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Absinthe! The Green Hour: An Excerpt from Libation

The following is an excerpt from Libation: A Bitter Alchemy by Deirdre Heekin. It has been adapted for the Web.

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.
—Oscar Wilde on absinthe

The first time I contemplate tasting that renowned green liqueur, absinthe, I am a little frightened. My husband and I are sitting in our restaurant eating our after-service dinner. The hour is late, eleven o’clock. Our chartreuse walls surround us, and we must look as if we are swimming in absinthe, the flickering candlelight casting watery sparkles and shadows. I have absinthe on the brain, and not because I have already partaken of too much wormwood. This is what scares me: the wormwood. I have heard and read all the horrid stories of debauchery and addiction, of people falling prey to the Green Fairy, of the artists’ preference for this rumor-laden drink. I know all about van Gogh cutting his ear off in response to his absinthe muse, of his drinking absinthe right before he took his own life. I’ve read about Manet’s first painting of the grim ragpicker, which shows a man drinking absinthe; and about how Toulouse-Lautrec’s nifty cane flask held absinthe, so that he always had a nip nearby. While I might be intrigued by the Gothic elements of the late-nineteenth-century absintheuse, I am more like the stolid 82,450 Swiss who signed the petition to ban the drink back in the early 1900s. The dark tales make the skin shiver, and make me want to be outside on a sunny day drinking something pleasant like sweet tea. Yet I come to the table to taste absinthe because I believe that there is more to this drink than the macabre, hallucinogenic, and dissipated past. I am tired of having been swayed by what I know must be propaganda. I believe absinthe became a scapegoat for a fear that was spreading through a world in an era increasingly defined by uncertainty.

Of course, others before me have been rehabilitating absinthe, and it is already making its long-overdue comeback as an aperitif or after-dinner drink. Slowly, current artisanal makers like T. A. Breaux, the chemist from New Orleans, or Lance Winters, the brewer-turned-distiller from California, have created beautiful jewel-like textures that are now legally labeled and distributed as absinthe. They are craftsmen who became intrigued by the idea of breaking down the historic liqueur into its various parts and reconstructing its recipes.

I must not be like those nineteenth-century women, for I have never before been drawn to absinthe. Perhaps my aversion connects to my alcohol-checkered ancestry. If I were to start down the green road, as it were, would I not be able to return? And yet, I am drawn to wine, to delicate eaux de vie, to the hearty aromas of various herbal bitters. Absinthe becomes my challenge. I want to understand this liquid artemisia: to learn how to sidle up to it, become friendly, and banish my fear; and if I go back, follow my own thread out of a labyrinth, I think I may become absinthe’s champion.


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