The occidental tourist

Lest we jaded post-moderners think we have a cultural monopoly on cringe-worthy marketing, it’s always worth taking a glance back at those tacky bastards who have come before. See below for an example of one such scheme inspired by the undignified willingness to lower standards for the sake of making more money. It may be tempting to think of this as a postcard from the edge (and the artwork is indeed beautifully surreal), but in fact it is a genuine article from the early 20th century which represents an entire category of “absinthe-like” products intended to mollify absinthe critics and consumers in equal measure. This particular venture failed to gain popularity, but the success of products such as anisette and various anise-flavored products in the 1910s and beyond is proof of the efficacy such willingness to compromise combined with a deluge of marketing can have.

The text at the top of this postcard translates to: “Chinese-Absinthe. Patent pending at the Faculté.” The text at the bottom translates to: “Chinoise-Absinthe. Replicate the advantages of absinthe but without the inconveniences.”

ABSINTHE CHINOISE – postcard

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Is absinthe gluten-free?

Gluten-free diet regimens have become very popular over the past few years. As with many dieting trends, this may end up being a short-lived fad, but as the partner of someone who maintains a strict gluten-free diet by medical necessity and not by choice, I can tell you that knowing the gluten content of consumables will remain crucial for many people for the rest of their lives.

So, when it comes to our favorite aperitif, is absinthe considered to be a sweet green fairy, or a mean green scourge for folks living with Celiac disease? Simply put, is absinthe gluten-free? In a word: YES! *

That asterisk is all too familiar to baseball fans perusing player stats, and is not the definitive answer someone living with Celiac disease will be hoping to read, but the good news is that traditional absinthe made according to the authentic recipe profiles will be perfectly fine. Those absinthes consist of a distilled neutral base alcohol containing a variety of herbs and other botanicals which have been macerated in it, none of which contain gluten, so gluten-sensitive folks may indeed be given the green light to enjoy absinthe.

But let’s back up for a moment. What exactly is gluten, and why should we care? Gluten is the catch-all name for the protein complexes, specifically, prolamins and glutelins, which are found in wheat, rye, and barley (with similar complexes being found in oats as well). These protein complexes are toxic to the digestive tract of many folks; it is estimated that 5% to 10% of the population (about 3 million people in the USA) has some sensitivity to gluten, but that 97% of those folks have not been diagnosed. For some, it amounts to a sensitivity to gluten which causes some mild discomfort after consumption, but for others who have Celiac disease, it can cause damage to the small intestine which gets progressively worse (and even life-threatening) over time.

As such, it’s important for these individuals to avoid consuming anything which contains these glutens. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, this means most beers are automatically taken off their menu (after all, it wasn’t considered “liquid bread” by the ancients for nothing). However, several gluten-free beer options have become available in recent years, as brewers have experimented with using such grains as rice and sorghum to replace the traditional barley and wheat.

The subject of distilled liquor (including absinthe) is a little bit more complex. All distilled liquors are considered by the ADA and Celiac.com to be safe for those with gluten intolerances, because the distillation process removes the gluten protein complexes from the finished liquor, rendering it gluten-free. This applies even to liquor made from gluten-laden grains such as wheat and rye.

However, not everyone agrees on that being 100% true, citing their own personal experiences with grain-based distilled alcohol (see the comments section in that same link). Whether those effects are psychosomatic or possibly the result of an imperfect distillation is difficult to say, but those who are sensitive to gluten on any level should use their own judgment when it comes to grain-based alcohols. (On a personal aside, my partner and I shared several glasses of wheat whiskey over the course of a few months, and she suffered no ill effects from it.) That being said, there is no concern at all with distilled absinthe which uses a wine/brandy/grape-based neutral alcohol instead of a grain-based alcohol, so if you’re being particularly cautious, choosing one of those absinthes is the way to go.

So how is it that absinthe or any grain-based alcohol could be gluten-free via distillation, only to then become contaminated with gluten after the distillation process? For one thing, the production of absinthe doesn’t end after distillation, with the exception of blanches (white absinthe). The coloring step which gives green absinthe its distinctive color occurs after distillation, and consists of soaking a variety of herbs in the distilled liquor. As long as that combination of herbs doesn’t contain any wheat, barley, rye and/or oats, then there is little cause for concern. However, if a distillery which produces absinthe also produces its own grain-based neutral alcohol (which is rarer than you might think), then they must exercise caution and make sure that the distilled liquor from a finished batch does not come into contact with the raw grain and/or the fermented mash derived from that grain, and that any shared equipment (from paddles used to stir batches, to muslin bags used to soak botanicals in the still) is thorougly cleaned in between uses. Lastly, when absinthe is prepared at home, you may use sweeteners such as sugar, simple syrup, and agave nectar without fear of gluten-contamination, but avoid using brown rice syrup, as many of these contain barley malt enzyme.

Please note that while liquors and liqueurs are considered to be safe for those with gluten intolerance, that does not apply to all liquor-centric products nor mixed drinks. In addition to beer, wine coolers and some ciders containing gluten via barley, some pre-made drink mixes (particularly Bloody Mary mixes) also may contain barley malt and/or hydrolyzed wheat protein. You can always ask your server or bartender about potential gluten-content of these products, but remember that not everyone knows or understands which ingredients contain gluten, so consider playing it safe by not ordering certain drinks when you are enjoying a night out.

Nightshade Apothecary Absinthe by Free Spirit

Sex and absinthe in the dream world

If dreams are truly a looking glass into one’s subconscious as some have suggested, then I suppose this post about one of mine will provide an eyeful for everyone. For those few readers who know me outside of this electronic ether we call the internet, neither the broad strokes nor the fine details of this narrative will come as a surprise, although I certainly hope everyone finds them to at least be entertaining.

As we all know, dream worlds are not bound by the same sense of logic and flow of chronological time as our waking world, so when I tell you that my sleeping vision began in the 1880s, or in the 1930s, or perhaps neither and both, I have to trust that you’ll understand my meaning.

On this night in the dream world, I found myself in the company of a very rich man, not unlike a certain Jay Gatsby in some respects. We were in his penthouse apartment, and he was showing me a sandstone Zapata figurine resting in a tabletop glass display case. Bear in mind that in my waking moments I have no more idea of what a “Zapata figurine” is than you do, but when he said that it had been fashioned in the 1920s by a Cuban resistance fighter who was famous for carving these figurines (although he himself had bought it while in New Zealand), I understood him perfectly. Oddly, the figurine (in the shape of a lion or chupacabra at rest) had the enactment and repeal dates of the U.S. Prohibition of alcohol carved into its base in very tiny characters. I made this observation to my wealthy friend, pointing out that the presence of these dates placed the date of creation to 1933 or after, and not in the 1920s as he had suggested. He seemed haughtily annoyed with me.

After this brief discussion of figural art there was a small gap of time, and then I became aware that there were four of us laying in a very large bed four-poster bed decked out with a gaudy red bedspread. The decor of the room suggested “turn-of-the-century” whorehouse, give or take a couple of decades, with dark wood paneling, splashes of red and an overabundance of lace present throughout.

The foursome included myself, my wealthy acquaintance, and two women who were completely naked. One of the women was the Rita Sue “stripper-mom” character from  the HBO series Carnivale (a show which, incidentally, featured an absinthe-swilling character named Professor Lodz). She was performing oral sex on the other woman, whose face I couldn’t place. My rich friend and I were both casually laying next to them and watching. The woman who was on the receiving end experienced an orgasm, and both women were quite contented with the ultimate conclusion.

Sometime after this escapade and another small gap of time, a pauper friend of the wealthy gentleman’s showed up. “Oh, he’s drinking that cheap stuff again,” whispered my companion. I looked in the corner of the room, and there was a glass jug with a capacity of at least 4 liters and featuring dark orange advertising letters which read The Olde Absinthe House. Apparently, this was a container full of their house brand of absinthe.

The glass jug was housed in a copper carrier not unlike a shallow basket or a baking pan with chain handles. The bottom of this carrier was about two inches high, and five or six thin copper chains connected to it and met at the top of the jug to form a handle for carrying. The low banded bottom had upside-down writing on it which read simply as: “copper.” Don’t blame me if dreams aren’t always laden with inscrutable metaphor.

The liquid inside was almost forest green in color. When I asked the pauper if I could have a taste of it before I went back to the future (suddenly becoming aware, at least to a small degree, of the fact that this was not my reality), he said yes. So I found a pint glass to pour a dose of the absinthe into, and a rocks glass of water to drip into the pint glass. As soon as I began pouring the into the pint glass, smoky fog like that from very cold condensation, or what you would see in a B-movie about a mad scientist, began roiling from the glass but soon dissipated.

When I began to louche the absinthe with the water, it started out as a thick, almost milky louche, with stormy clouds and thick tendrils swirling in the drink. The dose was able to take a lot of water, and the pint glass was 3/4 full before the louche was finished. I finally took a sip, and found the drink to be lemony, with very little anise and a heavy taste of medium-quality wormwood. At that moment, I understood why my rich companion said it was cheap stuff, and yet I was happy simply to have sampled it before having to return to my own world.

The taste of the absinthe lingered for some time in my mouth, but when I woke up, I realized that I hadn’t detected any aroma from it in my dream; I don’t know if that’s because there wasn’t much of a scent, or if my sense of smell is not active when I dream. I’ve been told that the fact that I dream in color (or at least that I remember the color) is somewhat rare, so I’ll be content simply with that.

[On a side note, Emiliano Zapata died in April of 1919, some six months before Prohibition took effect in the United States. As such, it would have been difficult for him to have accomplished many carvings in the 1920s, even if he had had an artistic bent. Also, in the waking world he was Mexican, not Cuban.]

While you consider possible interpretations of my dream and silently judge me, please enjoy an illustrated version of a poem by Paul Verlaine (a notorious absinthe drinker) called “Pensionnaires” (which translates to “Boarders” or “Residents”). Originally published in 1867 under a pseudonym, it is one of series of six poems in a cycle about Sapphic love called Les Amies, or The Girlfriends, and seems somewhat fitting for this post with regard to its ties to the world of absinthe and sexuality. Here is a (rough) translation of the text itself:

Residents

One was fifteen, the other sixteen;
Both slept in the same room.
It was an oppressive September night:
Frail, blue eyes, redness of strawberry.
Each one has left, to get comfortable,
Her fine shirt in fresh scent of amber.
The youngest extends her arms and arches,
And her sister, her hands on her breasts, kissed,
Then falls to her knees, then became fierce
And tumultuous and crazy, and her mouth
Dives under the golden blonde in the gray shades;
And the child during that time, identifies
Cute on her fingers waltzes promised
And pink, smiles with innocence.

Bonnard’s visual interpretation of Verlaine’s poem Pensionnaires, circa 1900

Three killer “B”s (Or, Belle Amie, Blues Cat, and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger)

As mentioned in a previous post, the latest absinthe from Delaware Phoenix (which is reportedly a one-off batch, and won’t be replicated) is called Blues Cat, and it was made available in limited quantities last month. I was fortunate enough to snag a bottle from the kind folks at Catskill Cellars (whom I unabashedly endorse for their prompt shipping, excellent service, and tasteful selection of absinthe), and before too long a sloshed stork made its way here to reluctantly leave it on my doorstep.

Upon its arrival, I first noted the aesthetic similarities between this expression and the other two mainstays of the D.P. line, namely the Walton Waters and Meadow of love. The same bell-like bottle shape was used, along with its own color-coded wax cork (gold, in the case of the Blues Cat). Likewise, as is the case with the all of the D.P. absinthes, Cheryl Lins uses clear glass bottles instead of those of green, brown, or amber. Clear glass is an uncommon choice in the world of absinthe because the liquor is photosensitive, and the famous green-hued tones of a verte can quickly turn dull and brown after prolonged exposure to light. I’ve seen color change noticeably after only one day, and that doesn’t even take into account how it may have changed while shelved at the distillery or vendor’s warehouse. While the flavor is not impacted in any perceptible way, many absintheurs relish keeping their naturally-colored green fairy as green as it can be (artificial coloring is the sign of an inferior absinthe), so most of the folks I know who enjoy the D.P. absinthes will immediately store theirs in a cabinet (as do I) or place it in a UV-blocking bag or carrier of some sort. That is, unless they’re color-blind; in which case, to hell with the color altogether.

Soon after its debut, folks on various online sites became sampling and assessing the Blues Cat, and I noticed that a number of people were using  the word “peridot” in reference to the color. This surprised me because, although mine shipped the same week it was bottled and first made available, and I quickly noted the color before putting it in the closet, there wasn’t any hint of olive-green to be found. Instead, the liquid was dark yellow with a slight brown tinge, or perhaps “autumn gold” if you’re prone to flights of fancy superlatives. I’ll confess that taking such flights is one of my personal idiosyncrasies (and not a weakness, you damn philistines!)

Ahem. In any case, absintheurs who frequent online forums tend to get tetchy if you criticize something that they like, and even more so if you impugn their manner of assessing it. While I was doing neither when I wondered aloud how a fair number of reviewers were seeing peridot when I was seeing yellow with almost no green to speak of, their responses highlighted a couple of issues which contributed to the discrepancy. The most significant of these was in defining the word “peridot,” which is one of the most overused color adjectives in the absinthe world. (No one wants to say “it’s green” in every review, and since “tourmaline” sounds more like a rejected Chuck Berry song title than a color, “peridot” became the new black, so to speak.)

Wiki sums peridot up as follows: “Peridot is one of the few gemstones that occur in only one color, an olive green. The intensity and tint of the green, however, depends on how much iron is contained in the crystal structure, so the color of individual peridot gems can vary from yellow- to olive- to brownish-green.” It sounds simple enough, especially for we Americans who live in a culture of hyphenates; in this case, start with green, put a relevant hyphenated modifier in front of it, and you’re done. However, while more than one person linked to various photos of peridot gemstones online, and while I’m an internet junkie to roughly the same debilitating degree as the rest of our distracted modern first-world society, one of the areas in which computers do not excel is in the accurate display of color (even less so now that CRT monitors have been relegated to the scrap heap in favor of LCD screens, which are thinner and lighter but also generally suck in comparison). If you want to see the accurate representation of a color, particularly one which takes its name from a gemstone, then I recommend getting yourself to a jewelry store (“I’m just looking”), an artist’s color wheel, or better yet, a Pantone color book; with the Pantone book, you not only have an extremely comprehensive and accurate display of too many different shades of colors to count at your fingertips, but you have it bound in an extremely thick and heavy tool of bludgeoning to use as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with you about any damn thing.

Ultimately, I realized I was spending far too much time splitting hairs with fellow drinkers, so I decided to just have some absinthe. Please note that this line of thinking is almost always the wisest course to follow.

As a lark, and because I had too many bottles jammed into my absinthe cabinet to easily reach the ones in the back, I performed a little visual experiment to kill off a couple of nearly empty bottles. It just so happened that I had one dose (about 1.25 ounces, an approximation due to some variance between the hand-blown glasses) of both Belle Amie and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger left, and having a vague recollection of the extreme color differential between those two vertes, I decided to go for the hat trick and pour a dose of Blues Cat in between them. The results are below. Please note my caveat above and don’t think for a second that the colors you see on your screen are accurate in comparison to viewing them in real life with your own eyes; not only do you have the monitor display issue to think about, but you also have to contend with the fact that I’m a terrible photographer. Seriously, I used a brownish fake-formica background for this shot like I was taking a picture for the 1978 Sears catalog with my Kodak Brownie; it’s like I was trying too hard to not try at all, after my initial try at trying. In my defense, alcohol may have been a factor.

Anyway, I got some natural light angled in through the window, and what you’re seeing actually isn’t far off from the truth of things as I saw it. The Belle Amie on the far left is what I would consider to be a nearly textbook accurate representation of peridot; someone else described Blues Cat as being a “pale yellow peridot,” which I wouldn’t argue with now that the color changed a little bit since I first received the bottle; and lastly, there’s the Giger on the far right, which calls to mind its phonetic twin and the measuring of radioactivity – not in a negative “ohmygod, I’m gonna die!” sort of way, but more along the lines of, “this is the solution to the energy needs of a future utopian society.” Just be sure not to louche it with Ice-nine.

Speaking of louches, you can see those in the bottom photograph below. There’s even a video of this little experiment if you’re interested, complete with me mumbling to myself. All of these absinthes were louched at a water:absinthe ratio of 4:1 (without any sugar added), with the level of the Blues Cat being higher due to variations of the hand-blown glasses being used. Despite the fact that none of these three looked remotely similar, I’m happy to report that they all tasted very good, which ultimately leads to my most important observation of all for the evening: properly made absinthe is delicious, regardless of the color.

Belle Amie (left), Blues Cat (center), Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger (right

Spring fever is near, and the Delaware Phoenix is here

Late autumn and late winter are generally wonderful times of the year to buy absinthe if you are having it shipped. Given the herbal nature of the liquor, it can be somewhat sensitive both to light and to temperature, but temperature is of more concern because exposing absinthe to an excessive amount of heat over a period of several days may adversely affect the flavor, whereas exposure to light for the same period would only dull the color into something of a feuille morte (French for “dead leaf”) color, most likely of russet or brownish-green. Given how rough and tumble delivery via shipping companies can sometimes be, it’s best to eliminate as many potentially negative variables as possible, so shoot for cooler weather when it is neither hot enough to hurt the flavor, nor cold enough to cause the liquor to form anethole solids, which can manifest as waxy little discs of white inside your absinthe. Incidentally, this is also why you never refrigerate absinthe. Aesthetics count for a lot when enjoying a glass of absinthe, and you don’t want any waxy floaties in your glass or that of a friend’s!

Seeing as how the absinthe choices within my own liquor cabinet were running a bit low, I ordered two bottles of what might be my favorite absinthes of all – the Walton Waters and Meadow of Love absinthe produced by Delaware Phoenix in upstate New York. In essence, Delaware Phoenix is a one-woman operation, and that woman is Cheryl Lins. She’s an exceptional distiller who offers two of the best absinthes currently on the market, and a little birdie whispered to me that there will likely be a third one beginning sometime this year. I can hardly wait to see and taste what new style she comes up with, and I suspect it will complete a hat trick of absinthes that will be just what the doctor (Pierre Ordinaire, or otherwise) ordered.

I’ll provide my reviews of these two absinthes in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a shot of the twins inside of their winter weather gear, which are handmade bottle bags crafted by a friend of the distiller. They’re quite homey, but it should be noted that they are not effective for blocking UV light. Since the absinthe is bottled in clear glass, you will want to store them (with or without the bags) in a dark and cool place, such as a cabinet.

Walton Waters and Meadow of Love in handmade bottle bags

Apsynthion through the ages

I’m listening to Haley Bonar’s mesmerizingly lovely song “Out of the Lake” and sipping on a sweet Australian merlot as I type. Despite this being an absinthe blog, I don’t want to give the impression that absinthe is the only alcohol I enjoy discovering and drinking. A person can develop a fine appreciation for one item in particular only by contrasting it with other items of like kind. That being said, I’ve never felt that I had the proper palette to understand and appreciate wine the way that some folks do. When I sip on a wine, I don’t taste things like Valencia oranges, old leather, spongy tobacco, or slightly burned Spanish moss. If I concentrate very hard, I can pick out some jammy or fruity flavors, but I was recently told that “grapes” don’t really count in that context, and I don’t have too much more to offer beyond that except for wishful thinking.

Liquors like scotch, whisky, and brandy/cognac are ones that I’m much better at appreciating, although it took some time developing a palette to reach that point, and I’m still a fledgling with respect to describing and/or reviewing them with anything resembling accuracy or usefulness to someone else. Absinthe, however, is the one liquor which I seemed to understand almost immediately. Even before I knew exactly what the herbs were that I was tasting, I could differentiate between them, and trace one or two of them in other absinthes as well. While I can’t quite lay claim to being an “absinthe whisperer,” I do feel like there should be a movie made about my journey of walking and talking with absinthe as we nuzzle each other and try to reconcile less understanding folk to their own absinthes. Yes, healing relationships and building a better world; is there anything absinthe can’t do?

Also, I could afford to buy much more absinthe when the royalties checks started rolling in.

And now for something completely different: here’s a wonderful illustration from the oldest known work of botany (and pharmacology) in the world, the “Vienna Dioscorides.” The text is actually a Latin translation of information compiled by a Greek doctor named Pedanius Dioscorides around 70 A.D. Although his original text has presumably been lost, it lived on in various translations, and a Byzantine artist included illustrations in a version printed in 512 A.D. specifically for Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. It is thought that these illustrations were heavily influenced and/or based on similar drawings produced in the Rhizotomicon of Crateuas of Pergamon, which dates back to the 1st century B.C. In all seriousness, how brilliant would it be to produce something so amazing that people were ripping it off 600 years later? While there’s still a chance that musicians will be sampling James Brown grunts and exclamations in the 25th century, I wouldn’t lay money on it.

Below, please enjoy the most ancient illustration of Apsynthion bathyprikon (a.k.a., Artemesia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood) in existence, preferably while listening to beautiful music and enjoying a glass of something equally timeless.

 Apsynthion Bathyprikon

Apsynthion Bathyprikon

Anise by any other name

A taste of absinthe would go a long way right now. Alas, I’m away from home for a couple of days, and while my gracious hosts have provided me with some tasty stew and crusty garlic bread for dinner, they don’t share my affinity for the green fairy. As a point of fact, I have very few friends or acquaintances who enjoy absinthe at all, a reality which seems all the more strange  to me given how wildly popular absinthe was 100 years ago. Even given humankind’s fickle nature, and the cyclical nature of which types of liquors and liqueurs are popular in any given generation, absinthe has fallen so far that it’s barely on anyone’s radar as anything more than a novelty (and a foul-tasting one at that, if they have been conned into thinking those “strong thujone” fake absinthes are the real thing).

I sometimes think that folks who enjoy Indian food, and particularly a spoonful of mukhwas afterward, are missing out on a great beverage opportunity. Mukhwas is that mixture of anise and fennel seeds, usually coated with sugar or containing some sort of candy-coated bits and perhaps some sesame seeds, which is often offered in a small bowl as you are exiting an Indian restaurant. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure if I liked this exotic and strange substitute for after-dinner mints the first time or two I tried it, but I soon acquired a taste for the pleasantly peppermint-meets-fennel concoction, which is remarkably similar to my learning curve for appreciating absinthe. And just as with absinthe itself, mukhwas is considered to be an aid to digestion and have some health benefits when taken in moderation.

A glass of absinthe, some chicken tikka masala, a cup of milky chai with cardamom, and a spoonful of mukhwas to finish… somebody with culinary skills greater than mine needs to make this happen, and then give me a reservation for two at least once a week. I tip very well!

A Czech bohemian in Paris

Viktor Oliva (1861-1928)  is one of the very few artists (or indeed, individuals) who can lay claim to being Bohemian by birth, in that he was actually born in Nové Strašecí, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary. Take that, 21st century hipsters.

Having traveled to Paris in 1888 to become part of the art movement and “Bohemian Parisian” community there, Oliva doubled down on his credibility as a true Bohemian artist, and then, while developing a passion for hot air ballooning, of all things, he pulled off a hat trick by painting Absinthe Drinker, a beautiful work of hallucinogenic beauty that undoubtedly fueled the myth that absinthe was a magical elixir that granted superhuman powers of artistic skill. I challenge anyone reading this post to down a couple glasses of absinthe and paint anything half as intriguing as this timeless work of art. If you do indeed manage to pull it off, by all means, please contact me immediately.

Adding to Oliva’s reputation is that fact that he had a favorite place in which to drink (Café Slavia), in which he had a number of works displayed. His Absinthe Drinker still hangs inside of that cafe to this day, and I cannot possibly express how much I love that fact. At present, there is no word on whether or not the ghostly green figure ever makes an appearance, but I hope to visit this undoubtedly fine establishment someday myself to find out for certain.