Monday, February 15, 2010

Absinthe experiment

The duties that fall to fiction writers. Especially historical fiction writers. First, let me clarify that when it comes to alcoholic drinks I'm pretty much all wine and beer these days. Sure, I drank rum and cokes at college football games, whiskey sours at southern Maryland weddings, pina colodas at the beach, hurricanes in New Orleans, martinis in Long Island. I eagerly tested varieties of Scotch when I visited a distillery on my honeymoon. And I won't turn down a good margarita anywhere. But I'm basically all wine and beer. So it was curiosity when this weekend, for the sake of my Van Gogh novel, I took my first taste of absinthe. I've known for a while that I needed to get around to doing this. Absinthe was famously, or maybe infamously, the drink of choice for Van Gogh and a number of the painters he ran with. (In fact, it may have been Gauguin who, in Paris, got him started on it.) I think Van Gogh's reputation as borderline alcoholic has been vastly overstated to the point of mythology--and when it came to alcohol he certainly did not only drink absinthe--but I do show him sipping the stuff in a few scenes in my book. I even describe its taste, its sensation, its effects on mouth and mind. This without ever having tried the stuff! I knew that somewhere in the drafting process that tomfoolery had to stop. So recently I plopped down 30+ (!) dollars for a small, slim bottle of the stuff, assured by the clerk at the liquor store that this was a particularly smooth brand. (Or maybe that was my interpretation of what he said.)

Absinthe has, or least once had, a reputation as a dangerously psychoactive drug. In fact, for a time it was banned in the United States. This reputation explains in part why people associate it so readily with Van Gogh. (One brand is actually named after him.) Its psychoactive reputation, it turns out, is vastly exaggerated--it's no more psychoactive than any stiff spirit--but the reputation persists. I had a student freak out one time during a discussion of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" when he realized the man and woman were drinking absinthe. "Isn't that like a mind altering drink?" he kept saying. "Doesn't it make you see things?" For him, the presence of absinthe in the story lead to a very different reading. What is true is that absinthe is bottled at a high proof and traditionally served with water, with which the consumer can dilute it. With some trepidation--a friend who likes absinthe describes its effect as opening a direct corridor between mouth and brain--I went ahead and just sipped the stuff straight. Yeow! This "smooth" brand tasted like a glass of kerosene set on fire and served with licorice as a swizzle stick. (That's the anise in it.) I could only make it through about half a shot's worth, and that was enough. I threw the rest down the drain. Next time, I guess I'll add water. I can't say for sure whether Vincent did or didn't drink it straight, but I can tell you, with memory of my tonsils burning, I'm really ready now to bolster my description.


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