“The Green Hour” absinthe tasting at Morton’s
We cannot feel that all this extreme ecstasy is natural; it seems forced and hysterical; it is musical absinthe. — Boston critic’s reaction to the music of Debussy, 1905
Absinthe tastes like NyQuil. –Me, on Columbus Underground, 2008
Perhaps there is no beverage as infamous as absinthe. Popularized before the turn of the century by the likes of French Romantic poets, tortured painters, witty dandies, and maligned occultists, and then subsequently outlawed as a catalyst for derangement and murder, what could have created a more perfect storm of intrigue? Now that it has been legalized, we can find out: what effect does drinking absinthe truly have? Can it induce fits of artistry? Is it any different than just, say, “getting Schlitzed”?
10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11 the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. –Revelations 8:10-11
But let’s go back a little further than the banning. What are the origins of absinthe? Wormwood-based alcoholic beverages, of which absinthe is one, have been around for ages. Wormwood was often taken in the form of bitters to calm the stomach, and in Roman times, it was administered to children in small amounts topped off with honey to allay the taste (“spoonful of sugar”, anyone?). The poet and philosopher Lucretius compared his poetry to this practice, that is, pairing bitter philosophical truths with sweet poetry. In Russia, wormwood is also used as a metaphor for bitter truth, and appropriately, “Chernobyl” means “Artemisia”– the genus of plants to which wormwood belongs. The garden plant “Dusty Miller” is one Artemisia you might be familiar with. Plants in the genus of Artemisia, including mugwort, sagebrush, tarragon and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) have traditionally been burned as cleansing offerings, were ground into dust and used to repel fleas and mites, and were thought to promote psychic powers. Shakespeare cites wormwood as a bitter agent applied to wean babies from the breast in Romeo and Juliet. And before its recreational popularity in Belle Epoque France, absinthe was a widely-used medication for malaria. In fact, the forerunner of the original Pernod distillery (Pernod being the most well-known maker of absinthe) produced this malaria medicine. Artemisia absinthium, or Grande Absinthe as it is colloquially called, has many medicinal properties confirmed by modern science. Wormwood expels worms (hence the name) from the body, tones the stomach and increases appetite, discourages bacterial growth, expels gas, stimulates the liver’s production of bile, and lowers fever (such as malaria). It is not until more modern times that absinthe has also used other herbs such as fennel and star anise, which overpower the bitterness of wormwood with a licorice-like sweetness.
In Belle Epoque France, and also New Orleans, absinthe developed a cult-like following among the cosmopolitan, bohemian demimonde. It’s popularity was such that cocktail hour became known as “The Green Hour”. Absinthe began to overtake wine in popularity, in France of all places. Temperance advocates and French winemakers banded together to scandalize absinthe, claiming that most murders took place during the green hour. Artists’ and intellectuals’ love of the drink only incited the scandal to new, more delirious heights. Absinthe was perceived as contributing to the degeneracy of Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud (who revelled that absinthe caused “an intense derangement of the senses”), Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, and France in general. It is at the crest of this furor that absinthe was outlawed almost everywhere in the world.
For it is sorcery — as one might say —
When the pale opal wine ends all misery,
Opens beauty’s most intimate sanctuary —
Bewitches my heart, and exalts my soul in ecstasy!
— from the essay “The Green Goddess”, by Aleister Crowley. The original manuscript is now owned by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
Part of the mystique of absinthe had been its supposed ability to induce hallucinations. Turn of the century scientists discovered that a compound, called thujone, found in absinthe, caused convulsions in mice when injected in large amounts. Most bitter herbs which have traditionally been used as medicines are, in large doses, poisonous. Bitterness is nature’s way of saying “don’t eat this”. But it’s these very compounds, poisonous in large quantities, which provide therapeutic benefit when trace amounts are used.
Contemporary analysis, of even very old samples of absinthe, has revealed very low concentrations of thujone. Concentrations infinitesimally smaller than what would have to be ingested to experience psychopharmaceutical effects. Later thujone was thought to be structurally similar to THC found in marijuana, but this also proved to be spurious. What the thujone does seem to do, along with the anise and fennel also frequently used in absinthe, is to relax the stomach. A calm stomach paired with absinthe’s 45-75% alcohol by volume, seems to produce absinthe’s storied “lucid dreaminess”– an alert state of relaxation. A heady mix of peacefulness and volatility.
The absinthe we can drink today is mostly what is referred to as vert– that is, it is a distilled spirit that has been macerated a second time to extract the chlorophyll from the herbs, giving the drink it’s characteristic green color. Pernod is a vert absinthe. There are a few other varieties of distilled absinthe which are harder to find, as well as a Czech-style “absint” which is not distilled, but is instead strictly a wormwood bitters using no other herbs. Absinthe kits can also be obtained for home use, and some of the world’s most sought after absinthe is prepared this way, as well as some very poor products with dangerously high levels of thujone.
And now to Morton’s we go.
from Jules et Jim
I had never been to a Morton’s, but have always imagined it as a fancy McDonald’s for the business-expense-account set. Not exactly Montmartre. “Morton’s” and “absinthe tasting” seemed like strange bedfellows. CU regulars Blammo and Michael Coyote accompanied me, in what I like to call the “Jules et Jim” configuration– that is, my preferred social unit of me and two dudes. We pregamed with a little bit of this and that, booze-wise, which led to Blammo getting a $50 parking ticket despite the fact that all three of us had read the posted sign. I was nervous. I don’t own Morton’s-appropriate clothing, and was sure they’d sense an impostor. My worries were unfounded; the staff at Morton’s could not have been more good-natured and hospitable. We checked in (the mention of “Columbus Underground” seemed to noticeably brighten the expression on the hostess’ face), and were ushered into a very, very crowded room full of small tables of buzzing cocktail-drinkers. At the center of the room was an absinthe fountain, a water vessel with spigots for making several absinthe louches at once.
A little bit about the louche. Louching is the preferred, traditional way of preparing absinthe to be consumed. The utensils used are curvaceous and hark back to the days of Art Nouveau. Water is dripped over a sugar cube on a louching spoon, and then drips down into a louche glass which has been filled with a specific amount of absinthe. This turns the peridot-green absinthe cloudy and opalescent, known as the “Ouzo effect” (ouzo, another anise-flavored alcoholic beverage, is often prepared the same way). What you get is a microemulsion, created by the hydrophilic herbal oils mixing with water and a miscible solvent (alcohol). The Ouzo effect, though not fully understood, has since its discovery been used for a wide variety of commercial uses. That’s not what I think of when I think “louche”, however. In French, “louche” translates to shady or cloudy (like an absinthe cocktail), but can also refer to something morally depraved or degenerate. The French chanteur Serge Gainsbourg was often described as a louche, and with his overgrown facial hair, no-holds-barred sexuality and ever-present Gitanes cigarettes, he aptly exemplified the bohemian mystique attached to absinthe. I found that the louche, much like a cigarette would, numbed my mouth slightly.
Monsieur Gainsbourg, looking characteristically shady
A representative of Pernod, Terry Falcone (how appropriately French-sounding) was at the fountain, handing out louches and giving us a bit of a shill. She was a bit car-salesmanly in her approach, appeared to have had a louche or two before the presentation, and enthralled the large group of earnest thrill-seeking young professionals around her. Falcone commented that Columbus people “really know how to gather” for absinthe events, and I couldn’t help but read into that comment. Everyone in the room looked like they had just left a board meeting, and had been walking on four inch sheets of ice for the last week. They looked, well, thirsty for excitement, and Falcone gave it to them by making absinthe sound like the safest descent into Dionysian insanity that money can buy.
That’s the thing about absinthe, it tastes like shit. — absinthe taster at Morton’s
I wasn’t aware that the only absinthe we would be “tasting” was Pernod. Tasting, to me, implies sampling a variety. Pernod-Ricard is the world’s 2nd largest liquor company, owning brands such as Seagrams, Absolut, Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Jameson, Stolichnaya, Ballantine’s scotch, Beefeater, Kahlua, and briefly… Yoo-Hoo (which has since been sold). We were served a few of their other products in the form of absinthe cocktails, such as “La Deuce” (Absolut, Pernod, raspberry puree, and Champagne), the “Monkey Gland” (Gin, orange juice, grenadine, and Pernod), the “Sazerac” (Whiskey, Pernod, sugar cube, and bitters), and of course, the Louche. There were appetizers: some mushroom puff-type things that Michael and Blammo liked (I never got one), some tiny slider burgers (very good), and Oysters Rockefeller, which is a New Orleans recipe that may have included absinthe at one time.
What did the tasters, who all assumed I was from the Dispatch, have to say? Krista liked La Deuce, and Rachel likened it to “a jellybean”. I thought it was appropriately named and pretty disgusting. Arnold Anderson, who rumor has it has one out of the twelve personal wine lockers at Morton’s, was a fan of the Monkey Gland (more on Arnold later). Natalie was partial to it as well, but also enjoyed the Louche, which she and Amanda described as “creamy” and “historical”. It was also Michael Cayote’s favorite drink of the evening. Stephanie and Cliff, both whiskey-lovers, raved about the Sazerac.
And this is when we all began to get very, very, very, very drunk. Reality pitched like a heaving boat in a storm. I was approached by a man named Kermit –puns aplenty at the Green Hour– and he began to wax rhapsodic and touched me intermittently to accentuate his points. He found the Sazerac calming and tranquil, and commented on the hypnotic green color of the Louche. Before we could begin waltzing about the room in a haze, TODD F. WITTE made his presence known. With a name tag and brandishing a manila envelope, he introduced himself as THE WINNER– of free tickets to the next absinthe tasting. Todd’s showboating had such an air of unintended pathos, like Tracy Flick from Election, that I had to impress him. Terry Falcone was long-gone, and I reached down into my purse and surreptitiously poured a large dose of NyQuil (rather: Giant Eagle brand NiteTime cold medication– $2.74) into a louche glass. Michael and Blammo suggested that since the stuff is pre-sweetened, I should skip the sugar cube. I filled the glass up to the designated level with water, which produced a bewitching emerald-green, and presented this to TODD for delectation. My mistake was telling him what it was before he tasted it, which gave him an unfortunate opportunity to profess his displeasure. This was not very entertaining. I tore the glass out of his hand and pressed onward. I warned Arnold Anderson and, shall we say, a few more tasters who would prefer to remain nameless, that I couldn’t reveal the secret ingredient of this cocktail, but would they like to try it? At this point in the evening, I don’t think “no” was in anyone’s lexicon. They tasted it. They loved it. Anderson compared it to a Grasshopper. I told them it was NyQuil. I wish I could have brought some vintage Prell shampoo with me. Blammo poured half of the NyQuil cocktail into his absinthe louche and proclaimed it his favorite.
As for me– I don’t really like absinthe. I have memories of my mother eating whole theater-sized boxes of Good and Plenty in one sitting, while I would cringe in disgust. I’m not a big fan of the overly sweet licorice-like flavor of absinthe, which is why I appreciated the straightforwardness of the louche. If something is going to taste like caca, I’d rather it just get on with it. The psychological effects, however, were enjoyable– akin to drinking sake or smoking opium. A kind of wide-eyed, soft excitement. Was it a bohemian rhapsody? Not quite. Pernod can put a lot of things in a bottle, but the mystery of Artemis– the moon, the collective unconscious, “Starry Night”, romanticism and the dawn of industrialization, and the downfall of morality– aren’t among them. I wanted to feel like this:
Wild cancan dancers as painted by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
…but ended up feeling more like this:
Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, now available in coffee mug form at your local Walgreen’s
…and the hangover was memorable.
Try absinthe. It’s not for everyday. But for when you’re in a green mood.
*Disclaimer: Morton’s the Steakhouse does not endorse the practice of offering “mystery drinks” to restaurant patrons and apologizes for any displeasure this might have caused. Additionally, Morton’s only supports the drinking of Absinthe, or any alcoholic beverage, in moderation, by those 21 years of age or older.