It looks like Listerine and tastes like licorice. It might get you seduced by a vampire, like in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or make you spawn a witch, as in the Broadway show Wicked. It might turn you into a famous writer, like Wilde or Hemingway. It might make you the world’s most renowned suicidal painter, like Vincent Van Gogh. Could it conjure a Green Fairy, like in Moulin Rouge? Absinthe is a drink of legends, banned from the United States for almost a century, but it might just be some really strong booze.
The liquor’s licorice flavor comes from anise seeds, but what makes absinthe absinthe, is a wildflower called wormwood. For centuries, people have used wormwood as medicine – it takes its name as a treatment for intestinal worms – and you can still find it in your local pharmacy. But, like many homeopathic remedies, it’s been associated with witchcraft – reading the stars, calling forth spirits, enducing visions. A chemical in wormwood called thujone has been linked to hallucinations. Anthropologist Michael Harner has argued that the witches-riding-broomsticks myths might have developed because women applied botanical oils made from stuff like wormwood to a certain mucous membrane using the handiest domestic instrument they could find.
“Perhaps the witches were hallucinating that they could fly,” says Alison Martlew, a bartender at Dos Perros cantina in Durham. “[Absinthe] does feel a teeny little bit trippy.”
Dos Perros had a bottle of La Fée NV Absinthe Verte, a cheap, artificially green French import. Martlew let me taste a sip – kind of like cough medicine, but you’re not supposed to drink it straight anyway. It’s 38-percent ABV, whereas the better absinthes are often at least a third higher. Absinthe wasn’t a big seller at Dos Perros — the almost-full bottle had a pricetag from the state liquor store dated February 2012.
The fact that you can get real absinthe in the U.S. at all took a feat of legal reinterpretation in 2007. Prior to that, legislators and bartenders alike operated under the assumption that the legendary liquor was still banned under anti-thujone regulations. Once the parties involved took a hard look at the trace amounts of thujone in authentic absinthe, the liquor was deemed legal.
Around the corner at the high-end cocktail bar Alley 26, bow-tied proprietor Shannon Healy makes me a Sazerac, perhaps the most popular of absinthe drinks. It’s something like an Old-Fashioned – sugar, bitters, rye and lemon. What makes it a Sazerac is a splash of absinthe, in this case a 110-proof Absente brand imported from southern France, yellower than the Scope-colored NV. By tradition, a bartender merely rinses a lowball glass with absinthe and pours it out, leaving just traces to flavor the mix.
“It’s a lovely addition to a drink, but if you use too much of it, you might as well just be drinking absinthe,” Healy says.
Overhearing our conversation, a nearby patron orders a Sazerac. At first, Healy shakes a few drops of angostura bitters over a spoonful of sugar. Then he rinses out that glass and starts over. It has to be Peychaud’s bitters, which also contain wormwood and which give the Sazerac a distinctive red color – the absinthe green disappears.
“The man made one drink,” says Healy, referring to Peychaud. “Let’s let him have it.”
Antoine Peychaud invented the Sazerac in New Orleans in 1838. Peychaud started with brandy, but the European grape blight of the 19th century eventually pushed the drink toward rye. Hemingway drank absinthe in champagne: Death in the Afternoon. The French usually drink it in a louche form – a milky liquid produced by adding water. The liquor can only hold its herbs and spices at a certain alcohol by volume. Once it’s diluted, they start to cloud it. Water is dripped slowly into the liquor until the desired louche is reached. This weaker form of anise-flavored liquor is called pastis.
“While the English are drinking tea, the French are drinking pastis,” says Healy. Sometimes the water is dripped over a sugar cube suspended on a spoon, but Healy says that’s really for cheaper, rougher Czech or “Bohemian” absinthes. He says the purer Swiss and French absinthes make nice bittering agents for balanced cocktails.
“I don’t believe that there are any magical properties,” he says. “[Thujone] can do bad things to you, but it doesn’t survive the distillation process.
“All these crazy, drug-addled artists – they’d be sane otherwise,” he says sarcastically. “It’s the same way there are stories about what oysters and tiger penises can do for you. You drink enough of 140-proof spirit, you’re going to see something.”