit crazy. Thujone is not a drug. The FDA just considers it to be an unsafe and unacceptable additive to alcoholic beverages and other foods. Any alcoholic beverage offered for sale must be “thujone-free,” which means below 10 parts per million. However, some foods can have higher levels of thujone so long as it is not from the Artemisia species (wormwood). Common sage and tarragon contain up to 10 times the amount of thujone that can be found in Artemisia Absinthia. When indulged in moderation, the effect of absinthe is one of pleasant alcohol intoxication accompanied by a lively mental clarity and uplifted mood, not unlike that of caffeine. So, instead of drinking my third glass of absinthe for the night, made by Kubler, I could have been mixing Jolt and Wild Turkey.

12:40 a.m.

I had one last drink before I scared the hell out of an unsuspecting karaoke artist at Puget Sound Pizza. I asked the bartender to make me a “Death in the Afternoon,” made famous by Ernest Hemmingway. Hemmingway stated that the recipe calls for one part absinthe and three parts champagne in a champagne glass. He then suggested that you drink three to four of these slowly. I pounded it as a metaphorical spit in the face to one of America’s great novelists. He’s dead, and I needed another shot.

The moral to the story

What have we learned? Absinthe, bottled between 50 and 75 percent alcohol, will get you insanely intoxicated. It was banned in America in 1912 because the people in charge chose to believe myth rather than fact — and the fact is that thujone, the substance in wormwood that supposedly makes you trip, won’t.

So the next time you hear someone talking about how he drank a bottle of absinthe and saw purple elephants with lasers coming out of their eyes flying around the bar in Blue Angel-like formation tell him to read a book. Or don’t.

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