Friday, September 28, 2007

Absinthe Is Back

I read a story in USA Today this morning that surprised me.

Absinthe, also known as the "green fairy," is back and in vogue at fashionable bars and restaurants nationwide. Banned in the USA since 1912 because of its supposed hallucinogenic effects, authentic absinthe returned in legal forms this year.

According to Wikipedia: a distilled, highly alcoholic (usually 68-80%) beverage--anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium, also called grand wormwood...Absinthe is typically green (either naturally or with added color) or clear and is often referred to as la Fée Verte ('The Green Fairy'). Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a liqueur, absinthe is not bottled with added sugar and is therefore classified as a liquor or spirit. Absinthe is uncommon among spirits in that it is bottled at a high proof but consumed diluted with water to the strength of wine...

Absinthe originated in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland as an elixir/tincture. However, it is better known for its popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers whose romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture. At the peak of its popularity, over 2 million litres of absinthe were consumed annually in France alone...absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug; the chemical thujone was blamed for most of its deleterious effects.

USA Today describes absinthe as a favorite of Picasso and Oscar Wilde and repeats the rumors (not true) that the liquor was responsible for Van Gogh's cutting off his ear in 1888 and for causing epilepsy and delusions.

The newspaper goes on to say:

Absinthe's bad rap is said to have been cultivated by French winemakers, who lost business as the sale of cheap absinthe increased in the late 1800s, and by people against alcohol abuse and public drunkenness. Bans took effect in the USA and some European countries in the early 1900s. But its name was kept alive, thanks to travelers and pop culture. Some tourists were introduced to it while visiting the Czech Republic, which produced extremely harsh versions called absinth, and brought back bottles. Absinthe also showed up in films such as Moulin Rouge (2001), Alfie (2004), From Hell (2001) and Murder by Numbers (2002).

My favorite movie reference to absinthe was in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of Dracula. Like most women, I find Dracula a very seductive story. My two favorite film portrayals of the vampire are Gary Oldman's in the Coppola movie, which I saw in the theatre, and Frank Langella's in the 1979 John Badham version, which I saw on PBS years after it was made.

Neither man was handsome by conventional standards, but both were very sexy to me.

Variety described the Coppola film as "the most extravagant screen telling of the oft-filmed story and the one most faithful to its literary source, this rendition sets grand romantic goals for itself that aren't fulfilled emotionally, and it is gory without being at all scary...this Dracula could have been less heavy and more deliciously evil than it is, but it does offer a sumptuous engorgement of the senses."

I agree. The movie was completely over-the-top in the Grand Guignol tradition, including Oldman's Romanian accent. But it is both seductive and visually spectacular and fit my vision of the Dracula legend.

Here's the absinthe scene from Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula with Winona Ryder playing both Mina and Dracula's lost love Elisabeta.

Note the way Dracula serves the liquor. He decants it, then dilutes it by pouring water over a cube of sugar, melting the cube and sweetening the bitter anise (licorice-flavored) taste. This is an accurate portrayal of the way absinthe is served.


ScaramoucheX said...

Hey, great post on a great subject...
My information is, there is only one country in the world that produces mass absinthe for common consumption, and that is Spain.
I don't recall what it is called there...
The 'absinthe' one can buy in N Amerika nowadays is but a pale imitation, and very highly priced, too; it has all the right ingredients, but in insufficient quantities (except for the alcohol!)to produce a psychotropic's all about the wormwood.
I stick to tequila

~d said...

What a freaking KICK! I am writing (sort of) about Absinthe and you popped up in a google search!!!