The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, July 13, 2007

Drunkblogging: Absinthe

[Note: the events herein actually took place several weeks ago, before our trip to the US. I just hadn't got around to unloading the photos from my camera before we left. Sorry if this disorients you by throwing a kink in your narrative.]

La Fee Verte
, the Green Fairy. Mysterious, enticing muse to Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and pretty much every avant-gardist of the late 19th century, absinthe was perhaps the cultural equivalent to heroin in that period, associated with both artistic creativity and ultimate ruin. (You can read much more here and here.) A sensational murder trial in Switzerland in 1906 of a man who murdered his family while hepped up on absinthe (also wine, cognac, brandy and creme de menthe, but never mind those) led eventually to its banning in Europe and the US. Interestingly, the absinthe ban in France led to the emergence of the similarly-flavored pastis as a popular drink.

Many of those prohibition laws are still on the books, but loopholes here and there now allow for the sale of absinthe in most European countries. Not so the US, where it is forbidden even to import absinthe bought legally overseas. In France, the sale of liquor labeled as "absinthe" is still illegal; to get around this, it is sold as "spirits based on absinthe plants". I would not say that absinthe is exactly popular here, certainly nowhere near as much as pastis. The liquor aisle at Carrefour has perhaps 20% of its total area given to various brands and flavors of pastis, while a single row of one type of absinthe gathers dust on a bottom shelf. My local wine/liquor specialty shop (the superb but expensive Maison Malleval, est. 1869) has several brands, as well as a selection of the tools required to partake in the absinthe ritual.

Some explanation of that ritual: One begins by pouring about an ounce and a half of absinthe into a glass. There are any number of specialized absinthe glasses, some with a rounded bubble or marked line to indicate the preferred level of absinthe. My glass, bought in a shop in Avignon, has no such demarcation, so I arbitrarily chose the level of the bottom of the etching on the glass as the appropriate height.

One then places the all-important absinthe spoon across the top of the glass. The spoon handle typically has a notch to hold it in place. The spoon itself is typically highly decorative; mine is fairly simple and inexpensive, made of stamped steel and bought with the glass. I later learned that often when you by a bottle of absinthe, a spoon comes with it in the package.

A sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Next, ice-cold water is slowly dripped over the sugar cube, dissolving the sugar and adding cold, sweet water to dilute the bitter drink and bring out the flavor. This process is called "louching", from the French for "shade"; see, at room temperature absinthe is clear, pale green, but when cold water is added it turns cloudy white. Gee, Mr. Wizard! There are ornate glass absinthe fountains that allow one to louche up to four glasses at once from a central reservoir filled with ice, but I don't have one of those, relying instead on the Brita water purifier from my fridge. Once the sugar is dissolved and water is added to about a 4:1 ratio, you're ready to drink.

So come along with me as I drink absinthe for the first time and record my unedited thoughts and observations. See you on the Other Side.

[Begin "live" drunkblogging]

9:25 I prepare the works: Glass, spoon, sugar cubes, bottle. V is concerned about this endeavor, mostly that I'll do something bizarre while under the influence, like take a dump in a laundry hamper or wander the streets buck-nekkid and ranting incoherently. I try to reassure her. But I keep in mind that the absinthe could be a convenient excuse.

9:30 Start louching. It goes rather quicker than I had expected, as I had feared that the sugar cube would take too long to melt under the cold water. But it comes apart most pleasingly, and in fact the cube dissolves before I’m half finished adding water. I add more water until the proportion looks about 3:1…maybe 4:1 since the glass widens at the top.

9:35 Louching done, I take a sniff. It smells like pastis. Almost exactly like pastis, in fact. Anise/licorice predominates. The color is cloudy white (not artificially colored green as some absinthes are) with a hint of yellow.

I’m about ready. Oh wait…need some music. Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’Eschafaud should do for starters.

9:45 Let’s do this. If tonight I lose my sanity for good… well, it’s been fun.
I raise the glass and take a drink.

9:46 FIRST GLASS. Yep, it tastes much like pastis. Maybe more complex, with less punchy anise flavor. Not bad, exactly. Just not really something I’d drink just for the taste of it.

9:47 Now to wait for the effects to kick in.

9:48 I AM THE LIZARD KING!!!!!!1!!!1!

9:49 Just kidding.

9:50 Man, this Miles Davis cat is pretty good, huh?

The absinthe does go down smoother than pastis. It has a more rounded mouthfeel (I believe that is the first time I’ve ever used that word). I may have mixed it a little watery; still, everything I've read said the proportion should be 3:1 to 5:1.

9:53 One of the Wyrd Sisters --our neighbors across the narrow side street, elderly women who have the disturbing habit of parading around naked-- has just come to her window (about 30 feet directly in front of where I’m sitting) wearing only a bra and panties. She is, I’m guessing, in her late 60’s.

Some things you can’t un-see.

I take my glasses off to prevent further psychic scarring.

[later edit: That's them in the first photo in this post.]

9:57 Finished the first glass. Taking stock, I feel, well, like I just finished a glass of 90-proof liquor. Which in fact I did. One of the remarkable attributes of abinthe is that it reputedly allows the drinker to maintain some sense of clarity through the alcohol haze. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s true.

10:02 Is it too soon to have another? I need to pace myself a little, so I’ll wait until 10:15, which will be 30 minutes after the first. That’s not too bad—a loading dose, if you will, or a double-bolus (cardiology joke for my peeps at Duke).

10:05 OK, I’m gonna go louche another glass. Back in a few.

10:12 As I’m louching, V reminds me “You’d better not pee in the closet.” I laugh.

“No, I’m serious,” she says. You’d better not pee in the closet.”

10:14 I have my laptop out for this, set up on the coffee table. Having the laptop out means I’ll probably be more verbose than if I were scrawling on a notepad, as I did for the Chartreuse Elixir drunkblog.

10:15 SECOND GLASS. Much like the first. Feeling a slight urge to eat something, which is odd since I just had dinner a little before 9PM.

10:20 Now what? I’m just sort of sitting around waiting for something to happen, getting a little restless. I’ve got a short stack of books here in front of me, chosen beforehand in case I got the urge to read something—Aldous Huxley, Sartre, Beaudrillard—it occurs to me that I should try reading Beaudrillard in French. The way he and his ilk loved to toy around with language, I’m probably missing a level of meaning by reading it in translation.

10:28 One of the loops of scrolled ironwork on the balcony is asymetrical, missing part of a scroll on one side. I had never noticed that before. Altered perception, or merely the first time I’d sat in this spot on the couch doing nothing for this length of time?

10:32 A bachelorette party passes by on the street below. I see this pretty much every weekend, though more commonly on Saturday afternoon: A group of young people surrounding one poor schlub (male or female) dressed in a ridiculous outfit—clown wig, swim fins, Groucho glasses, etc.—as the schlub asks…something…of passersby. Not kisses or other sexy/titillating things as one would see in the US, but it appears as if they ask them questions; I’ve never been able to work out exactly what is going on.

10:37 V comes in. “Seen anything yet?”

10:40 Still nothing noteworthy. I’ll go louche up another one, which in theory should get me up to cruising altitude, if only from the alcohol.

10:45 Made this one with limonade rather than H2O. There was already plenty of undissolved sugar in the bottom of the glass so I didn’t add another cube.

10:46 THIRD GLASS. Hmmm. Funny aftertaste; I don’t think I’ll bother with the limonade again.

10:54 I keep checking to see if my watch has stopped. Time seems to be passing slowly. You may be feeling the same sensation, dear reader.

11:04 CD change—Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate. Finished the 3rd glass and I’m definitely hungry now. Mild degree of intoxication (more noticeable when I stand up) but not too bad. Fingers are clumsier on the keyboard now but I’m still together enough to correct my errors as I go.

11:16 I go snack-hunting in the kitchen, come up with some BBQ Pringle’s. Drink a glass of water to stay hydrated. Step out onto the balcony to see how cold it is; a little chilly to be really comfortable but I might go out there for a while. Maybe I’ll take a walk down the street just to see what’s what.

12:08 Just back from a walk: Place Bellecour has knots of people hanging around under the statue of Louis XIV. People are finishing their dinners (still!) in the brasseries that line Place Poncet. The Rhone flows high and fast, almost alarmingly so in the darkness. The riverbanks still are full of people hanging out at this hour; a roulotte sells kebabs and frites on the corner. In a truly random occurrence, I bump into a co-worker riding her bike along the quai at midnight. A guy, glassy-eyed drunk, staring, sits on the sidewalk leaning against a planter in front of a now-closed café. My ears are cold from the wind off the river and I slip back inside, quiet so as not to wake the baby, and return to my spot on the couch.

“Nothing?” V asks.

Nothing. I’m beginning to believe that absinthe is pretty much just booze. A little disappointing, actually.

[End of live drunkblog. Last two photos were taken on that walk; blurriness should be ascribed to low light levels and shutter speeds rather than operator's vision.]

Postscript: Well, that was pretty much that. After I stopped blogging I drank a beer, watched some of The Wild Bunch on French TV, read a little, went to bed. I didn't have any strange dreams or anything, and (most surprisingly) felt fine in the morning when I woke up.

In the final analysis, we can conclude that despite its fearsome reputation, absinthe as it is sold today appears to have no psychoactive properties other than those that can be ascribed to its alcoholic content. It remains unclear whether absinthe as it was made back in the day (with allegedly higher thujone levels, etc.) had any such effect; it is also possible that much greater doses-- at Hunter S. Thompson ether-binge levels-- might have some of the desired (or undesired) effects, but I will leave that research to others who do not have small children to wake them at 6:30AM on Saturday morning.

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