The Green Fairy

I've heard any number of people blame a particular spirit for a bad “night out”. “I can't drink tequila any more” is a frequent mantra, the (inaccurate) presumption that the drink, rather than the state of mind of the drinker at the time, was to blame for a sordid evening. Those bruised by imbibing too much are destined to forever connect a whiff of the offending liquor with physical revulsion; it's the body's way of protecting itself from being poisoned. Again.

One spirit has a reputation for going one step further, beyond the normal effects of alcohol into a completely different realm. Just the name “Absinthe” conjures images of people in woodcut images passed out (or dead) on the streets as if a green liquid plague had swept through the population. Any substance deemed so dangerous as to be banned almost guarantees that someone will seek it out.

Presumably we were too content with the normal variety of alcoholic beverages and needed something a bit more dangerous. Much like eating the Japanese delicacy of pufferfish (fugo), where the actual poison (tetrodoxin) is present, Absinthe also had a toxin in it. Like fugo, there is a perceived risk in imbibing Absinthe. Since the essential flavor is of anise and can be had from any number of other liquors and spirits (Ouzo, Pernod, Pastis, Arak, etc.), it is surely the threat of poisoning that lures Absinthe fans.

The web may be the cause of both the popularity and inevitable waning interest in Absinthe. People can learn more than ever about this mysterious drink, banned in the United States and most of Europe, they presumably only read enough to confirm its notoriety as a psychoactive spirit. Unfortunately, that's not entirely true.

While the original version of absinthe did contain small amounts of “thujone”, there has never been enough of it present in Absinthe to cause any different effect than alcohol alone.

Apart from the perceived danger of a slightly-poisonous drink, Absinthe has another ingredient necessary to become a trend – a ritual which accompanies its consumption. Absinthe is distilled at high-alcohol levels and should be diluted with water before being consumed. This process involves ice-cold water dripped through a sugar cube into a glass of Absinthe creating a cloudy mixture. A key component of any good ritual is that it be performed in front of other people. The gradual trickle of water through sugar cube into the glass gives ample time to raise the curiosity of other people and invite inquiry and perhaps even a touch of envy.

Part of the ban on Absinthe was perhaps due to the people who chiefly consumed it. These “bohemians” were seemingly disliked more than the drink, but outlawing the drink got rid of the people.

I predict the end of the Absinthe craze (or, at least, noted trend) will not be because of its non-existence psychoactive effect, nor because people are too impatient to wait for the ritual water trickle necessary to make it consumable, it will be because of its flavor. Anise is not for everyone and without some other benefit to drinking Absinthe (hallucinations or some other kind of good buzz beyond that of alcohol), people just aren't going to drink it.

For now, we're forced to be aware of Absinthe because of the clever marketing which surrounds the modern versions of it - the omnipresent ice water vat placed at the epicenter of the bar, sometimes with a logo on the front to lure you into a particular brand. But, give it a year and we'll be back to where we were and Absinthe will be relegated an only-occasionally-requested spirit alongside Cynar, Pernod, and Campari.

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