Tuesday, February 22, 2011


MERDE! This is not good. Sipping Absinthe, reading Sartre and Camus while Satie plays in the background. Merde! Are there no sugar cubes in Jackson Heights? This is not good, don't they know that I must pay homage to La Fee Verte. Alas! Even the Thugge had their sugar cubes consecrated to Kali but they knew nothing of the Green Fairy.
Finally! Scored some cubes of sugar, this is good. Absinthe glass - check! Perforated spoon - check! Sugar cube - check! Pour Absinthe over sugar cube into glass, ignite sugar cube - flambé. Douse sugar with very cold water, the louche effect. The snake bites its tail - Alchemy! Sip. This is good, this is very good.

 When Margie  and I took one of our first vacations together in 1988 we found ourselves in New Orleans where we searched for an Absinthe bar. We sampled their offering but it was disappointing merely green colored anisette. We first learned about Absinthe while watching Madame X with Lana Turner, the story of a homeless woman who drowns her despair in Absinthe.

Twelve years later Margie, Maggie (Muggs) and me were vacationing in Spain. We took a fantastic road trip from Barcelona to Galicia and back. An unforgettable journey. We heard that you could get real Absinthe in Spain since it was never banned there. On our last night in Spain we headed for an Absinthe bar that we had heard about, but it was in a seedy part of town. Foutre! I remember walking down a dark street populated with characters you wouldn't want to meet in day light much less after night fall. Two tourist were walking ahead of us and decided to turn back - too risky. I suggested we do the same but Margie, trooper that she is, said let's keep on going. Finally we found ourselves standing in front of the bar from hell, a dive that was dark and foreboding. The exterior was designed in a way that you could not discern a door to enter through; there were no knobs or handles to grasp. Finally Margie pushed on the flat surface and a door did indeed swing open. (How she figured that out I'll never know). The bar was dark and musky: cigarettes and booze, but the atmosphere was lively. Mostly young Americans eager for a taste of the magic elixir.We ordered Absinthe and I bought a pack of Camels. Margie, Muggs and me waxed poetically about the beauty of Spain. We talked about Santiago de Compostela, Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and Monserrat. Were we drinking the real Absinthe? I was never quite sure it was  the real deal, but it really didn't matter as I was with the best of friends.

My mind never wandered back to Absinthe in the years following our trip to Barcelona. Then in 2001 a friend gave me a copy of Alan Moore and Eddy Campbell's FROM HELL. Months  later the feature film of the same name was released starring Johnny Depp as  Inspector Abberline, an opium and Absinthe addicted Inspector with  the Yard hot on the trail of the Ripper.  In one particular scene he draws a bath and settles back to drink a laudanum laced Absinthe complete with flambé

Although it originated in Switzerland, Absinthe usually conjours up images of Fin de Siecle Paris populated by bohemians, artists and poets both bourgeois and vagabound alike. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Degas, Wilde and Zola. Baudelaire, Modigliani, Hemingway, Poe and the dubious Mr. Crowley - Absinthe drinkers all; devotees of La Fee Verte which I have dubbed the Green Dragon (not to be confused with chasing the dragon.) 

Absinthe is a true spirit of high proofage (110 to 140). The basic ingredients are wormwood, anise, fennell and alcohol.  Absinthe is like Sambuca on steroids with a green hue. The active agent in wormwood is thujone which comes "alive" when combined with the alcohol. It is the thujone that was considered to be harmful causing seizures, convulsions and hallucinations. Much of the dangers associated with Absinthe were really over exaggerated. Absinthe is really no worse than any other spirit taken in moderation. During the First World War it was issued as a panacea for a plethora of ailments. Soldiers returning home to France had developed a real taste for Absinthe which, by that time, had been universally banned in most countries. In 2007 the ban was lifted and you can now purchase real Absinthe with wormwood in the United States for the first time  since 1914.

Absinthe was never banned in Spain and the Czech Republic where it could be purchased openly. More paeans, poems and paintings have been devoted to Absinthe than any other beverage on the face of the Earth. It would seem to be a fitting beverage for The Green Hornet or the Green Lantern yet, somehow, the creators of those two superheros missed a cool opportunity. Perhaps they didn't want to corrupt young readers. Never has the road to perdition been more beautifully paved.

Glass of Absinthe with traditional spoon

Beautifully ornate Absinthe Spoon

Picasso's Woman Drinking Absinthe

Vintage Absinthe label

It's not possible for me to do justice to the history of Absinthe in so small a space. I highly recommend Barnaby Conrad's Absinthe: History In A Bottle a wonderful read about a legendary spirit.

The title of this little essay is borrowed from the Deluxe Edition DVD of the Hughes Brothers' film version of From Hell, which contains a featurette under the same title.

Gone now is Erik Satie
I'm now listening to Walking in Space [Abridged] from HAIR: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical:

Doors locked (doors locked)
Blinds pulled (blinds pulled)
Lights low (lights low)
Flames high (flames high)

All the clouds are cumuloft
Walking in space
Oh my God your skin is soft
I love your face

How dare they try to end this beauty?
How dare they try to end this beauty?

In this dive
We rediscover sensation
In this dive
We rediscover sensation

Walking in space
We find the purpose of peace
The beauty of life
You can no longer hide

Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Wide wide wide!

Have Pen, Will Write
Scribo Ergo Sum

Clifford Jake Jacobs

Drink Responsibly



sandy campbell said...

After our discussion and after reading your blog, the thought remains - must one have a highly discriminating palate in order to know the difference between Absinthe or green Anisette if one is not accustomed to the taste of the spirits? Anyway, just reading your blog and listening to the music of Keith Jarrett, put me into worlds of memories and fantasies of things yet to do. I love it!

Velvet Shoes

Let us walk in the white snow
In a soundless space;
With footsteps quiet and slow,
At a tranquil pace,
Under veils of white lace.

I shall go shod in silk,
And you in wool,
White as white cow's milk,
More beautiful
Than the breast of a gull.

We shall walk through the still town
In a windless peace;
We shall step upon white down,
Upon silver fleece,
Upon softer than these.

We shall walk in velvet shoes:
Wherever we go
Silence will fall like dews
On white silence below.
We shall walk in the snow.

Elinor Wylie

Clifford Jacobs (Jake) said...

One sip of real Absinthe and you will know the difference. Absinthe without wormwood is really not Absinthe. Also, the proof of real Absinthe tends to be very high:110% - 140%. While sipping the real deal you become acutely aware of why this spirit was banned by so many countries. If palates didn't discriminate there would be no way of discerning the sublime and the mundane.

Clifford Jacobs (Jake) said...

Sorry, that last line should read "If palates didn't discriminate there would be no way of discerning the sublime from the mundane."