I am, apparently, just a pair of piss-stained trousers away from lying in the gutter and drinking meths. That, at least, is my wife’s opinion. I was about to write that it was her ‘considered’ opinion, but the truth is my wife doesn’t really consider anything she is about to say, or she doesn’t appear to. Whoever first observed that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ will have had my wife in mind, or, at least, her spiritual foremothers. She shared her opinion with me the other night as I was pouring myself a glass
of a rather unusual drink. Now, there are many less usual drinks, but this particular unusual drink - absinthe - comes with rather a lot of baggage. In the popular mind - although ‘mind’ is, perhaps, too strong a word in context - absinthe is the very essence of a debauched, immoral, wasted life just this side of criminality and acts of sodomy on the hour every hour.
I happened to be preparing for myself a glass of absinthe - there is a certain rigmarole involved in preparing a glass of the drink which draws attention to itself - after I had, over several days, taken an interest in the drink and had been googling it to find out a little more about it. I have always liked Pernod, raki, ouzo, fennel (both the seeds and the vegetable), liquorice and aniseed balls, and I began to wonder whether, given that Pernod was first produced as a substitute for absinthe, what all the fuss was about.
The drink was declared illegal in some European countries at the beginning of the last century after claims that it was driving people mad, and there is an intersting, not to say quite convincing, conspiracy theory as to why. That was when the bad PR started. Absinthe, we were all assured, was for wrong ’uns: absinthe drinkers included - and it is here difficult not to add the word ‘notorious’ - Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Verlaine and Rimbaud (who oddly enough, no poetry in the latter part of his life and instead choose to serve in the Dutch army), Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire - the epitome of a wrong ’un - and Alfred Jarry. Modern connoisseurs are said to include Johnny Depp, Leonardo Di Caprio and, to keep alive the link with debauchery, Marilyn Manson.
It wasn’t, in fact, made illegal in every European country, and was, for example, never outlawed in Canada, atlthough in the U.S., that highly schizophrenic country in which everything is both tolerated and condemned, it was outlawed. Since the beginning of the Nineties, however, it has again been legal to
produce it, and after a somewhat shaky start when - so the internet informs me - what was being produced as of pretty low quality and was being manufactured by distillers keen to cash in on the drink’s notoriety, it is now universally available, in both the French/Swiss kind and the Czech kind. (It was always available in Czechoslovakia and was never banned, but as the Communist authorities had a kind of petit bourgeois morality, it was rather frowned upon, and production and consumption were discrete.)
From my ‘research’ - great word that and one used by bullshitters the world over, so why should I stint myself? - I gather that the essential ingredient which took all the blame for absinthe driving one mad is now not present in great quantities. One of the herbs used in the production of absinthe was wormwood, and the active ingredient was the chemical ‘thujone’. Because thujone was deemed to be the dangerous ingredient which lead to the banning of absinthe - see my account of an alleged conspiracy below - some websites claim that the amount of thujone present in modern absinthe is very low compared to what the old stuff had. I am in no position to judge. Over these past 20 years, absinthe production had now come of age, and many, many brands of absinthe are now available, both of the French/Swiss variety and the Czech kind. It is available from 55 per cent proof, which I gather is at the low end, to up to 78 per cent proof. If you google absinthe, you’ll come across all manner of reviews and appreciations of this, that and t’other brand.
I decided I would buy myself a bottle, but then came across a website which sold taster kits: a small bottle of its absinthe (50ml, enough for two glasses), an absinthe spoon and, quaintly, two lumps of sugar. As this cost a cool £11, both the unsure punter and the canny producer benefits from the offer. I am no expert on absinthe, but I gather that some, if not all, brands can be quite bitter, and the idea is to sweeten the drink a little with the sugar. I gather that the way to prepare a glass is slowly to pour ice-cold water over the sugar lumps - sitting on the absinthe spoon which, itself sits over the glass - in order for the subtle aromas of the various herb oils to evolve. The Czechs, who have a different kind of absinthe do it differently. They dunk the sugar lump in the absinthe and then set the lump alight. Once this has caramelized, it is stirred into the absinthe.
So I prepared my first glass and that was when my wife observed that I would be drinkng meths next. But after 14 years of marriage, that kind of thing is water off a duck’s back and could and did in no way discourage me.
So what was it like? Well, I like Pernod, pastis, raki and ouzo and to drink it tasted similar. I liked it. But where was that absinthe magic, the green fairy? I can’t claim the she and I became intimately acquainted on that first occasion, but I can report that after a second glass - I had no more than two because that was all I was supplied with - and later on in bed I did feel rather different. It was, in a certain kind of way, as though I were sitting next to myself, but I must stress that the reader should not allow him or herself to be carried away with the description. Yes, I felt different and different in a way I had not experienced before with any other drink, but I suspect that had I had a third, or even fourth, glass, my account would be a little more defined. But I didn’t.
I enjoyed it, but shall I get a full bottle (and I would go for quality, because not doing so is, in such cases, a waste of money)? Yes, I shall, and I shall drink several glasses in the company of my cousin Gerald (who demanded I remove an account in this blog of our most recent drinking session, but who is far better value than most and, I would suspect, the ideal absinthe-drinking companion).
As for that conspiracy theory: well, the temperance movement was against absinthe as it was against every other kind of booze. Absinthe was first produced in the early 19th century and was something of a minority drink for many years, enjoyed by those who liked a little variation. Then France’s wine industry was devastated in the mid-19th century by an aphid and the drastically curtailed production of French wine pushed up prices enormously. So everyone who had enjoyed a glass or ten of French wine found the could no longer afford it and, it is claimed, turned to drinking absinthe. When, at the end of the 19th century, the French wine industry had recovered, it found it extremely difficult to regain it previous volume of sales. This is where the conspiracy theory kicks in: it is claimed that the French wine industry joined forces with the temperance crowd to attack the absinthe distillers - my enemy is your enemy. The flaw in this theory is, of course, as my more astute readers will have already realised, the question of why the temperance crow should have decided to join in with the wine industry. That’s a fair point, but I really don’t know. But whatever the answer to that question is, both are said to have jointly targeted the absinthe distillers and as part of their campaign quote ‘scientific’ proof that absinthe can drive you mad. It seems a lab full of mice were injected with thujone and went ape shit. The conspiracy theorists point out that the amount of thujone given to the mice - who are a fraction of the weight of a human - has 50 times the amount ingested by a drinker in one glass. But as, for me, the
whole exercise was a PR campaign, I don’t care either way. At the time, it seems, an unemployed man turned one his family and killed them all, a wife and many children. He had been drinking absinthe before he committed his crime. This horrific case was cited by the anti-absinthe group, but what was suppressed by the anti-absinthe lobby - it is said - was that he had also been drinking wine, brandy, beer and other spirits.
These were just two examples of evidence paraded to try to prove how pernicious and dangerous absinthe was. What other evidence was produced I don’t know, but in time absinthe production was declared illegal, and it wasn’t until the early Nineties that is was legal again to make the stuff.
And finally: please note that I have nowhere used the old cliched pun that ‘absinthe makes the heart grow fonder’. I don’t at all mind cliches unless they are so hackneyed and demand so much rewriting in order to be placed that the whole piece is wrecked. And if you have reached the end of this blog entry and are reading this, you will know that at no point might I have introduced that particular cliche without being horribly hamfisted.