Saturday, July 15, 2006

Meditations on old vices.

Absinthe is making a comeback, due in no small part to the power of the Internet.

For those of my readers who are somewhat less-worldly, absinthe is a drink containing a kick-in-the-pants alcohol level, along with an impressive amount and variety of herbal additives. One of those herbs being wormwood.

A significant percentage of the wormwood is a complex chemical substance called thujone. Thujone is poisonous. Matter-of-fact, it's a neurotoxin. How-some-ever, ingested in amounts under the lethal dose, thujone has some ... interesting ... effects. Some people see things. Others understand the universe. Stuff like that.

Now, wormwood is a wee bit problematical. Too little and you don't get the effect. Too much...well, it is a poison. A properly brewed absinthe will have the wormwood balanced against the alcohol, so that you will pass out (or wind up with alcohol poisoning) before you get a dangerous dose of thujone.

Absinthe is also usually green -- not just any green, mind you, but luminescent emerald green. It also tastes strongly of bitter licorice. The colour and the bitterness have led to a ritual involved in the preparation of the drink using sugar and water, which leads to an interesting effect.

There are two methods for putting your sugar and water into your absinthe. The first is the classic French method, in which a sugar cube is placed in a slotted spoon balanced across the top of your glass. You then pour cold water on the cube, dissolving it and mixing it into the absinthe.

The second method probably doesn't seem have any basis in historical fact, but since it involves fire, some of the younger, more macho types prefer it.

You place the sugar in the spoon across the top of your glass, and dribble a bit of absinthe onto the sugar. You then set the sugar on fire, and when it is caramelized to your liking, you pour the water over the flaming sugar, dousing the fire, dissolving the sugar, and watering the drink.

Unfortunately, absinthe generally runs about 60-80% alcohol by volume. One little 'whoopsie' with your fire, and you just became the evenings pyrotechnic entertainment. So, the French method tends to be the most popular.

Either way, the interesting effect mentioned above happens when the water hits the absinthe. Oils and esthers present in the drink then precipitate out, forming a colliodal suspension and turning the absinthe from a clear green resembling liquid peridot, to a cloudy, opaque green, strongly reminiscent of milky jade.

Kind of neat to see.

Absinthe has long been associated with madness -- the 'seeing devils' kind of madness -- so it has long been unlawful in various countries. However, since absinthe never really caught on in the United States the first time around, the good old U.S. of A. didn't get around to passing a whole lot of laws against it, and it never got the stigma of madness here that it gained in Europe.

You should, of course, check the laws in your locality, rather than depend on me, if you decide that absinthe is the stuff for you.

Recently the Europeans passed laws regulating the amount of thujone present, and passed strict licensing requirements upon makers of absinthe, leading to a fairly decent absinthe revival in parts of Europe.

Given the Internet, and FedEx/UPS/DHL, absinthe has been cropping up here and there, including recently in rural Texas.

*shrug*

Caveat Emptor, folks, if you're buying your absinthe off the Internet, be aware that some unscrupulous types will take a barrel of mouthwash, soak a panty-hose full of various candies and kitchen spices in it for a while, then bottle it and sell it to you as Genuine Absinthe at Genuine Absinthe prices -- they get about 1000% profit, and you get a bottle of licorice-flavoured mouthwash.

LawDog

19 comments:

garys said...

Funny story AND you used Whinge. Thanks.

Phoenix Ravenflame said...

I got a bottle of absinthe for my birthday a couple of years ago, but it wasn't "real" absinthe, seeing as how I'd heard what it can do to you and I'm about as brave as a nuerotic mouse. It was called Absinte, and it has synthetic wormwood in it. But it was bright lime green, and it did taste like licorice. Black licorice, I thought, which is my favorite. And I did end up very intoxicated. Two glasses had more of an effect on me than entire nights of drinking other things. I probably had a good time... I don't really remember.

Cybrludite said...

My understanding of the law is that the banination was done as a foodstuff and not as a pharmaceutical. This means that it can't be sold in the US, but is legal to own. Just watch out for the homebrew stuff made with essential oils, which are poisonous even without the thujone.

Main advantage to the real thing is not that the thujone makes you see things, but that it counteracts the more... annoying effects of the alcohol. It loosens the inhibitions without turning you in to a stumbling, slurring idiot. Um, or so I've heard...

kateykakes said...

I've never even heard of it.

Geez, I sort of feel left out - even though I have no desire to try it.

Thanks for the lesson. Learn something new everyday...

EgregiousCharles said...

"they get about 1000% profit, and you get a bottle of licorice-flavoured mouthwash."
It could be worse; you could get real absinthe.
Seems to me that a major reason it's not banned like the various "War on Drugs" drugs is that it simply fell out of popularity, the harmful effects being so obvious compared to most recreational drugs. Kind of like how methanol is legal.

Dad29 said...

IIRC, absinthe was the cause of death of Ernest Hemingway.

Mattexian said...

And was a fav drink of Vincent Van Gogh.

308Mike said...

From Wikipedia, Hemingway shot himself:

"some three weeks short of his 62nd birthday, he took his own life on the morning of July 2, 1961, with a shotgun blast to the head. The gun was purchased at Abercrombie and Fitch."

Dad29 said...

Ah, well.

Then it was the absinthe that drove him crazy enough to off himself.

See--we can get it in there!

buzz_knox said...

My understanding is that the recent relaxation of the absinthe bans in Europe was due to research showing that the effects of absinthe aren't actually any worse than other alocholic beverages. There, apparently, was a lot of mythology developed around it during the temperance movement, a demonization of an item that they wanted to bring public pressure against. Absinthe may have been the "assault weapon" of its age.

mediageek said...

"IIRC, absinthe was the cause of death of Ernest Hemingway."

No, a chunk of lead moving at high velocity was the death of Ernest Hemingway.

The always entertaining Modern Drunkard Magazine did a writeup of absinthe that can be found here:

Drinking with Van Gogh

A warning: some content NSFW.

markm said...

"Thujone is poisonous. Matter-of-fact, it's a neurotoxin. How-some-ever, ingested in amounts under the lethal dose, thujone has some ... interesting ... effects."

With varying doses and a variety of "interesting effects", that's a pretty good description of (nearly) all recreational drugs, including alcohol and nicotine. Of course, the dosage does matter. A drop or two of wormwood will kill you faster than a quart of high-proof alcohol, making accidents a lot more likely. Especially if, like I do, you consider chuggalugging a quart of whiskey to be experimental validation of Darwin's theory rather than an accident...

Anonymous said...

I've heard (strictly a rumor) that it is now possible to make absinthe while removing the little beastie that causes they madness part.

Kristopher said...

Absinth is on the US controlled drugs list, but their is no penalty for possession. If customs discovers a bottle in transit, they will simply confiscate it as contraband ... a police officer can do the same under current drug laws ... no penalty, except the cost of the bottle when he takes it from you.

Selling it in the US is another matter entirely.


Here are some reputable off-shore absintheurs:

http://www.absinthe.bz/faq.html?act_vn

http://www.alandia.de/absinthe/index.php/language/en

http://www.originalabsinthe.com/?ad=mdm

I buy mine from absinth.bz .

I would suggest not doing the Czech flaming cube thingy, unless you want to amuse your friends by immolating yourself.

Ol' Lurker said...

Ahem. LD, you certainly seem to know a very great deal about this stuff. Just saying......

LawDog said...

Never claimed to be a saint, Lurker.

Anonymous said...

"Absinth is on the US controlled drugs list"

No it's not. It's controlled by the FDA due to rules having to do with the level of thujone. Check out http://www.wormwoodsociety.org/ABSfaq.html#illegal for more info.

Pasha Blackcoat said...

I know this is ancient, but I'm working your way through your archives while bored at work.

In response to your 'It's a poison', I'd like to share a rule that I call Pasha's First Rule of Recreational Drug Use: "Three Fifth's of the LD50 of ANYTHING will get you high as a kite."

Rob said...

Oh well, Hell, as long as ancient is OK:

"Absinthe makes the mind go wander."