On my 19th birthday I received a bottle of the potent botanical brew. After my friend and I devoured it, we spent several lost hours dancing to Jimi Hendrix in slow motion, laughing like rabid hyenas among imagined rays of sunlight streaming through my window. We were very cool.
I've been hooked ever since, but I am still unsure whether it was absinthe itself or the sheer volume consumed that led to the slow motion tripping that took place that night. Absinthe so rarely appears on drink menus these days that it's hard to get to the bottom of its potent powers. At one point, though, it was the bohemian drink of choice. You were no one unless you were sipping the green.
From Edgar Degas' sombre-looking absinthe drinkers in L'Absinthe—apparently named by a dealer cashing in on the drink's arty status—to Gaughin's abundant use of the colour green (allegedly inspired by the drink) absinthe gained magical status. It was known as 'The Green Fairy' and promised to transport you to shimmery new worlds.
These days, beyond the world of steampunk and Victorian appreciation societies, who actually drinks the stuff? Does the green tonic of yore have a place in our modern world? Moreover, does absinthe really hold its hallowed power to transport you to an Alice-like wonderland?
Brian Robinson at California's Wormwood Society says, "A thousand times no. Nothing in absinthe is psychedelic. The only drug in it contains is alcohol. Unfortunately, people who buy authentic absinthe hoping to have a drug trip will be sorely disappointed."
But I've been told time and again that thujone—an active ingredient in the beverage derived from plants in the wormwood family—can cause hallucinations. Robinson explains that in the late 18th century, some "pseudo-scientific studies" from those trying to ban absinthe perpetuated this myth. Much like our long-held beliefs about fat, the soft science stuck. The supposed hallucinogenic qualities were attractive to creative types in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but any next-level tripping was probably psychosomatic.
According to Robinson, the most extreme high you'll get from large amounts of thujone is "convulsions and renal failure", so unless your idea of a good night out is one spent hooked up to monitors in the emergency room while your kidneys say night-night, you might want to do some research. "Studies have repeatedly shown that even brands being produced during the Belle Epoque had very little thujone in them," says Robinson. "Products that boast high levels of thujone are notorious for being knock-offs. If you're looking to buy authentic, high-quality absinthe, you should avoid any product that advertises based on thujone content."
So if absinthe can't get you high, what's left to love? The taste is OK but if you don't like aniseed, you're fucked. Robinson says its appeal "harks back to a slower time", because The Belle Epoque was "a time of Romanticism and discovery". He believes it's the ceremony and the subtle changes in flavour (the aniseed hit is much smoother when it's watered down) that makes absinthe so great.
Absinthe is undoubtedly a connoisseur's drink. You don't just order it willy-nilly. As a fan, I thought I'd head out to some of London's bars to find out how it's done best. First port of call was Sketch. The surreal décor—egg toilets and a David Shrigley-decorated restaurant that wonderfully looks like the inside of a big, velvety vagina seemed like the perfect setting.
Apparently, the majority of their absinthe orders are from women, and no one ever orders just one. I figured an absinthe cocktail was a gentle-ish place to start, and went for an "Incognito"—a mix of elderflower cordial, Hendrick's Gin (also known for its Victorian image and ability to turn me into a raging lunatic) with lychee juice, passion fruit, cucumber, and "hand-picked" (how else do you pick it?) rocket. All of it was topped off with a nice splash of La Fee absinthe. The smell of the absinthe punches you in the nose, but the taste is mellowed out. This was basically a G&T with balls, but I doubt any of absinthe's noteworthy drinkers—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Picasso, or van Gogh—would have been impressed.
Once I'd got a bit of a buzz, I decided to try absinthe as god intended—dropped onto a sugar cube and then burned away into a waiting glass before water is gradually added. It looked like milky bathwater and tasted like warm aniseed cream—easy to forget you're drinking something that's 68 percent proof this way. A "Death by Morning" (a mix of Champagne, absinthe, orange zest, and brown sugar) was next. Again, the absinthe's power was mellowed, making it easy to gulp to the bottom of all the caramel, candy-like flavours. At this point, my notes start to get a little squiffy. "Excited!!!!" someone said. "Michael Fassbender," said another. No idea. Next came an absinthe Old Fashioned, which took seven minutes to mix even though it only consisted of the same ingredients that were in the Death by Morning, minus the champagne. My notes here just say "heart stabbing."
My next destination, Covent Garden's Brasserie Blanc, apparently has the widest selection of absinthe in London. When I arrived, all they had was La Fee. The other bottles had been drunk dry. Great! I was brought an incredible-looking contraption: a large, ice water dispenser that dripped onto a sugar cube, one drop at a time. Each dropped a sweet syrup onto my absinthe. At this point, my tongue felt like it was covered in third degree burns. I guess this is how Degas' drinkers would have experienced it, so I persevered, finishing my glass before heading east to Kingsland Road's Prague Bar. When I arrived, I ordered an absinthe sour, a bitter assault on the senses. I staggered to the bar, embarrassed to ask for more sugar. The sweetness levelled things out a bit, necking what I could before not so much seeing a green fairy as feeling my gills turning to lime green.
The night was no time for reflection. My tongue was smouldering and, frankly, I needed to pass out. The next day, I realised that I'd felt a different type of drunk on absinthe than I've experienced with any other booze. Maybe it was because the high alcohol content hits so quickly. Whatever the case, it made me a happy, energetic drunk, like the way you feel when you first start drinking as a teenager.
For a nostalgic, giddy booze high, this is your drink. Just keep the sugar to hand and don't expect to trip. As Robinson helpfully points out, "there's more thujone in your spice cabinet than in absinthe."