"Oh, and no blogging about it. Where it came from, who made it, the label, nothing. Keep it to yourself."
And so it began. The only product I’ve ever been given with its own unofficial non-disclosure agreement. But hey, I listen well, even if it does pain me just a little bit not being able to disclose how the bottle came into my possession. I’d say someone brought it back for me from Europe, but it actually didn’t travel that far, and in an effort to not get myself into hot water here I’ll just say that it was a lovely, one-of-a-kind gesture on my friend’s part. Heck, even he is remaining anonymous in this story.
Ok, so what’s all the fuss about this bottle of a very famous herbal green elixir? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Absinthe is an aromatic distilled liquor made with aniseed, fennel, hyssop, angelica root and wormwood. Legend has it was first created by a French exile living in Switzerland and made commercially by Henry-Louis Pernod in 1797. Called la Fée Verte because of its coloring, the drink is typically enjoyed by adding water and sugar, turning it cloudy (a process called louching). One of the main ingredients in Absinthe is a chemical called thujone (it is present in one of the ingredients known as wormwood) and here’s where the drama starts. It turns out that thujone is banned here in the United States because of its "harmful neurological effects." Of course, don’t get me started on thujone as a harmful chemical when smoking is entirely legal.
Absinthe can be sold in the United States, but it’s a version made with southern wormwood, which means no thujone. That type is called Absente, and well, I wanted to real thing. Some claim it can cause madness. I’ve never tried it when traveling and I wanted to see what it was all about. That’s how this little adventure began.
After sending out a request to my trusted food contacts (a list that includes a professional wine snob of the highest order*, a master brewer, a food writer from the Los Angeles Times, a stylist, a chef and a few malcontents), the bottle miraculously appeared to me, just like a vision from heaven. Had I known my wish would have been granted so effortlessly without the need of ingratiating myself I would have asked for some cold hard cash and a six pack of abs as well, but I guess a gorgeous bottle of Absinthe isn’t half bad.
Having never indulged in the proper service of absinthe I quickly did my work. I started by calling a few friends on how to enjoy the green elixir properly.
Friend #1: "Oh holy shit I think there were some small glasses involved. It was a basement. I can’t remember. Much."
Friend #2: "Hell if I know. Did I tell you the last time I had that I woke up on the floor of a disco in Barcelona at 6:42 in the morning and all my friends ditched me? My shoes were gone."
Friend #3: "What’s wrong with my legs? My legs. I can’t feel my legs. Who are you?"
I wasn’t getting anywhere with my friends so I decided to go it alone. Being a Pastis drinker I decided to enjoy it slowly, with the requisite sugar cube and cold water but without the muffled cacophony of European house music and rank clouds of cigarette smoke.
A quick little pour into my small glass revealed a clear, intensely aromatic liquid with the obvious scent of licorice, followed by a sweet, almost cinnamon finish. Suddenly my brain was on overload– I’ve never smelled something like this before! Five parts of cold water were poured over a sugar cube that was placed on top of a cordial glass, and instantly my clear liquid became cloudy and milky. It was now mixed and ready for me to enjoy. But would it be true? Would I suddenly lose my brain like all the mad artists before me? Would I give in to the Green Fairy and temporarily suffer from insanity and strip off all my clothing and run down the street? No, that was last week. Would I just pass out and hallucinate, or were these just stories from friends prone to tall tales?
I took my first sip.
Incredibly delicious, with a taste just like its aroma, but lasting longer on the tongue. Overpowering flavors of anise and spice.
Another cool sip. Now my tongue was going numb.
Third sip and I could feel nothing in my mouth.
I put my small glass down, realizing I drank the entire thing. A short physical inventory of my surroundings was made: two eyes, one nose, room still upright, no dancing green goblinettes prancing around my head in midair. By golly, I think I made it through this absinthe thing with flying colors.
Then I stood up.
I’m not one of those people who claim different type of spirits can cause different types of moods when consumed. Alcohol causes a physiological process to occur in the body, plain and simple. It doesn’t pick and choose what part it plans on affecting, it just does its thing. So what could explain this heady, slightly ethereal sensation I was feeling? It was like being intoxicated but in a way I’ve never experienced. Was it the job of a dozen finely mixed herbs? Was it thujone? Why did time seem to stop? Was it solely in my head, a case of me suffering from delusions of Van Gogh and Baudelaire and thinking I was just as cool and smart? We may never know.
But we do know this: I’m going to enjoy another glass of this stuff very soon. Slowly and carefully. And next time I may even have two glasses, just as soon as I can find my pair of missing shoes.
* I mean that in the most loving of way; I’d never publicly knock the person who can singlehandedly get me reservations at El Bulli by one phone call.