Dancing with the Green Fairy: My Introduction to Absinthe

Painting: Dancers by Edgar Degas

Dancers by Edgar Degas

Besides writing, my second love is art. My skill is only so-so, though I do alright with charcoal, but I love art. Especially the French Impressionists. What thrills me about the impressionist period is that by its very nature the viewer becomes part of the experience. The soft edges and lack of clearly defined elements means that your own imagination is filling in the gaps.

This is also what a good story does for the reader. There is only enough detail for the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps. My image of Thork from Dragondoom is likely not the same as the next reader’s imagination. We personalize our experience by the very fact that the picture is incomplete.

Painting: Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir

When I was a young woman, I had the opportunity to visit the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle and stand before my favorite painting – The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I was moved to tears. The impact of that painting with its softly lit colors and energy moving through the paint literally stole my breath. Had Mephistopheles approached me at that moment, I would have sold my soul in a heartbeat just to be able to put paint to canvas with the same skill.

Fortunately, that bargain was never struck. However, after viewing that painting along with the Van Gogh, Monet, and Cassat paintings, I was very curious about technique that the artists employed. My research uncovered one very interesting fact. The French Impressionists were widely known to drink Absinthe.

Once I read this, I was determined to one day try the spirit. Tonight, that goal came true

***

Bottle of Absinthe

Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe

Absinthe is a distillation from Wormwood, Fennel, Anise, and other herbs mixed with extremely strong grain alcohol. Absinthe originated in Switzerland in late 18th century and quickly rose to popularity among the artistic sets. Many famous writers such as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Guy de Maupassant were also absinthe drinkers.

One of the effects widely attributed to absinthe is its ability to clarify the mind. Many creative people routinely drank absinthe to amplify their artistic abilities. Given the results, I’d have a hard time arguing against the truth of these statements.

Absinthe began as a medicine to prevent malaria and eventually became a widely popular spirit for reasons already mentioned. Popularly it was known as the Green Fairy in part for the mother of pearl quality it takes on once it is mixed with water. In its distilled form, Absinthe is insanely strong and is typically mixed with sugar and water before it is drunk.

Despite its growing popularity, the teatotalers eventually fixated on absinthe and it was banned. The spirit was vilified and said to drive people crazy. Many attributed Van Gogh’s famous self-mutilation to absinthe. In truth, there are indeed trace amounts of thujone, a psychoactive compound, in the spirit, however, not enough to actually affect the drinker.

In the 1990’s the ban was lifted and since then, the drink is once again flourishing.

***

For Christmas, I bought my daughter’s father a bottle of absinthe. We both wanted to try it. I decided to hold off and write this post as I imbibed to see if there were truly any significant differences in how my mind worked as I wrote.

1oz of Absinthe

1oz of Absinthe

The bottle I bought was imported from France and cost me $85. It was a serious circus just to get it here as my state doesn’t sell it. Finally, I located Crush Wine and Spirits in New York City who were willing to work with me and ship to me personally.

I admit, I’ve been intimidated by it since it arrived. Wondering every time I looked at the bottle exactly what it would it be like to drink it. I’ve only been high once in my life. I’ve always been strongly opposed to drugs or mind-altering substances after growing up with an alcoholic and drug-addicted brother-in-law, but the pull was just too great here. I really wanted to try it.

So, I got out my glass and measuring tools and poured out the requisite ounce of absinthe. That’s it. One ounce. The bottle I bought is actually 130 proof, so even though I added six ounces of water, I’m still drinking the equivalent of four very strong beers in one glass. I am 5’2″ and weigh roughly 125 pounds. One good whiskey sour knocks me flat, so I was very nervous that the absinthe would put me on my ass quick.

The green fairy

The Green Fairy

As you can see from the picture above, it is a green spirit in its distilled form. I added the requisite ice water and a touch of fructose for sweetener. The original recipes call for sugar cubes, but my daughter’s father has diabetes and we use fructose exclusively in my house since it has a lower glycemic index. As promised, the drink took on a swirly, opalescent quality.

I took my first sip and was surprised by how much it truly did taste like licorice. There was a strong bite from the high alcohol content, but with each subsequent sip, the taste has mellowed. For someone who rarely drinks alcohol, I really expected to be feeling tipsy and woozy. Generally, I’m not even willing to drive after one cocktail as the world is a bit swimmy.

The longer I drink absinthe, the more clear my mind becomes. I can feel the alcohol buzzing through my veins, but it is more like a low energy thrum. I can feel the keys under my fingers and taste the flavors of fennel and anise. The scent is sweet and flavor mellows with each additional sip.

I can honestly say, that I will imbibe again. Whether or not I’ll write The Great American Novel under its influence remains to be seen. I feel sharper and less inhibited at the same time.

I plan to go and get in my word count on my third novel now. In the morning, I’ll see if this is all just an illusion like with weed … you think you’re writing a masterpiece and in the morning it’s pure junk. They say with absinthe, everything is better than you think not worse.

Time will tell.

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