My first exposure to absinthe was watching it being prepared in a scene from the 1992 version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I don’t even recall whether they referred to the liqueur by name. But I do remember being fascinated by the almost-ceremonial process of preparing the drink prior to consumption.
It was many years before I actually tried absinthe myself, and I can’t say it was love at first swig. Absinthe falls under the category of an acquired taste. Some people love it, some may hate it. Some people, like myself, would rather have just about anything else to drink. But I can still appreciate a sip or two under the right conditions. One of those “right” conditions, is when you’re in Paris.
It’s not long before you realize how pervasive absinthe was in Paris’ artistic history, especially in the 19th Century. Poets wrote about it, painters captured its effects on their canvases, and some artists were ruined by it.
Painters such as Manet, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas painted scenes depicting absinthe drinkers. And it’s often claimed that Van Gogh, a heavy consumer of absinthe, cut off his ear as a result of over-imbibing the green liqueur.
So what made absinthe such a beloved, yet much maligned drink? The belief was that wormwood, one of the main ingredients, had hallucinogenic properties. While this might be great for inspiring artistic expression, it also had its downside. Absinthe soon became associated with illicit behaviour, and was blamed for loose morals, cases of insanity, and even murderous rages. Absinthe was banned in several countries, including France, Switzerland and the United States in the early 1900s, which only increased its appeal.
The active ingredient in wormwood, thujone, was blamed for the negative effects. While in high doses thujone can be toxic, there are only trace amounts found in the liqueur. Apparently no one thought to point a finger at the 110-144 proof alcohol content for all the problems.
For our absinthe-tasting experience, we chose La Fee Verte. It just happened to be the closest absinthe bar to our apartment (about a 30-minute walk) in the 11th arrondissement.
As mentioned previously, absinthe is very high in alcohol content, which is why you dilute it with water. So after my husband and I looked through the menu at La Fee Verte and made our selections, the ritual of the drink began:
Do you see the line carved into the glass about halfway up? This is the line that tells you how much water to add. The first line towards the bottom tells you how much liqueur to add. The sugar is sort of optional depending on your tastes, but wormwood also adds bitterness, so a little sugar can cut these notes nicely.
Then comes the water fountain.
This is really the best part of absinthe for me; the ritual of it. It’s really not my favourite drink, but the preparation is unlike anything else:
Watching the water droplets hit the sugar cube, then swirling around in the bright yellow-green liquid, changing it from transparent to a shimmering opaque mother-of-pearl….that’s what absinthe is all about. The waiting game and anticipation. Drinking it is secondary.
As for which ones we tried, my husband went with “Mansinthe,” which is Marilyn Manson’s own brand (no word of a lie!) It contained a flavour note I couldn’t identify, but didn’t really like. I described it as smoky but that wasn’t the right description. There was a distinct harsh note anyway, which didn’t appeal to me.
I tried one called “Soixante Cinq,“ which I thought was much smoother, and had almost a slight floral note to it. Later when we went to an absinthe shop, my husband bought a full bottle of this one, forgetting that it was the one I had taste-tested already! At least I know I liked it!
We now have a small collection of French absinthes at home, two of which we purchased on this trip and one popular one called Lucid which we bought at home. I think between all three bottles, we have enough to last us a lifetime!