- Bernard Black (proprietor of Black Books) referred to it as ‘the drink that makes you want to kill yourself.’
- Oscar Wilde claimed, ‘After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were…’, by which he may or may not have meant, ‘that women had penises’, and when he wrote that the liquor was anise-flavored, he did not (as rumor has it) mistakenly spell it ‘anus’.
- Johnny Galecki, the actor who played Rusty Griswold in Christmas Vacation, claims that he has but two vices: Sugary breakfast cereal and absinthe.
- Lewis Carroll is said to have come up with ‘Through The Looking Glass’ following heavy bouts of absinthe and opium consumption.
- And finally, when Choo Choo Charlie said, ‘It really rings my bell’, he wasn’t talking about absinthe—a potent, strange spirit which is, nonetheless, Good & Plenty flavored.
So, I recently had my clock cleaned by Brendan Edwards when I wrote—in my customary cocksure arrogance—that you can’t buy ‘real’ absinthe here in the States despite the lifting of the 95-year-old ban on the stuff in 2005. Brendan informed me, ‘Not only is this the real deal in all its genteel appeal, but if you’re willing to wheel and deal, it’s a steal.’
Anyway, that was his spiel.
And apparently, according to Edwards, not only can you buy genuine, Lewis Carroll-approved absinthe here in the States, you can buy the thujone-thick original recipe, still made in its birthplace, Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. I happen to love the Swiss, not just because my father is one (born and bred forty miles from absinthe-zero), but because they also invented LSD. Something a bit deeper to these cheese-chomping, Badi-bathing, cowbell-clanging watchmakers? A penchant for psychotropic phantasmagoria ?
At any rate, Brendan then sent me a sample of ‘La Clandestine’ Absinthe Supérieure in its pretty blue package and label featuring a bare-breasted siren who—for some reason known only to those tripping on acid—is singing, ‘Charlotte…’ I’m sure there is a rational explanation for the image, but I don’t think I want to know what it is; I prefer the scene’s surreality.
The name ‘La Clandestine’, of course, refers to the fact that, despite being illegal since 1915, the Swiss never really stopped making absinthe—they just did it, like Bo and Luke Duke, on the sly.
Well, it turns out that the hooch-hatchers of Hazzard have their European parallel in people like Claude-Alain Bugnon, an oil refinery technician who had developed a fascination for the drinks enjoyed by his ancestors, and thus, stumbled over absinthe—as many of his ancestors probably stumbled after absinthe. He began to home-distill in his basement and discovered that he had quite the penchant for lawbreaking. His reputation spread (is that a good thing when you are producing illegal substances?) across Europe, and in 2006, when the Prohibition ended, Bugnon was the first distiller in town to go legit. I will not comment on the persistent rumor that he replaced his basement still with a meth lab.
What I am happy to comment on is the product.
First, I really don’t like licorice. There, I said it. But I do like hallucinations and wanting to kill myself after one sip of anything, so I was game to go after the blue-bottled booze (often mistakenly called a ‘liqueur’—but there is no added sugar, so, no) with the fervent intensity of someone who missed the hippie movement by a few years.
Rather than using the word ‘hippie’, however, I should have said ‘bohemian’. Historically, absinthe has been a societal ‘fringe’ drink, the drug-of-choice of many Parisian artists and writers—folks like Charles Baudelaire, Paul-Marie Verlaine, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and a generation later, ex-pat Ernest Hemingway. As such, it was considered gauche and uncouth by contemporary conservatives.
And thus, like marijuana in the fifties and sixties, that made it all the more attractive to those in the process of rejecting cultural norms to begin with. Plus, the psychoactive angle, largely imaginary, gave the drink a bizarre sort of attraction to those who were looking to escape the mundane monotony of the workaday world of fin de siècle Europe.
Absinthe draws its multifarious flavors from botanicals like green anise and sweet fennel, but above all, from Artemisia absinthium, also known as wormwood. It is the chemical substance thujone, contained within the flowers and leaves of wormwood, that was once thought to be the source of the absinthe’s alleged psychedelic undertow. But, in modern days, research has shown that absinthe contains only trace amounts of thujone—far too little to have the slightest effect on the brain—and in fact, vermouth and Angostura bitters contains more thujone than absinthe, and sage contains more thujone than wormwood.
What’s the Source of Absinthe’s Raunchy, Radical, Rockin’ Reputation Then?
For starters, the stuff that Brendan Edwards sent me is 53% alcohol—106 proof—which makes Wild Turkey seem like Kool-Aid and Jack Daniels like Similac. Doesn’t take too many shots of 106 proof liquor before you start seeing verdigris visions of mescalito dogs like Carlos Castañeda.
And the version that the nineteenth century addicts drank had even more va-voom—the earliest absinthes were up to 74% alcohol.
And hence, the rituals, which were as much a part of the absinthe experience as the high itself.
By the mid 1800’s, absinthe’s Parisian popularity had grown to such an extent that 5:00 PM was nicknamed l’heure verte (‘the green hour’) in homage to absinthe’s nickname: la fée verte; ‘the green fairy’. Although Bugnon’s ‘La Clandestine’ is crystal clear (until you cut it with water, at which point it turns milky white), traditional absinthe had a green tint, due mainly to the culinary herbs used in a process known as ‘maceration’, where the plants were soaked in cold spirits as a way to preserve their volatile essence. Bugnon, on the other hand, believes in distilling after macerating, and color does not survive that process. But, Bugnon’s method tends to remove bitterness from the liquor and adds complexity and smoothness.
At all events, during green hour, the Belle Époque ‘preparation’ of absinthe required certain tchotchkes—notably, a small slotted spoon which was placed over the absinthe glass with a sugar cube in the middle. Ice water was dribbled over the cube, and the sugar water evenly distributed through the liquor. The resulting cloudiness is the result of certain chemical components that have poor water solubility; the French call the transformation the louche, meaning ‘opaque’.
Ironically—or not, depending—among the first delivery methods for LSD was on a sugar cube.
The Jolly Green Fairy
Cult and culture have the same basic etymology, and, since 2006, when absinthe went from bootleg to bourgeois, a hardcore gang of absinthophiles have gathered annually in Pontarlier, France to hold the equivalent of the absinthe Oscars: The Absinthiades. Judged blind, Claude-Alain Bugnon’s various varieties of absinthe have consistently taken top honors: The Golden Spoon.
Clearly, Bugnon leads the pack with his purist potable, where ‘hand-crafted is the buzzword (pun intended). Everything, from botanical selection to small-batch distilling—even bottling and labeling—is done by Bugnon.
Oh, and a spoiler: Reading further, I found out what the ‘Charlotte’ on the label means. The recipe Bugnon uses is an old one from a local, well-known absinthe-maker named Charlotte Vaucher.
And here’s me thinking it was one of the spiders in his basement distillery.