August 4, 2007

A date with the Green Fairy

A few years ago, I wrote about absinthe on Interesting Thing of the Day. To summarize: while living in Canada, I became quite fond of this concoction of distilled herbs, legendary as the muse of writers and painters and equally legendary for its alleged contributions to insanity and violence. But as it’s still (mostly) illegal in the U.S., I hadn’t been able to obtain any in some time; I’d made do with its wormwood-free successor, pastis, which is perfectly fine in and of itself but Just Not The Same Thing. I also said:

On my next trip to Europe, however, I’ll make a point of sampling as many varieties as I can—in the name of research, of course. If my writing suddenly becomes much more poetic or prolific, you’ll know why.

I want to confirm that I’m a man of my word. Since arriving in France a month ago, I’ve already sampled three varieties of absinthe, and have a bottle of a fourth that I haven’t opened yet. I have also written an unusually large number of words, even for me (including, perhaps, a few words bordering on poetic), about quite a few different subjects, and though I can’t prove any causal connection, the correlation is worth noting.

Last year, David Lebovitz had a wonderful post on his blog about Vert d’Absinthe, a little shop here in Paris that sells only absinthe and absinthe accessories (spoons, glasses, water pitchers, prints, and so on). Naturally, we had to pay a visit.


The proprietor, Luc-Santiago Rodriguez, was kind, generous with his time, and forgiving of our inadequate French. We discussed absinthe for quite some time, and sampled a few varieties that demonstrated a surprising range of flavors and aromas. We asked which of the dozens of brands he stocked was closest to the original Pernod Brothers’ formula, and he pointed to a bottle of L’Absinthe P.F. 1901, made by the Distillerie Combier in Saumur, France. So we left with a bottle of that, as well as a bottle of Verte de Fougerolles, which we’d sampled in the store and which Luc said was one of his favorites. I expect we’ll return numerous times; there are many more absinthes to try.

Among the many interesting things we learned that day is that despite the FDA’s prohibition against the sale of anything containing thujone, there’s apparently a loophole that has permitted limited legal importation of absinthe. According to Luc, most of the absinthes he sells have such a low concentration of thujone (as required by EU law) that the U.S. Customs equipment can’t detect it. So if any of it were actually to be tested, it wouldn’t register as containing an illegal substance and would be let into the country. For that matter, even the absinthes with the highest amounts of thujone have so little of it (something on the order of 10 parts per million, I believe, for the French brands anyway) that they’re almost certainly no more psychoactive than run-of-the-mill pastis. (Update 07-Aug-2007: I’ve just discovered at least one brand of genuine absinthe that is now being legally manufactured in the U.S., apparently by virtue of having near-indetectible quantities of thujone: Lucid.)

On the other hand, I find that drinking absinthe is up to 27 percent more pleasurable than drinking pastis—for whatever reasons, real or imagined. That’s good enough for me.

4 Responses to “A date with the Green Fairy”

  1. Patti said:

    What goes around comes around. I think I originally found your Interesting Thing of the Day site while searching for info on Absinthe, and here you are, in Paris, writing about it again.

    I’ve long been intrigued by Absinthe and have wanted to try it, but assumed I’d never be able to. But I live in Canada and you say you used to drink it while living here. Now I must know where you got it! I live in Ontario – Ottawa – and assumed it was illegal here too. I’ll have to check into this! Thanks for the boost!

  2. Joe Kissell said:

    Patti: When I was living in BC, I found it at one of the larger provincial liquor stores. I’m not sure about availability in Ontario, but I’d be shocked if you couldn’t find it somewhere in Ottawa. Good luck!

  3. Bart Kenson said:

    I tried Absinth with a Friend and I am a fan since then. I bought online by as well as by and would likw to know the difference between trying Absinth at home with a normal glas and spoon and a shop.