Absinthe is an acquired taste.
It’s potent, too. A little of the highly alcoholic, anise-flavored elixir goes a long way. In fact, it’s intended to be watered down.
Maybe that’s why you don’t see many drinkers enjoying the verdant spirit in the Inland Northwest – at least not the customary way: slowly dripping iced, still water over a sugar cube perched atop a specially designed spoon straddling the mouth of a glass of the Green Fairy.
Many local bartenders have been using the licorice-tasting liquor, nicknamed for its characteristic color, as an ingredient in craft cocktails. A dash is used in the classic Corpse Reviver No. 2. An absinthe rinse is used to make a Sazerac.
But there aren’t many establishments in these parts that offer absinthe service with a slotted spoon and sugar cube, let alone an absinthe fountain, an accoutrement that Garageland keeps on its bar.
The new downtown Spokane venue offers nine kinds of absinthe at $9 to $18 per glass. They’ve been on the menu since mid-November, and owner JJ Wandler is hoping the traditional preparation of the spirit catches on in Spokane.
When the U.S. lifted its ban on absinthe in 2007, Wandler, who was then preparing to open a French bistro and lounge in Seattle, rushed to try it. “It’s strong stuff,” he said.
“It’s like a weird, savage juice,” said Garageland bartender Kevin Randall, a self-described “huge” absinthe fan. “I like the mythology behind it.”
So does Wandler. He was an English major, drawn to both the ritual and the romance of the long-banned beverage.
In mid- to late 19th-century Paris, absinthe was a favorite spirit of writers, artists and bohemians, including Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Some hailed the Green Fairy as a muse. Others blamed it for their ruin.
“Absinthe had the reputation that it had psychedelic properties and it drove men mad,” said Wandler. “If you drink something that is 68 percent alcohol, you’re going to act like a mad person before you pass out.”
Now we know that madness was likely caused by overindulgence and so-called “absinthism” was probably alcoholism. But, more than a century ago, absinthe and thujone, the active chemical compound in the spirit’s famed ingredient wormwood, were blamed for causing all kinds of problems – from hallucinations, convulsions and tremors to madness, psychosis, even murder.
That reputation and the rise of the temperance movement led to absinthe’s ban. By 1915, the spirit was illegal in the U.S., France, Switzerland (where it originated) and most of the rest of Europe.
Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the use of wormwood to flavor food, but the finished product must be free of thujone, believed to be a neurotoxin. And in 2008, German scientists who measured thujone levels in more than a dozen pre-ban bottles found them no higher than those in today’s versions of the Green Fairy.
When writers, artists and bohemians ordered absinthe in Paris bars and brasseries at the turn of the 20th century, they received two glasses: one of the jade-colored liquor and another of water, which they used to dilute the herbaceous alcohol as they wished. At Garageland, bartenders dilute the beverage for you.
Absinthe isn’t meant to be enjoyed neat. Because of its strength – in alcohol and, one could argue, flavor – preparation is generally 1 part absinthe to 3 to 5 parts water. Garageland goes with 5 parts, diluting the spirit so a serving is about 12 percent alcohol.
Ernest Hemingway mixed his with Champagne. The instructions for his 1935 recipe for Death in the Afternoon, which shares the same name as one of his novels, are: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
That milkiness is the result of la louche, the process of diluting the drink. As the water trickles down, it transforms the translucent liquid into a paler, pearly shade.
At Garageland, that’s done at the bar, not table side. But, Wandler said, “Anyone is welcome to watch their drink being made. It’s part of the ceremony.”
Randall prefers the Marteau, which is 68 percent alcohol, made in Washington, and sells at Garageland for $12 per glass. He described the flavor as “smooth” and “classic,” and said, “I’m a classic guy.”
Mata Hari – 60 percent alcohol, made in Austria – offers a spicy, cinnamony undertone and also sells for $12.
The almost fluorescent color of Absente reminds Wandler of antifreeze. At 55 percent, it has the lowest alcohol content of any absinthe on the menu at Garageland, and, at $9 per glass, it’s the least expensive. Wandler recommends it for those who want a bold, “not delicate” licorice flavor.
Each is for sipping. Slowly. Even, maybe especially, on half-price absinthe night, otherwise known as Monday.