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April 7, 2011

Absinthe aficionado Cliff Long answers all your dumb questions about the notorious spirit

The Wharf Rat in Fell's Point is organizing an absinthe night tonight revolving around Lucid Absinthe, a brand that bills itself as the first genuine wormwood absinthe available in the United States.

Though absinthe was banned in the country for decades, it's been widely available since 2007, so that absinthe happy hours and promotional events are commonplace. The Kitty Kat Bar used to serve it. And the Wharf Rat itself hosts absinthe nights the first Thursday of the month.

But besides there, where is it available in Baltimore? And why was it banned for so many years?

Absinthe aficionado Cliff Long, who's hosting the event tonight, answered those and some other questions.

Popular culture has it that absinthe induces Kylie Minogue hallucinations, and Four Loko-esque reactions. Is any of that true? Well,  I suppose if you have Kylie Minogue stuck somewhere in back of your brain, she might show up as a hallucination, but I think any good, decent shot of scotch could do that too.  As for Four Loko-esque reactions, I would say absolutely not.  The ingredients are completely different.  I am told that Four Loko has caffeine and a  mix of other stimulants.  Absinthe has grand wormwood, which is a very different product.

What does it taste like then? Properly mixed, absinthe should have a very pleasant, slightly sweet, herbal flavor.  If a more encompassing physical image would help, many people compare it to what you might smell or feel lying about in a spring meadow.

What's the worst that can happen from drinking too much absinthe?  The same thing that would happen if you drank too much of any spirit.  You'll wish you hadn't, in the morning.

When did you start drinking it? And why is there such mystique around it? I experienced my first real absinthe when it became available in this country a couple of years ago.  It was not easy to find, and at that time only one or two brands could be had.  One of them is the absinthe marketed under the name "Lucid," which is the French brand that overturned the US ban on the spirit.  As far as the mystique, first, even though it has been around since the end of the 18th century (about 1790), the liquor gained it greatest popularity during the period known as the Gay 90's in Europe toward the end of the 19th century.   The ingredient known as grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), a herbaceous, perennial plant native to Eurasia and North Africa was reputed to have hallucinogenic or psychoactive properties (later disproved), and became a favorite of many late Victorian or early Edwardian writers, artists, musicians, and literatti of all persuasions (Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse Lautrec, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  I suppose you could say that the drink's alleged "magical" properties plus the fact that it was enjoyed by so many legendary characters have greatly contributed to the green spirit's mystique.

Why was absinthe banned for so many years? A small but remarkably aggressive temperance movement backed by sufficient political muscle in the early 20th century was the cause of absinthe's banishment.  It was even outlawed for a time in Europe.  The rational was that the liquor if drunk in sufficient quantities could make the imbiber go mad, and go on rampages of destruction and murder.  Much of this unsubstantiated crusade was based on a single episode in France, where a French farmer allegedly murdered his wife and child after indulging in absinthe.  What was not mentioned in the subsequent legal hearings was that the accused was already a known alcoholic who had drunk no less than twenty two separate drinks of varying spirits since early that morning.  It was absinthe's bad luck that it was the last beverage he drank before killing his family.  There really was no direct connection that it was the absinthe that caused the tragedy, but it was the "Green Fairy" who took the rap.

How is it made? Absinthe is a distillate produced like any other spirit, often in a copper still.  There are a number of botanicals added during the process similar to the procedure used to make a good gin.  The exact mix is usually a carefully and jealously guarded secret, but in order for an absinthe to be a real absinthe it must contain genuine wormwood.  There is no way around that.

What's all this about Lucid being an authentic absinthe? What are the inauthentic kinds? As I mentioned earlier, Lucid is the brand that overturned the US ban on absinthe just a few years ago.  Lucid is rightfully considered authentic because it contains grand wormwood, the real stuff, and is completely natural.  There are no artificial ingredients or colorings which are found in some of the other brands available in this country.  An "inauthentic" or perhaps the better word would be "faux" or false absinthe might be one that although marketed as an absinthe-like drink, does not contain any grand wormwood. 

Who sells absinthe by the bottle in Baltimore? Absinthe is making its way to many of the larger liquor distributors around the country.  I would imagine that if your local liquor shop does not already have one or two brands, it could be special ordered for you.

Are there any bars in Baltimore that serve worthwhile absinthe cocktails? This I'm sorry to say I can't tell you.  To the best of my knowledge not too many bars as yet feature the spirit because they may not know it is available.  They may also not know how the spirit was prepared in its heyday over a hundred years ago.

What's your favorite absinthe cocktail and how is it made? Although current absinthe distributors are also providing more modern recipes that combine absinthe with many popular mixers, my favorite method is the old Belle Epoque method that mixes a measure of absinthe with sugar and water in its own special glass (these glasses can also be seen on the Virtual Absinthe Museum website).  It's a slow, methodical ritual and was obviously developed at a time when folks took time to live in the moment and savor friendships.  An extra added element of fun are the number of accessories that can be utilized to mix a classic absinthe.  These can include absinthe spoons, ballanciers, broulliers, and absinthe fountains.  At the Wharf Rat we have the ability to mix the drinks with any of the above mentioned accoutrements

Have more questions? Ask below. The Wharf Rat is at 801 S. Ann Street. The absinthe night starts at 8 p.m. tonight.

Incidentally, starting at 5:30 p.m. today, Kooper's Tavern is hosting a tasting of Maryland vodka Sloop Betty. Distillers Christopher and Jon Cook will be present.


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Posted by Erik Maza at 1:03 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Bars & Clubs
        

Comments

Absinthe is actually very bitter. That's why you see people pouring water over a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon. Dionysus had (not sure if they still do) an antique absinthe fountain at the bar a few years back.

Bartenders has been featuring Sloop Betty on Wednesday nights for the last couple weeks. Last week they had free samples of a drink featuring the vodka (I think they do each Wednesday this month)

Lying in a meadow? I've had absinthe a few times (some of it even from Europe), and it always tasted like a mouthful of black licorice to me.

It tastes kinda like Jagermeister but stronger.

I'm not sure what the proof is on Lucid, but some absinths are like 100 proof.

So this guy is an afficiando, after only having the stuff (for the first time a couple years ago, 2007 is when the ban was lifted)? I don't consider myself an afficiando and I have been drinking French, Swiss and Czech absinthe for over a decade.

"Are there any bars in Baltimore that serve worthwhile absinthe cocktails? This I'm sorry to say I can't tell you. To the best of my knowledge not too many bars as yet feature the spirit because they may not know it is available. They may also not know how the spirit was prepared in its heyday over a hundred years ago."

Really? Most bartenders jumped on it when the ban was lifted. I know several bar owners who said it just didn't sell well because people thought it would cause hallucinations (and were either scared or disappointed when it didn't). It was a huge cocktail trend 2 yrs ago across the country. Mezcal currently being the latest trend.

Absinthe can be difficult to balance cocktails with. The predominant taste is anise(the licorice taste Sam referred to) with some herbal undertones. The spring meadow comment leads me to believe the bartender is just really masking the flavor of the absinthe.

So this guy is an afficiando, after only having the stuff (for the first time a couple years ago, 2007 is when the ban was lifted)? I don't consider myself an afficiando and I have been drinking French, Swiss and Czech absinthe for over a decade.

"Are there any bars in Baltimore that serve worthwhile absinthe cocktails? This I'm sorry to say I can't tell you. To the best of my knowledge not too many bars as yet feature the spirit because they may not know it is available. They may also not know how the spirit was prepared in its heyday over a hundred years ago."

Really? Most bartenders jumped on it when the ban was lifted. I know several bar owners who said it just didn't sell well because people thought it would cause hallucinations (and were either scared or disappointed when it didn't). It was a huge cocktail trend 2 yrs ago across the country. Mezcal currently being the latest trend.

Absinthe can be difficult to balance cocktails with. The predominant taste is anise(the licorice taste Sam referred to) with some herbal undertones. The spring meadow comment leads me to believe the bartender is just really masking the flavor of the absinthe.

Greenfairy - sounds like you know your liqours. you've sparked my interest with the mezcal..sounds like a form of tequilla?

where does one find a mezcal cocktail?

Mezcal or Mescal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant. It is traditionally consumed straight. It has a very smokey flavor which can make it difficult to use in cocktails.

Bartenders in the west coast have been playing with it in cocktails for a couple of years. The best place on the east coast to try them would be Mayahuel in NYC.

If I were fooling around with mixing it, I would probably use ingredients such as agave nectzar, honey, ginger, pineapple, etc... Now you have me thinking about a new project

Forget the Mezcal, I want a milk bar serving synthemesc.

Nice Clockwork Orange reference. There used to be a bar in the East Village, NYC called Korova Milk Bar. Very trippy interior. They did serve milk based cocktails named after dead celebs. Unfortunately they didn't use the same ingredients from the movie, but by the looks of the crowds you may have been able to obtain some of them.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at erik.maza@baltsun.com. Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.
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