Fri, Jan 07, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Absinthe brings out inner artist

Taipei venues serve the legendary drink though other major cities have stopped the flow of the green liquid

By Susan Kendzulak  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Absinthe is served, at Chocolate and Love.

PHOTO: SUSAN KENDZULAK, TAIPEI TIMES

Picasso drank it. Van Gogh cut off his ear in an absinthe-induced stupor. Under its influence Verlaine shot Rimbaud. Absinthe, the legendary inspiring drink, also known as the "green fairy," "the green goddess," or "la fei verte," is a licorice and anise-flavored, green herbal liqueur made from wormwood, fennel, hyssop, coriander, mint, lemon balm, angelica, juniper and nutmeg -- and is 70 percent alcohol.

Banned at the beginning of the 20th century in the West, absinthe is making a major comeback. Celebs such as Johnny Depp, Eminem and Marilyn Manson praise it. In spite of its growing popularity, you will not be able to order it in New York or Toronto as it is still banned there, but you can now enjoy it in Taipei. Chocolate and Love (C&L) is one of the few importers of absinthe to Asia and the liqueur will soon be served in Taichung and Kaohsiung. C&L's Barry Smit prefers the Spanish brand Teichenne for its high quality and good taste.

Absinthe is traditionally prepared by caramelizing a sugar cube on a slotted spoon. The sugar is melted into the drink, which is then diluted by water. Its potent power comes from the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), in particular the toxic oil thujone.

It was long believed that thujone caused hallucinations and drove drinkers to madness. But thujone is not a controlled substance, though in the US, absinthe falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Although thujone is somewhat structurally similar to THC, it reacts quite differently and is a common element found in many herbs such as tansy and sage, which are in vermouth and chartreuse. However, taking a sip of wormwood extract alone or its essential oil will cause seizures and death.

Absinthe was an incredibly popular drink during the 19th century in Europe; Zola, Manet, Baudelaire, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Oscar Wilde, and later Hemingway and the Beat writers were avid absinthe drinkers. This makes one wonder about the course of modern art: would cubism and stream-of-consciousness writing have developed without the liqueur's inspiring intoxication?

At NT$380 a glass, it's a small investment to get you in touch with your inner artist. Is there an absinthe trend? Smit said, "It is an artistic drink. People who know it come in for the absinthe. Taiwanese haven't had pastis before and like it when they try it. Burning the sugar also burns the alcohol off leaving a tasty drink."

BTW (formerly Saloon) recently hosted a post-exhibition soiree for artist Michael Lin (林明弘) where absinthe was copiously served to the trendy art crowd. Taipei MOMA director Joanne Huang enjoyed sipping it as she said, "It is more interesting than other drinks because of its vivid history. Creative people, not only artists, but writers and thinkers use it for inspiration and for interaction with others in the field."

In popular memory, absinthe was perceived as a psychoactive drug and demonized as the bane of all social ills. However, the hysteria regarding the drink was fueled by France's temperance and religious movements that sought to subdue alcohol consumption, and was aided by local wine producers whose livelihood was threatened by this best-selling drink. Since absinthe was fashionable in bohemian quarters, absinthe protestors found it easy to create a reefer-madness-type scare.

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