So Friday night traditionally marks the beginning of the weekend, and we usually have a couple drinks to unwind and appreciate what we’ve accomplished during the week. His tipple of choice is beer or whiskey, and tonight he’s having a Crown Royal with some ice-looking things floating in it, topped with a splash of fizzy drink.
Me? I’m getting cosy with la fée verte – absinthe, the green fairy.
Until I was forty years old, I’d never tasted absinthe in my life. I grew up with no alcohol in the house at all (my father is a pastor) and the only drink I ever came into contact with was the sherry my grandmother sneaked into her Christmas trifle. I only knew absinthe was very strong, and made you crazy if you drank too much of it – and I’d read about the famous poets and artists of fin de siècle Paris who indulged, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin and others, and who were utterly destroyed by its fearsome power to rot the human mind. Then, during a trip to New Orleans in 2010, shortly after ‘real’ absinthe (containing the oft-disdained wormwood) became once again legal for sale in North America, I bought a bottle on impulse.
(Paul bought mescal, the one with the worm in the bottle. The least said about that, the better.)
I really like absinthe, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. It doesn’t make me hallucinate, although I’d think as a writer, a few genial phantasms might add something to my creative process. Taken sensibly and in a measured fashion (i.e. not gulped straight out of the bottle or in too-rapid succession) it is a lovely drink. The first sip is warming, sliding down the throat to pool agreeably in the stomach. Wait. Allow the heat to disperse throughout your being. Then take another sip. Surrender to the gorgeous lassitude this wonderful drink bestows: God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world.
To enjoy absinthe properly, you must approach it with due reverence. Unlike pouring out a glass of wine, absinthe requires preparation, a ritual. Use a proper glass. A dedicated absinthe glass, with that handy little reservoir in the bottom, if you can get one. If you can’t, any short, cocktail-type glass will do. (See the photograph, above.) Absinthe must be mixed. For God’s sake, don’t ever drink it straight; depending on the brand and country of origin, it ranges from about 90 to 150 proof. Drinking it straight will make you very sick if it doesn’t outright kill you.
The water you mix with your precious green libation must be ice cold. I’m afraid there’s no wiggle room on this point. I suggest pouring some cold water over ice cubes in a small pitcher and keeping it in the refrigerator until you are ready to drink.
Put no more than an ounce in the bottom of your glass. If you don’t know what an ounce looks like, a standard shot glass will not lead you astray. Measure one shot glass full into the container of choice. Now lay across the mouth of the glass your absinthe spoon. If you haven’t got an absinthe spoon, anything with holes in it will do. Since I broke the handle off my previous absinthe spoon and am waiting on a replacement, I used a fork. Whatever gets you through the night.
Place one or two sugar cubes (they must be cubes and not granular sugar; you really cannot compromise on this point) across the holes in your chosen instrument. Absinthe contains no additional sugar and is therefore very bitter. Although some heathens prefer it this way, those of us in the civilised world take ours with sugar. If you prefer your drinks medium-sweet, use two cubes. I find two to be exactly right.
Now take your cold water and drip it slowly over the sugar cubes, so that the water melts the sugar and sends it down into the glass. Here is where the magic happens.
As the cold water drips into the absinthe, it changes color, from a deep emerald green to a dense milky shade. This process is known as la louche, or ‘the loosening’. (It also means ‘ladle’, which I don’t recommend as a suitable vessel for absinthe drinking. Consider yourselves warned.) You have summoned the green fairy, and your absinthe is now ready to drink. Do not, under any circumstances, put ice cubes into your drink! Doing so will dilute the alchemical magic you’ve just created.
Some people find that absinthe heightens the creative powers. I find that it relaxes me to the point where my native neuroses obligingly disappear, and if I decide to write while I’m in this state, words seem to flow more easily and I’m less likely to judge my work. (This isn’t to say you should drink in order to write. Therein lies a slippery slope.)
If you drink in company, say at a bar or party, you may find your conversation takes a wittier turn and you are a most charming interlocutor. Or, you’re drunk. Either way, your companions are likely similarly impaired, so que sera, sera. And if you happen to catch sight of yourself in a mirror or other reflective surface, be sure to smile. You are among the blessed of the earth. The brightest stars of antiquity have appeared in the firmament, and we are all going to Heaven.
(Written while I was drinking absinthe, all of it. You shall be the judge.)