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Spirits: In defense of absinthe

Media swarm the Picasso painting at Christie's. (Reuters)

This week, I read that Christie's announced it would auction Pablo Picasso's portrait known as "The Absinthe Drinker" for between $45 million and $60 million, the highest pre-auction estimate ever set for any artwork in Europe. It's a classic example of Picasso's Blue Period, depicting Angel Fernandez de Soto, an artist who "was more dedicated to drinking and partying than to art," according to the auctioneer. The painting has been the subject of controversy, with one family stepping forward in 2006 to say it had been stolen from them by the Nazis.

This was all very fascinating stuff. But honestly, all it made me think about was absinthe.

Remember absinthe? A few years ago, it seemed absinthe was all anyone in the drinks world was talking about. I wrote a column in 2007 that chronicled absinthe’s road to legality. Until then, the mythic “Green Fairy” had been considered a louche, dangerous, potentially hallucinogenic spirit that was banned in the States. Then suddenly, after almost a century, at a snap of the fingers, absinthe was no longer illegal.

As I said then, it basically boiled down to chemistry. According to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, U.S. law prohibits any spirit that contained over 10 parts per million of thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. Wormwood is the plant that makes absinthe absinthe -- with its tales of hallucination and belle epoque debauchery. But here’s the thing: Just about all absinthe has less than 10 parts per million of thujone and perhaps always did. The ban existed mainly because there had been no way to prove otherwise. Until 2007, that is, when modern technology was used to test absinthe to show it contained very little thujone.

Suddenly, absinthe was legal. “A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback,” declared The New York Times. By 2008, absinthe was very much in demand. At Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans that year, I went to a tasting of four absinthe brands at the newly opened Absinthe Museum of America. By now, there are more than a dozen brands to have come come on the market – most of which sell for over $50 a bottle -- including one called Mansinthe created by Marilyn Manson.

You knew what was coming.

Bartender Brendan Dorr prepares absinthe for a tasting at Ixia in Baltimore in 2008 after Kubler and other brands were approved for U.S. distribution. (William Wan -- The Washington Post)

Yes, as with just about every other pop culture fad, the backlash against absinthe was soon to follow. I chronicled this backlash in an essay for The Smart Set in 2009.

The New York Times’ Sunday Styles was the first to declare absinthe “uncool” in January 2009, calling it “falsely subversive” and likening it to such fleeting fads as cigar bars, soul patches, women’s lower-back tattoos, the band Interpol, and brushed nickel kitchen fixtures.

The San Francisco Chronicle food section was more blunt, calling absinthe “out” in its 2009 New Year’s predictions. Harsher still: “We liked it much better when it was illegal. Somehow the notion of being illicit overrides the flavor of NyQuil dripping down your throat.”

So when I read about Picasso’s absinthe drinker, I felt a little sad about poor absinthe. Perhaps its cultural moment was a little too brief.

I think part of the problem is the inevitable letdown of finally drinking something forbidden that you’ve waited so long to try. I’m sure if Cuban cigars become legal someday, cigar smokers might feel the same way about those, too.

But the other problem is that absinthe, with its bitter-licorice-anise-fennel flavor profile, is just not a taste many Americans enjoy. Besides, there’s no getting around how pricey absinthe is – at a time when high-priced spirits are not selling.

Still, I’d like to say a word in favor of absinthe. I’m not a huge fan of the spirit by itself, or in the preparation of dripping water over the sugar cube. But I think a dash of absinthe here and there makes certain cocktails sing. For a serious bar, keeping a bottle of absinthe is the same as having a bottle of maraschino or Cointreau or Chartreuse. Sure, they’re expensive, but you’re using so little at a time that the bottle lasts forever.

My favorites absinthes are Lucid, Kubler, Vieux Carre and, of course, Pernod, which dates to the original 19th-century absinthe craze in France.

I love a few dashes of absinthe in the classic Sazerac, as well as in a martini variation, the Fourth Degree. And one of my favorite cocktail discoveries of the past year has been the Phoebe Snow, a mix of cognac, Dubonnet, and absinthe. And, of course, in the Millionaire Cocktail.

That last one is aptly named. If you can afford to rinse a glass with absinthe, maybe you’re also in the market for a Picasso?

-- Jason Wilson
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  March 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, Spirits, absinthe  
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