An Authentic Absinthe Experience in Paris
I have always wanted to experience a proper Parisian absinthe tasting. It's been on my bucket list for a very long time.
I've always been greatly interested in the events, ideas and personalities that emerged (or converged) in Paris around the turn of the century. This era of history has always inspired me. Who wouldn't be inspired by the rampant alcoholism of Hemingway, Wilde, Joyce and Picasso?
It's hardly possible to talk about the science, art and culture that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries without a significant nod to the intellectualism, enlightenment and creativity that arose in Paris during this time, especially in the legendary salons, bars and cafes.
As an aspiring author and lover of literature and history, I wanted to retrace the footsteps of the literary greats, bohemian artists and philosophers who gathered in the cafes of Paris. I wanted to live a little of the history that I know and love.
If I'm honest, I was also more than a little curious about the supposed effects of absinthe and its active agent, thujone.
Thujone is believed to be related to THC in how it acts on cannabinoid receptors. I wanted to know if true absinthe would elicit the sort of creative response that so many writers and painters claimed as their muse.
I wanted to chase the Green Fairy.
Absinthe originates in late 18th century Switzerland and was initially marketed as an all-purpose medicinal elixir. In fact, recent studies have shown that many of the herbal ingredients in absinthe do indeed have painkilling and anti-parasitic properties.
Eventually, the drink came into fashion in Paris, among other European cities, and began to be used recreationally. It grew in popularity throughout the 19th century and came to be favoured by wealthy and poor patrons alike.
Absinthe rose to infamy during the early 20th century due to its reputation for causing hallucinations, seizures and even criminal or violent acts. This reputation was spurred on by the findings of several (highly questionable) medical studies as well as the (likely exaggerated) anecdotal accounts of the artists and authors who were absinthe proponents and perhaps enjoyed propagating the myth.
Another theory is that toxins added to the cheaper absinthes of the day, in order to artificially preserve, flavour and colour the alcohol, led to the physical reactions experienced by some. In either case, absinthe was made illegal throughout most of Europe and North America thanks to its reputation and as a result of conservative calls for prohibition.
After a long period of prohibition, absinthe gradually became legalized through the 1990s and many distilleries began producing authentic absinthes using 19th century recipes and techniques as well as imitation absinthes, which are essentially high proof grain alcohols that have been coloured and flavoured. A significant revival has taken place with absinthe experiencing a resurgence in popularity.
Absinthe has once again become a stylish and popular drink with old brands returning to the scene, illegal distilleries reemerging as legal enterprises, and new brewers experimenting with new techniques and flavours such as the cringe-worthily branded "Mansinthe" by Marilyn Manson.
With the legalization and popularity of absinthe, more studies have been done on the infamous spirit and these studies have found that neither modern nor vintage absinthes possess the concentrations of thujone or wormwood oil necessary to produce the hallucinogenic effects reported by the artists and medical community of the 19th century.
Despite having an inkling that the myths were, in fact, just myths, I still wanted to try it out. I still wanted to have the experience and live as a Hemingway wannabe for a night.
Also, I was in Paris. It was high summer. I was off work for six weeks. Even taken individually, those are each perfectly good reasons to go out for a late night and enjoy a drink of legend and notoriety. If that wasn't enough, we'd just spent the day exploring the haunts of famous artists, authors and socialist rebels and the Euro Cup was on. "Les Bleus" were doing very well and all of France was celebrating.
It was late when we finally made our way across Paris in search of our genuine absinthe bar. Our day had been a full one, but every step of the way seemed to lead us toward a late night of cocktails in a dimly lit cafe...