When gieves and I came back from Europe, we brought contraband. Not ganja, nor spanish fly. Not endangered animal pelts or juice of the poppies.
We brought back real, classic, Absinthe.
None of that wormwood-free "Absente" here. The Green Faerie. Anisette Angel. The Green Menace or Green Gold. Whatever you call it, wherever it's made, the drink of Bohemians and mad artists throughout history is back. Of course, it's still illegal in the states (see US Customs and Border Protection Regulations for proof, if you doubt), though they no longer actively enforce the acquisition of small amounts overseas for personal consumption.
Further, the suspicions and fears that led to its ban have long since been debunked. Thujone, the active chemical in Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), is present in plenty of other legal foodstuffs. Its effects have long since been proven by science to be far removed from the worst suspicions that branded it the Devil in Green.
I must admit, however, that it is unlike any other alcohol I have imbibed. First, there is the ceremony.
One cannot simply drink Absinthe. To fulfill the classic tradition, it must be drizzled into a glass through a sugar cube. At 110-proof, the toxic brew is highly flammable, so the sodden sugar cube after all of the liquor is poured off is then set alight to caramelize the sugar. When the flames subside, ice cold water is slowly dripped onto the cube, dissolving it drop by drop into the alcohol in the glass below.
As the water drips into the glass, the emerald green liquor undergoes a remarkable transformation. Called The Louche (pronounced "Loosh"), the insoluable oils and esters in Absinthe cloud the drink and turn from a crystal emerald into a soft, milky green. The color is restful. Fascinating even. No other alcohol, even the water-clouding Ouzo, achieves such a mesmerizing alchemy in a glass.
Finally, the tincture is ready to be consumed. If you try, I suggest you first brace yourself.
The flavor is... uncompromising. Even diluted 5:1 with ice water, the drink cuts through your taste buds like a mint leaf tied to a chainsaw. Absinthe is the Hamas of liquor extremism. The shock troops that clear the way for prissy martinis and bottles of wine. The smell is of earthy spices. The first taste is intense licorice allsorts. The licorice burst mellows to a dry coriander taste on the back of your tongue. Then everything goes fuzzy and cool, as every surface in your mouth numbs slightly and then tingles with a minty freshness. In a few moments, it's gone, freeing you for the next sip.
Two drinks in, any normal human would be well on their way to being drunk. I am definitely well on my way to being drunk. While I'm not quite sure how much of this is excitement over the experience of Absinthe, it does not feel like my typical drunk, though... It's more like an anesthetic. My body is rubbery and relaxed, but my brain is still working full bore. It seems to do very little to impair thinking, but I assure you that my muscles are not fully obeying the commands I attempt to send.
If this is the typical experience, and not merely some psycho-somatic response to the lore and mystique of Absinthe, I can see why it would be a choice of troubled artists. The drink of 18th-century Emo kids. It doesn't dull the pain of existence much, but has the effect of having just received a full-body massage. Point of fact, my neck (which has been freaking out lately) feels better than it has in weeks. This is very, very good.
Though I wonder if I will perhaps have a crippling hangover in the morning, I do not (thus far) regret the decision to overindulge on a work night.
But the taste! Even now with dinner and about an hour between me and my last draw, I can still taste anise and herbs on the back of my tongue. It is pervasive. If you dislike licorice, this drink will give you screaming nightmares.
Absinthe is expensive. It is tragically hard to find. Few drinks are steeped in such weighty amounts of history, controversy or lore. It was the drink of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemmingway. It was the inspiration of Édouard Manet, and there is some discussion on whether Vincent van Gogh was under its spell when he cut off his ear. From the clinics of Switzerland to the boudoirs of the Moulin Rouge, Absinthe carved a place in history that is as much reviled as revered. It is the only beverage ever to displace wine as the most voluminously consumed drink of the French, just before its ban in 1915.
In the end, even if it's just another way to rot your liver, we haven't just consumed an intoxicating spirit. We've consumed a draught of liquified history.