Green Fairy, My Arse

April 22, 2012

A few weeks ago a friend asked me, “Is there any liquor that you don’t like then?” Although I’m not particularly fond of vodka, even that can be nice – a Zubrowka with lime and soda, for example. So the answer was, “No, I can’t think of any.”

Until now.

Absinthe.

No, I don’t think I’ve tried it until now, and no I didn’t like it (and also no, I’m not one of these people who doesn’t like licorice and aniseed – I love licorice).

I’m going to go even further. It’s not even a “not my cuppa tea, but each to their own” kind of thing. I can’t even understand why other people would enjoy drinking this stuff.

It’s not even repulsive. At least that would be interesting. It’s just licorice, aniseed, sambuca, ouzo. Overpowering, unsubtle and thoroughly uninteresting.

I’m sure the question that springs to mind is that I must have just picked some bad absinthe, right? There’s a lot of cheap Czech swill around. Well, I honestly don’t think so. I did my research, and picked one (of the four available in Taiwan) that has good reviews online from a number of sites where people seem to know what they’re talking about (ie they review a number of spirits and absinthes and have intelligent comments).

Fruko, a cheap Czech brand, is pushed heavily in Taiwan, and I managed to sample it from a promoter at Carrefour and even added some water to see if it louched (meaning turns greyish with added water). It didn’t and tasted awful. That was quite some time ago. Since then Carrefour also has some horrible-looking stuff in a novelty skull-shaped bottle that looks like a Halloween prop. Another brand, available at Breeze is called Teichenné, and seems to have vaguely favourable reviews sometimes.

Finally, the brand I bought, La Fée Parisienne, is available at Breeze for about 1700NT ($US57) – the most expensive bottle I’ve bought in Taiwan so far, and the most disappointing.

What makes it particularly disappointing (aside from the thought that I could have bought two or three bottles of really tasty spirits with that cash) is that Absinthe has such a colourful and interesting history. It also has even more than the usual liquor-related amount of myths and bullshit. So much so that even with quite a bit of research in my books and online, it was hard to find the straight story on some absinthe facts.

Here are some oft-heard Absinthe facts that I am fairly sure are BS:

It can make you hallucinate. (Thanks a lot ‘Moulin Rouge’).

The ‘real’ absinthe with ‘real’ wormwood is poisonous. (No more than other liquor).

It is illegal in the US. (Oddly, the personal prohibition that absinthe had was effectively lifted in 1972 when it was replaced with a ban on drinks containing more than a certain percentage of Thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. It wasn’t until much more recently that chemists figured out that none of the absinthe on the market had that much Thujone in it anyway. The laws are still murky, but several brands of absinthe have now been imported. In most other countries it has been expressly legalised.)

Authentic drinking of absinthe involves some fancy ritual involving fire. (Marketing gimmick.)

So why was Absinthe vilified and eventually banned in most countries? Well, the answer seems to be that it was just so damned popular, people were drinking way too much of it and doing the kinds of things that people do when they drink too much of any liquor. A similar thing had happened with Dutch gin in England a few hundred years earlier, with similar results.

Absinthe was notoriously popular with such artistic and intellectual fin de siècle figures as Baudelaire, Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Verlaine. But it wasn’t just the tipple of choice of these Bohemian degenerates. It was THE new big thing in Europe and America. At one point, seven times more Absinthe than wine was being drunk in France. In the US bartenders were throwing a little in every new cocktail invented and most of the old ones too.

But these were temperance times, and it was no surprise that prohibitionists turned first to the number one demon drink, and it was soon illegal throughout most of the developed world. I can only suppose that it was this ‘forbidden fruit’ effect that led to its revival and short burst of popularity about ten years ago or so.

Absinthe was always drunk with water, and usually a little sugar. Most of the time, this was achieved by putting a slotted spoon over an absinthe glass, sitting a sugar cube on the spoon and slowly dripping water on the cube. The cube gradually disintegrates, the water drips through the slot in the spoon and the absinthe below slowly louches – changes colour from green to a milky grey. When the louche has risen just to the top of the liquid (about four parts water to one absinthe) it is ready to drink.

I achieved this effect with an ordinary glass and a tea strainer. It worked just as it was supposed to. It was the taste that didn’t. I’ve already described that. Licorice, unsubtle and uninteresting. I finished my glass out of a sense of duty and unwillingness to waste, rather than with pleasure.

The following weekend, I decided to give absinthe another go with an Absinthe Cocktail.

Absinthe Cocktail

1 oz Absinthe

1/2 tsp Anisette (optional)

1 dash Angostura Bitters

2 oz Water

Pour ice water slowly over the absinthe. Add bitters and anisette and ice. Shake and strain.

You can leave out not just the anisette but also the bitters, shake with cracked ice and pour into a glass packed with cracked ice for an Absinthe Frappé, a drink that became even more popular than the cocktail. I meant to try this, but as I thought the cocktail no real improvement on the plain absinthe drink, I didn’t have the perseverance to go any further than this stuff.

My verdict on absinthe is clear. I really don’t like the stuff.

That said, I can see that it does have a place, used VERY sparingly as a flavouring. Many classic prohibition recipes call for small amounts of 1/4 teaspoon or so. I have now tried the Sazerac and the Improved Cocktail (with rye and with genever), which both call for very small amounts of absinthe. I can see the role it plays in these drinks. It smooths them out a little and perhaps lets the taste sit in the mouth a little longer. But I really can’t see the need for expensive stuff. If I ever run out, I’m just going to go for Pernod, a pastis that was an absinthe substitute for many decades anyway.

Nice art though:

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8 Responses to “Green Fairy, My Arse”

  1. Alicia Says:

    I have only tried it once, and it was made by a local distillery – I was excited until I tried it. Boring, watery, overrated. Sounds like you put a lot more work into it than I would dream of, and I’ll take the comments to mean that I shouldn’t bother trying.

  2. Seamus Says:

    It is something I can survive OK without. Pastis makes an adequate substitute.

    But I do like it, particularly as a frappe sweetened up with orgeat.

    There can be quite a bit of variation between brands, so it is probably worth trying a few more before totally writing it off. Some brands are basically aniseed. Others are aniseed with other flavors.

  3. theboolion Says:

    Thanks for the comment Seamus, but I don’t really plan to buy another bottle. If osme floats under my nose somehow or other, I’ll give it a try, but to be truthful “aniseed with other flavours” isn’t gettign me very excited 😉

  4. putneyfarm Says:

    We are liking the blog.

    Absinthe is pretty nasty by itself (we had a similar dissapointment), but it helps as an ingredient in a lot of old time and tiki cocktails. Use it that way and it will last forever.

    But it is funny that everyone makes such a big deal of absinthe. If it hadn’t been banned it would have lost popularity on its own.

    • theboolion Says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree. It does seem to have helped in very small doses in a few classic cocktails I’ve tried. I saw you have some Tiki posts recently. That’s an area I’m keen to explore soon.

  5. Evan Schwarten Says:

    Hi Boo Lion, I came across this post more or less by accident but I wanted to let you know that unfortunately none of the “absinthes” you have tries bare any resemblance to real absinthe. Czech absinth isn’t absinthe, they are made using different processes and different ingredients and taste entirely different. About as similar as cheap tequila is to high quality scotch or cognac. The La Fee is closer but really it’s just cheap ( though its actually kind of expensive) crap. Each to his own but I would urge you to try the real stuff. If you are in the US Lucid and Kubler are two widely available brands that are decent introductions to the drink. It is a truly fascinating drink that can be almost as complex and diverse as good wines.


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