By David Hammond
Absinthe is a legendary beverage. The green liquor achieved global celebrity before it was banned in many countries, including the United States and much of Europe. Absinthe became legal again in the U.S. in 2007, and now it’s turning up in the most unexpected places.
In Polo, Illinois, several miles north of Dixon, there’s the Polo Room (712 North Division). Owner Steve Frano is way into absinthe, but he’s attracted a coterie of local absinthe enthusiasts. When I visited his little absinthe bar on the prairie around Christmas time, I was surprised to see young farmer dudes bellying up to the bar with their DeKalb hats on, ordering glasses of the once-forbidden green liquor.
Frano has an absinthe menu of about fifteen selections, but there are more behind the bar. When you order one, Frano performs the ritual of drizzling water from a huge ice-filled glass reservoir over a sugar cube, perched on a special slotted spoon, into the liquor, which then acquires a somewhat yellowish, cloudy aspect.
Absinthe presents one of those situations where story trumps taste: the beverage has a storied history, but the taste of the stuff is, well, it’s okay. I tried about six of Frano’s absinthe selections, and I was struck by a surprising sameness among all of them. It was not a bad flavor; it was just rather one-dimensional, with overriding notes of licorice or fennel. I like both licorice and fennel, but it was not easy detecting the subtleties from glass to glass, though I feel such subtleties may very well be there. Further research is required.
It’s the history of absinthe, though, that most tickles me, especially the myths.
Absinthe has long been thought of as a hallucinogen, a myth perpetuated by Ewan McGregor and his encounter with the Green Fairy in “Moulin Rouge.” It’s possible some absinthe has had a hallucinogenic effect, but that would only be the case if the spirit had undergone improper distillation resulting in potentially toxic impurities, which can happen with any distilled spirit. Absinthe that you buy at Binny’s or some similarly reputable outlet is not going to get you any higher than another booze you buy there. If it does, you got a bad bottle, my friend; return it or risk imagining the green fairy is floating over your beaker of absinthe.
Though based on McGregor’s movie—as well as paintings like Edgar Degas’ portrait of clearly messed up absinthe drinkers and Toulouse Lautrec’s many green-shaded bar scenes—you might conclude that absinthe is French. It’s not. Absinthe was originally developed in Switzerland, though it was later brought to France by Pernod, who remains the largest maker of the beverage.
Like Mexico’s mescal, absinthe also has an outlaw vibe, and indeed it was illegal in the United States since before prohibition. The beverage had such a bad reputation—for causing strange behavior and social disorder—that the Swiss actually wrote the ban on absinthe into their constitution.
Absinthe was not, however, banned everywhere. It had never been illegal in Britain and the Czech Republic, and the Brit’s decision to start importing the Czech stuff led to a worldwide revision of the absinthe ban. Then in 2007, California’s St. George Spirits became the first American-made absinthe to hit the market in a long time.
So what is absinthe? Simply stated, absinthe is a licorice-tasting liquor that contains wormwood, which itself contains thujone. Thujone is a chemical thought to be psychoactive, but research has not proven that it causes hallucinations and it seems that most brands of absinthe contain extremely minute quantities of thujone.
Absinthe is most commonly used as an ingredient, in drinks like the Sazerac (similar to a Manhattan but with absinthe rather than vermouth) or Death in the Afternoon (allegedly a drink developed by Ernest Hemingway: absinthe and champagne). There is something, though, about the allure of taking absinthe straight with water.
Mark Brinker at Barrelhouse Flat (2646 North Lincoln) told us, “We have an absinthe fountain and customers will occasionally order that preparation, but I think it’s mostly first-timers who have never had absinthe before or think that it’s still illegal, or that it will make them hallucinate, and they enjoy the show of it. I don’t feel there are many regulars who order absinthe straight.”
In a global city like Chicago, it may not be too surprising to run into absinthe in downtown bars and restaurants. It is somewhat surprising, at least to me, that absinthe—the beverage of choice for Verlaine and Rimbaud—is now being enjoyed by salt-of-the-earth good ole boys at the Polo Room in America’s heartland.