Misadventures in Absinthe

The jaded Goths in Poppy Z. Brite’s books drank homemade absinthe as they drifted from despair to existential horror. Like many of the kids she influenced, I became ever-curious about this bitter green potion and its supposed hallucinatory effects. In Brite’s books, the absinthe was made by infusing Chartreuse with wormwood herb. The vampire’s drink of choice was made all the more alluring by its reputation as a drink that would drive one mad with fantastical visions. And the fact that absinthe was illegal put the sugar on top, so to speak.  As I read Brite’s descriptions, I imagined that the drink would have the light green bitterness of mown grass, but that sugar and water would metamorphose this elixir into an astringent, minty drink. The fluid would glow bright green in a cut glass goblet. There would be the ritual of silver filigree spoons and cubes of sugar that would work much as a religious ceremony to usher in an altered consciousness. I think you can tell by my description so far that I was bound to be disappointed.

Years later I happened to buy my first bottle of absinthe as a gift for my husband. This idea descended upon me when I wandered into a display of several green bottles in a liquor store. I thought it would be wondrously decadent to spend Halloween drinking absinthe and listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees.  I had no idea how to compare the varieties on offer. It was as if different types of unicorns were suddenly available on the shelves of Target. First, I was unaware that absinthe had lost its criminal cachet. I suppose since I didn’t really as much time in the Goth milieu as I once had, I was far behind the fashion in spirits. Later, I learned that many absinthes were no longer made with wormwood, the bitter herb that had once been blamed for the drink’s psychedelic effects.

A note here on psychedelics and wormwood. When I was pouring all my free time into an unaccredited major in Wiccan-American Studies, I planned to someday have an herbal garden including wormwood only because its Latin name was Artemisia Something and I thought that sounded really cool. As it turns out, the appeal of absinthe was not its wormwood extract so much as it was its astronomical alcohol content. While the idea of chemically inspired visions was, and still is, to an extent, and intriguing one, it was nothing I had ever attempted to pursue with actual drugs that gave you actual hallucinations.

Note: Absinthe is not like this. It’s more like fermented licorice bug spray.

I selected a bottle of absinthe that came with a slotted spoon in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. To ensure our experience would be complete, I tracked down a box of sugar cubes as well.  With much anticipation I presented the bottle to my significant other.

“Absinthe? What’s that for?”

“I thought it might be neat to try it.”

Yes, it was a completely self-serving gift, but rest assured I did give him other items he wanted. We broke out the glasses, sugar and cold water. I poured us each a small amount of the bright green liquor. The slotted spoon fit over the opening of the glass and a cube of sugar went over that. I poured the water slowly over the cube, which only eroded slightly. This should have been my first sign that things would not end well. The liquid in the glass turned cloudy and lighter green, though undissolved particles of sugar swirled in the bottom. I slid the rest of the sugarcube into the glass and attempted to stir it in. However, cold beverages plus sugar result in a snowfall of sugar crystals in the bottom of the glass and a largely unsweetened drink. We made up two glasses like this and prepared to taste.

I had a sip.

It was horrible.

It was akin to being punched in the mouth by a giant black jellybean. The stuff tasted overwhelmingly of cheap licorice candy, only it was also bitter and boozy. As neither of us are fans of licorice, we attempted to add lemon or soda to see if the taste improved.

No. Carbonated black jellybean. The green fairy was an asshole.

The few slugs I’d had were making me nauseous and rather than spend the evening trading morbid bon mots like Edward Gorey characters, I think we just ordered pizza and watched Futurama.

I could not imagine drinking enough of the stuff to even crack a smile, forget Bohemian inspiration. Even though we push it on every guest we’ve ever had, we still have most of a bottle. And I am absolutely cured of any desire to drink absinthe.

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One Response to “Misadventures in Absinthe”

  1. i found a bottle once in the duty-free when my husband (then just boyfriend) and i were traveling back from ireland for the first time. i am not sure we even bothered with cubes. instead, we ghettoed up the absinthe with sugar crystals and still it tasted like liquid licorice moth balls.
    i like the description of a black jelly bean punching you in the mouth. great imagery.

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