After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.
—- Oscar Wilde
On my last trip to New Orleans, for the Writing Marathon, I was able to cross a line off of my bucket list. It was a small item, maybe the smallest – nothing like going to Cambodia, or living long enough to see the Sagrada Famila finished – but an item crossed-off nonetheless.
It was, I think, Thursday, and that day we would divide up more or less according to what we wrote. A fairly large poetry group set out (I would meet up with them later in the day, crossing the Mississippi on the Algiers ferry) while I joined a smaller fiction group.
We had coffee and wrote, and then the leader suggested, “Why don’t we go get an absinthe?” Despite the flurry of absinthe bars that swept Dallas a decade ago (and just as quickly disappeared) I had never drank one. And for no real reason, I always had wanted to – placing it on my list of things to do. What better time than now and what better place than the French Quarter in New Orleans. Because of its strong French ties, absinthe had always been a thing in the city.
I think the biggest reason I wanted an absinthe is my love of gadgetry, ritual, and complex preparations. I am a chemist after all and what could be more attractive than dripping ice cold water into a solution of alcohol and essential oils just until the oils are forced out of solution (because the water is making the solvent mixture more and more polar…. Nevermind).
For those that don’t know, that is the classic way that absinthe is prepared. The (often greenish) liquid (very strong – usually well over 100 proof) is poured into a glass. A flat, slotted absinthe spoon is placed over the glass and a sugar cube is set on the spoon. The large glass reservoir of an Absinthe Fountain is filled with ice and water. Then a tap is cracked open and the water slowly dripped onto the sugar cube, where it dissolves the sugar and then falls into the absinthe. The cold water then causes the absinthe to change from clear to cloudy, a process called louche.
This releases the aromatic flavored oils and indicates the absinthe is ready to drink.
—How cool is that?!—
Now, of course, absinthe has a bad reputation – and I mean that in a good way. It was banned in the US from 1912 to 2007. Traditionally, it was the wormwood used in the drink, particularly the chemical thujone that enables the hallucinations that the drink traditionally provided. It looks like that is at best a huge exaggeration, if not a complete load of hokum. It seem it’s the liquid’s 125-175 proof alcohol, rather than some mysterious elixir, that provides the desired effects.
We walked down to a bar off of Pirate’s Alley (this is a favorite spot of mine – I stumbled across a fashion shoot there once before) right next to Faulkner House Books (William Faulkner’s old apartments). The bar is called Pirate’s Alley Café and specializes in absinthe. It seems a little touristy (sometimes the barkeep dresses like Jack Sparrow) but there was none of that early in the day in the summer (New Orleans’ offseason). I had to decide on my brand of poison, settling on Absinthe Lucid (it was relatively inexpensive, French, and green).
The barkeep went through the routine, setting up three glasses under the absinthe fountain and we were able to watch them go from clear to milky.
The only problem was that since I’m no huge fan of licorice, I assumed I wouldn’t like the absinthe and this would be a one-off bucket list thing. No luck, I really enjoyed the stuff.
Now I have to find a bar in Dallas and/or a bottle of the Green Fairy.
“I am only sipping the second glass of that “fascinating, but subtle poison, whose ravages eat men’s heart and brain” that I have ever tasted in my life; and as I am not an American anxious for quick action, I am not surprised and disappointed that I do not drop dead upon the spot. But I can taste souls without the aid of absinthe; and besides, this is magic of absinthe! The spirit of the house has entered into it; it is an elixir, the masterpiece of an old alchemist, no common wine. And so, as I talk with the patron concerning the vanity of things, I perceive the secret of the heart of God himself; this, that everything, even the vilest thing, is so unutterably lovely that it is worthy of the devotion of a God for all eternity. What other excuse could He give man for making him? In substance, that is my answer to King Solomon.”
― Aleister Crowley, Absinthe The Green Goddess
The emerald hour–
when the poet’s pain is soothed
by a liquid jewel
held in the sacred chalice,
upon which rests
the pierced spoon,
the crystal sweetness–
Icy streams trickle down.
The darkest forest
melts into an open meadow
as waves of green seduce.
the soul spirals toward
the murky depths,
the beautiful madness–
—-Peggy Amond, “Rimbaud’s Poison“