Drinking The Strongest Absinthe On The Market
A play-by-play account …
The first time I drank absinthe I was visiting my brother and his roommates at their condo in downtown Toronto. Gabor, my brother’s Hungarian friend, had smuggled some back from his homeland. At that time, the green stuff was entirely illegal in Canada. Now you can buy it at the government regulated liquor stores (but it’s seriously feeble shit). I was seventeen. I took a shot or two. I felt nothing.
The second time, I was in a photo studio that belonged to a high-school friend of mine. I was posing as a tormented 19th-century writer. Which was easy because I am a tormented 21st-century writer. My girlfriend was posing nude in the shots with me as the ‘green fairy’. She looked hot. But alas, I was driving home from the shoot and so I didn’t consume all that much of the prop (besides, it was the feeble shit from the Canadian liquor store).
The third time was in Antigua, Guatemala during Semana Santa. A group of us went to some half-posh absinthe lounge off the main square. I was backpacking, so I could only afford one glass of the cheapest stuff on the menu. I shared it with my girlfriend. We didn’t feel a thing. But, the incense-and-prayer-soaked night wasn’t a total loss. I learned how absinthe was traditionally served: ice water, fountain, spoons, sugar cube, reservoir glass and so on.
The most recent time was in Panama. A friend of mine brought me a bottle of Absinthe 35 from his trip to Romania. He’s sober, so I think he got a sick satisfaction knowing I would drink it enthusiastically and that it would fuck me up. Abinthe 35 is made in the pre-ban style by the Czechs and it contains 35mg of Thujone (the ‘active ingredient’ in absinthe) which is the maximum level authorized within the EU — and way more than is legally allowed in Canada, the over-regulated, Party-Pooper of the world.
I used the absinthe to make Hemingway’s famous Death In The Afternoon: a flute of champagne with a jigger of absinthe added to it. It was undrinkable. I smuggled half the bottle of Absinthe 35 back to Toronto in an old plastic water bottle. This is what I will be drinking tonight.
Below you will find a chronicle of my experience on Absinthe 35. It is always faithful, sometimes rambling, mostly coherent, rarely helpful and way, way too long.
6:44: The Ritual. I fill the absinthe fountain with water and ice. I pour a little more than an ounce of the absinthe in the bulbous reservoir at the bottom of the absinthe glass. On top of this glass I set the perforated spoon and on top of that, a single sugar cube. I open the valve slightly and the drips begin. Each drop seems to jump down from the spoon. Each drop, refusing to mix with the absinthe, creates a disturbance around it like a diver entering the water from great heights. One after the other, like a leaky faucet, until the glass is half full and cloudy.
6:47: First sip. Instant head rush. Not the bad kind like when you stand up too fast but the good kind like when you take your first sip of absinthe for the night. The flavour really tackles my tastebuds. It feels as though every single receptor on my tounge is being pried open and stuffed with bitter grass. Not in a good way like when you’re eating arugula or even rapini but in a bad way like when you’re drinking extremely strong, faithfully distilled and tradionally prepared absinthe. The taste-smack is so strong in fact, that with each sip my stomach does a quarter turn on itself.
6:54: A couple sips in. The aftertaste is pleasant enough. But my stomach still feels like an astronaut slowly tumbling in empty space. I know it’s me, not the absinthe. I’ll get used to it. But I can’t believe the speed with which the head rush came on. It would usually take two highball gin & sodas or four light beers or three dark beers or two mid-day glasses of full-bodied wine or half a pack of chewing tobacco to produce this sort of comfortable cerebral spin. I wish my stomach would spin the happy way my head is.
7:00: I read somewhere that once you dilute the absinthe with ice-water by a ratio of about 3:1, you are to sip on it the way one sips on wine. The flavour of this stuff is so formidable I can’t imagine sipping it for the rest of the night. It’s strong like a shooter. Like tequila or cheap sambuca. I’ve been put off by the punch-in-the-gut taste of this brand of absinthe before… but tonight I’m comitted. Even if I throw-up.
7:04: What does one eat with absinthe? Shit, I should’ve eaten before I started.
7:14: Still only about half-way through my first glass. Each sip gives me a serious body shudder like when a school-girl secretly swigs from her parents schnapps after school. I’m slowing down.
7:30: When I was a teenager I tried magic mushrooms for the first time with a few friends outside a dingy Howard Johnson. To mask the taste, we ate them with Gushers — you know, those kick-ass, plastic-filled, hexagon-shaped fruit snacks for kids? — yeah, absinthe requires Gushers.
7:34: Head rush is escalating. The air around me seems a bit easier to move inside of. I can detect a slight drunkenness on the horizon. My stomach is settling but I feel as though I could breath fire out of my nose — I admit, this is a strange side effect. I really should have eaten first. I am listening to some obscure vintage French-pop and it’s sounding pretty fucking great. I just stood up and was shocked to find my legs not quite ready for the task. I’ve never been hit so hard by one damn glass of booze.
7:43: I am trying to finish my first glass of absinthe by the 1-hour mark.
7:47: I did it. I am going to go walk my dog now.
8:00: I’m back. I passed: a small snail who looked up at me when I stopped over him and peered down and then he slowly retreated into his shell with a wiggle as if he was too fat for his home; a bird who seemed to enjoy hopping more than flying; and a garage full of teenagers that resembled a scene from a Polish gangster film (ie. baggy, old, crew-neck Nike sweatshirts, dubious hands in dubious pockets, uneven buzz-cuts, loitering cigarette smoke and cold, protracted stares). My dog didn’t notice any of these things. He shit twice. I only brought one bag. It wasn’t pretty.
8:06: Round two. Making my second glass of absinthe. It really is an exquisite process. The ice-water brings out all the anise and fennel oils in the absinthe. This liquid-cloudiness is referred to as the ‘louche’ effect. The slow-but-contant drops of water falling into the glass like chinese water torture for the absinthe. The drops of condensation forming on the outside of the fountain’s glass. The silver spoon shiny with sugary water. And the entire still-life, when observed as a collection of pieces all working together, reminds a man that he has never drank a drink as elaborate as this.
8:13: First sip of second glass. FML.
8:21: I find myself awkwardly dancing to the nostalgic French-pop as I make myself some food. My legs sort of stumble, shifting my weight from left foot to right foot as my arms puppet-dangle up and down as if I am conducting an orchestra. The realization that there is no conductor involved in the creation of French-pop music doesn’t phase me. I can see why Wes Anderson uses so much vintage Parisian music in his films.
8:30: Half-way through my second glass. This absinthe is incredibly potent. Each glass contains about a jigger of liqour (the rest being ice water) so I haven’t even consumed two shots of alcohol and I’m feeling pretty sauced.
8:42: My mother just walked in (I live with her while I’m not living abroad). She saw the absinthe fountain setup on the table and, having no idea what absinthe really is, asks:
“Oh, you’re smoking that thing?”
“It’s absinthe, mum. You don’t smoke it. You drink it.”
Five minutes later:
“So, does that stuff you’re drinking make you loopy?”
“Is it safe?”
“Does it taste good?”
“No, Not really.”
“Why are you drinking it then?”
“I am hoping it’s an acquired taste.”
“But you spent so much money on that thing (referring to the fountain, spoons, glass, etc…). Maybe we can use it for tea?”
“I don’t think it’s really meant to be used with tea, mum.”
9:01: Finishing my second glass. My stomach has completely settled but I still can’t get used to the taste. All the ice in the fountain has melted.
9:15: Debating a third glass.
9:16: Preparing my third glass.
9:29: I am considering writing an epic Wes Anderson biopic scored entirely with old French music. And every character will speak phonetic French and will dance ballet and be played by an ensemble cast of dogs. Wes Anderson will be played by a toffee-coloured Cocker Spaniel.
9:39: Deep into my third glass. It’s a strikingly clear-minded drunk. A drunk where ideas crash into one another like dominos (anarchy inside of harmony), where one’s eyes are opened wide as if with the aid of close-pins, where one’s arms seem filled with helium and float around the torso and one’s fingers seem to twitch on invisible piano keys. A drunk where every creative impulse seems practical and doable. A drunk that makes you feel like a fool, but a proud one. I think Oscar Wilde said that by the third glass of absinthe one finally see’s the world as it really is and that it’s the most horrible thing in the world. I don’t agree.
10:01: Humor me. Most of science fiction’s time machines are large contraptions with spinning wheels, levers, cogs and teeth, loud, clanging noises and decent looking leather pilot-chairs for the engineer. Even machines that have made their way into reality follow these basic, asinine principles. But what if a time machine was not an external device at all? What if time machines came in the form of an elixir? A green distillate with a daunting odor and a violent taste. A distillate that, in order to work properly must be prepared with an array of strange, scientific looking tools: a glass silo with intricate valves and elegant lines inside of which sits nature’s most base component, H2O; shimmering flattened, perforated utensils and very specifically designed vessels for the potion itself. All of this brought to climax with a phase transition of a carbohydrate composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
This is what absinthe is for me, I think. A way of connecting to an age that inspires and excites me. An age that is long dead, and so it saddens me as well. An age when poetry and green fairies shared the drunken air space. An age when strong booze wasn’t shot back like ripping off a bandage but instead it was restyled and enjoyed at a leisurely pace. An age when real men didn’t shudder when swallowing brutal spirits and real women drank more than cosmopolitans and lunch-time rosé. An age when mad thinkers made heroic pilgrimages for fabled concoctions and world-melting opiates. An age when it was about the process, not just the product. When watching drops in a glass could inspire Van Gogh’s starry post-impressionist masterpiece, Hemingway’s lost generation of lovers and fighters and fools, Wilde’s un-aging man-god and F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s Moët & Chandon-soaked American Dream. Oh boy, I am starting to sound like Midnight In Paris. Wait a minute…
10:13: I need to lie down for a bit.