Downing mouthwash and gasoline: an amateur's guide to the green fairy of Bohemia
It killed Baudelaire, Verlaine, and van Gogh.
Manet, Musset and Maupassant were weak to its call.
Hemingway, Wilde, and Picasso were all too fond of the drink's feel.
Absinthe, nicknamed the "Green Fairy," played an important role in the lives of these artists.
For those who head to Europe in hopes of testing the liquid muse of the art world, one needs look no further than Prague where 130-proof absinthe is about as common as a pint of Pilsner.
Absinthe's history dates back to ancient times. Hippocrates recommended absinthe for jaundice and rheumatism, while it was used during the Middle Ages to cure flatulence.
Since World War I, however, the sale of absinthe has been strictly prohibited in many Western European countries due to its extreme potency. Yet, the Czech Republic is far too fond of this drink to do such a horrible thing, parking bottles of absinthe behind the bar among the vodkas and gins.
I arrived in Prague with mixed emotions about trying absinthe for the first time. I was a bit nervous about my introduction to the "green poison," as my friend Brian called it. "It tastes and feels like a mixture of bad mouthwash and gasoline, but it's totally worth it," he said. An odd mixture of apprehension and exhilaration stirred in me when I heard this.
After finding two friends who were also looking forward to downing their fair share of absinthe while abroad, we ventured out in search of our first encounter with the Green Fairy to see what the hype was all about.
Our first stop was situated just around the corner from our new home at one of Vinohrady’s neighborhood bars, Bar B52. The bartender quickly served us all a round of the traditional shots the bar is named for.
Watching in awe as he poured Baileys, Kahlúa, and then carefully topped it off with absinthe, I geared up for my first taste. With its perfectly separated parts, the shot looked less daunting than I had expected.
Fully prepared to throw it back, I reached for my shot but was quickly denied as the bartender set all the shots alight in quick succession. Confused as to how I was supposed to take a shot that was engulfed in flames, he stuck his straw into the drink and sucked it up in one quick motion.
All the confidence that I had previously built up was quickly destroyed as I stared in horror at my fiery shot. We all turned to each other with looks of excited uncertainty.
After a couple of deep breaths, I gathered up some will power and shouted, "Here's to getting the semester started off right," stuck my straw in the glass and sucked the liquid inferno into my mouth.
Our twisted faces of pain made the bartender laugh out loud as we all struggled through our first B52. While the taste was nothing to be admired I could feel a fondness for the aperitif growing inside me.
Continuing on my quest to try the many varieties of absinthe in Prague, I next found myself in Prague's Holešovice neighborhood, at Cross Club.
Leaving behind an industrial wasteland, we entered through a heavy steel door into what looked like a movie set from The Matrix.
The club is made up of remnants from a junkyard, with metal pipes and engine parts arranged to make large oversized booths outfitted with spinning red-and-green light fixtures arranged in psychedelic patterns.
We made our way to the bar and ordered from the petite blonde bartender, covered in tattoos of Japanese flowers and skulls.
"Ne mluvim cesky. Mluvite anglitscky?" I asked in horribly botched Czech.
"Yes...," she answered hesitantly.
"Can we have three shots of your favorite absinthe, please?" I said slowly.
She brought three tall shot glasses filled with a Listerine-colored liquid, and set matches and sugar cubes off to the side for us to begin lighting up our own shots for the first time.
Some Czech friends of ours previously taught us traditional Bohemian absinthe etiquette, in order to avoid mishaps and embarrassment at the bar.
The ceremony begins by suspending a slotted spoon and an absinthe-soaked sugar cube over the glass. Alcohol fumes feed the blaze, the sugar bubbles away, and caramelized bits fall into the absinthe below.
The drinker then drops what's left of the flaming cube into the glass, blows out the fire and tosses the hot drink down.
Because Cross Club didn't seem to be the best place for traditional Bohemian methods, we made do with what we were given and improvised. Dropping the sugar cubes in our glasses, we lit up our shots, gave a quick "cheers" to Prague and downed our fiery fairies.
Having had a bit too much at Cross Club, the following night we ventured to a nearby wine bar to witness absinthe's effects in a more subdued environment.
With its name crawled in elegant cursive over the arched doorway, the U Sudu wine bar beckoned us in from the evening chill and downstairs into an underground cavern of romance and wine.
We found a cozy corner booth and settled in for an easygoing evening over some absinthe.
Our young waiter brought us highball glasses containing a clear, slightly green-tinted absinthe, along with all the paraphernalia: a bottle of water, paper-wrapped lumps of sugar and absinthe spoons. The classic version we had heard so much about had finally arrived.
We drank to our health and sat chatting about our sentiments toward absinthe and Prague alike.
Having overheard our conversation, a middle-aged American man who had been sitting at the table next to us drinking red wine, interjected in our debate on whether water was always a part of the traditional absinthe shot.
"You know there are other alternatives to water," he said casually as if he had been chatting with us the entire time.
David Glover, an expat working abroad for a commercial real estate company, had spent the last two years living and working in Prague. A worldly traveler of sorts, he shared details of his absinthe adventures throughout Spain, and educated us on some of the unknown details of the liquor's fondest drinkers.
"Edgar Allen Poe took his with brandy, and died, incidentally, at the age of 40 of a heart attack after a prolonged drinking binge. Moral of the story: don't drink too much or..." With a somber look, his voice trailed off, then he quickly grinned and took another sip of his wine.
The evening proved to be far more educational than we had expected, as David enlightened us with the important knowledge required of all absinthe connoisseurs.
"Wormwood is the word most often associated with absinthe, but many people don't know that it is thujone that is most important," David began as he explained how absinthe earned its reputation. Thujone is the THC-like compound that gives wormwood, and therefore absinthe, its kick.
Typical absinthe is distilled at a whopping 70- to 75percent alcohol by volume, making it nearly twice as strong as the average vodka, whisky or rum.
While a step down in adventure from the previous night, U Sudu allowed us to fully enjoy the warm feeling the drink unleashes on your body, and we decided that our adventures in absinthe had been successful so far.
As it was with the Bohemian crowd in its heyday, absinthe is popular again among artists and young drinkers who are drawn to a certain cultural caché that other liquors simply don't have.
Absinthe is, however, highly controversial, for obvious reasons, and should almost always be approached with caution. For if you chose to drink too much you just might realize why van Gogh cut off his ear.
Lauren Lotka is in her fourth year at New York University, studying fashion marketing and communications in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She is from Hinsdale, Illinois.
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