Green light


Desiring consolation after fatiguing weeks of festivities, I repair to my rooms with a bottle of absinthe to while away the afternoon. My latest love, denied the liberty of half a day of leisure, is not here. Serendipitously, however, Al, a charming university friend (linguist, philosopher, musician, very pretentious), calls by and is easily persuaded to exchange his customary drinking companions (lithe, foreign beauties) for La Fee Verte and moi.

Absinthe, the spirit that scandalised Europe 100 years ago, first appeared in the late 18th century. Brewed with anise (first cultivated by the Egyptians as a medicinal herb), fennel, hyssop, melissa, camomile, coriander, veronica, spinach and wormwood, the recipe sounds like a witch's potion - as, indeed, it was, being originally produced by two "wise women" residing in a corner of Switzerland.

Later it earned a reputation for causing delusions and hallucinations, and having an effect similar to cannabis. Perhaps this was owing (in part) to its strength. Absinthe is a glorious 70 per cent proof. In the bottle it glitters greenly like a stolen piece of Frank L Baum's Emerald City that has not lost its magic. In the glass, diluted, it is paler, giving the water a greenish tinge so faint as to be discernible only to the sober eye.

Of the two chief ways to drink absinthe only one can be considered by the dedicated hedonist. A blundering oaf will pour shot after shot, downing each in a single, shuddering gulp. Al and I, though, are addicted to stylised drinking - to the careful measuring out and mixing, shaking and stirring of the perfect ingredients at their optimum temperature; the whole culture and ritual of preparation that ensues the moment one decides to have a drink.

There is a method, too, to drinking absinthe - a procedure favoured by many of the decadent artistes of the Paris salons where Baudelaire, Rimbaud and later Wilde held court. I fill a teaspoon with sugar coated in absinthe, put a match to it and drip the flaming, caramelising crystals into a glass of absinthe which also catches fire. Then I add cold water to quell the flames and dilute the drink.

We sip. The wormwood is bitter, alleviated as you might expect by the sweet sugar. I still don't like aniseed. I am only prepared to drink it with any enthusiasm when, confronted by a swarthy, determined Greek, I agree to have an ouzo with him and thus may divert his amorous attentions. However, it is a mere three sips of absinthe before I succumb to the flavour. This is an exquisitely civilising drink. At first it appears an adjunct to conversation, where usually conversation is testily sustained for the sole purpose of justifying continued drinking. Halfway down the glass I realise that, on the contrary, absinthe has led me to some nirvana of relaxation and fluent dialogue. My mind, usually a labyrinthine knot, is lucid and calm.

Here is contentment, peace and beauty. Al is talking about Hegel and now, suddenly, as only he can, the politics of time and the prehistory of sampling in hip-hop. Or something. Remarkably, I am able to respond coherently. Absinthe is indeed wondrous stuff. I even feel a benign flash of warmth and affection for my fellow man. But as we reach for the bottle, we are checked by Wilde's words on the drink he considered to be his creative inspiration: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." Perhaps another glass another day, then.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium