Absinthe and the Art of Conversation

The Green Fairy alights in Huntington. • Photographs by Doug Young

absinthe scott macdonald_doug Young

It’s not easy being green. The emerald hue evokes a host of starkly divergent associations and emotions. Green is fresh and alive or envious and sick.

It arouses images of supernatural horror, from fire-breathing dragons to that infamous wicked witch. When it comes to green, there simply is no middle ground.

Then there’s the Green Fairy, the legendary moniker for absinthe, a powerful and controversial distilled herbal spirit derived from wormwood, fennel and anise. Celebrated and reviled, it’s tough to find anyone neutral on absinthe. Wildly popular during the Belle Époque in France, the beverage experienced classic public relations problems and was banned in much of Europe and the United States in 1915. After scientific testing proved absinthe was not dangerous, and that the theories causing its initial banning were false, it became available in the USA again in 2007. Absinthe is now enjoying a revival with many hoping to restore its tarnished reputation.

absinthe_doug young

Scott MacDonald has placed a glass reservoir of water at the center of his dining table in Huntington on Long Island. It resembles a decorative fountain with several spigots emerging from the base. He opens a bottle of La Coquette absinthe. The label displays a sumptuous line drawing of a fashionable lady with a frilly parasol perched on her shoulder.

MacDonald is a thoughtful, articulate man in his mid-50s with an erudite manner. He pours the clear, straw-colored liquid into a V-shaped tumbler. He lays an ornate, leaf-shaped slotted silver spoon across the rim of the glass, positions it beneath one of the spigots and carefully places a sugar cube atop the bowl of the spoon. He tells me sugar is not required, but “the French had a sweet tooth during the Belle Époque.”

He turns the spigot and a steady, hypnotic drip begins to splash over the sugar, dissolving the sweet crystals into the glass of absinthe below and releasing essential oils. The room is filled with a sprightly, herbaceous aroma accentuated with notes of anise and fennel.

“When you add the correct amount of water, absinthe opens up like a flower,” says MacDonald. Diluting absinthe is a critical step, because it can be more than 150 proof straight from the bottle. A fountain is not required; a carafe can be used, but the elaborate fountain hearkens back to absinthe’s glory days.

absinthe spoons_doug young

Photo by Scott MacDonald

As the sugar water drips, the clear liquid morphs into a cloudy, lemon-lime color, a transformation aficionados call the “louche.” MacDonald visually inspects the beverage and divides it between two glasses. “Now it’s chalky, opalescent and milky with all of the magical stuff that’s in there.”

We clink glasses and I try not to appear apprehensive. I’ve heard the stories about “the absinthe effect.” I take a tentative sip. It is lush and fragrant. MacDonald and I begin to converse, much like writers and artists would have during the golden age of café culture in Paris.

Absinthe has a dangerous allure and the kind of convoluted reputation often associated with politicians, royalty and horse thieves. The sometimes emerald-hued aperitif has been linked to everything from hallucinations to murderous impulses.

The Wormwood Society, an educational group dedicated to providing accurate information about absinthe, calls it the most maligned and misunderstood drink in history. The society says that at the height of its popularity, the people of France consumed more than 36 million liters of absinthe a year.

But a temperance movement, a misinformation campaign and heavy lobbying by the French wine industry led to a government ban in 1915. At issue was thujone, a substance found in wormwood that was said to induce hallucinations. While thujone is a neurotoxin at high levels, it is only found in trace amounts in absinthe, yet the drink was rumored to be associated with a raft of ills, including addiction, epilepsy, tuberculosis and deviant behavior.

MacDonald calls the claims “complete mythology.”

WritersAbsinthe_doug young

Photo by Scott MacDonald

“The real absinthe was never like that,” he says. “You actually stay more lucid and clear. You can have several glasses over the course of several hours and be witty and have great conversations and it doesn’t affect you the way other alcohol will.”

Like absinthe’s history, MacDonald’s life has taken some turns. At 30, he abandoned a career as a director and producer of television commercials and reinvented himself as a musician and craftsman, building and restoring custom guitars. Several years ago, he became intrigued with the alchemy and mythology of absinthe, immersing himself in the topic. “I probably did 15 years of research and traveling in five years,” he says.

Along the way, he talked to experts, amassed a collection of accoutrements and wrote a book on the topic. Absinthe Antiques, published in 2013, features more than 300 photographs of spoons, carafes, glasses, fountains and other paraphernalia that enhance the absinthe ritual. MacDonald is a noted speaker and holds tasting parties to introduce others to the pleasures of absinthe. He says it pairs well with cheese and crackers, olives and dark chocolate.

Centuries ago, absinthe was a medicinal product. “Soldiers would drink it to stay healthy from water that might have been contaminated,” he says. “It’s very good for your digestive system.”

While the color green is traditionally associated with absinthe, there are also white or clear varieties. Herbs such as lemon balm and hyssop are added after distilling for the characteristic color. MacDonald warns against products that are artificially colored and claim to be absinthe.

MacDonald says absinthe is really about conviviality and clarity of conversation.

“I consider the absinthe ritual Western civilization’s tea ceremony because of the accoutrements and the ability to bring people together and slow down time,” he says. “There’s a sophistication and a beauty to the spoon, the water dripping in slowly and watching it turn from a clear liquid to a cloudy liquid.”

He dismisses the lurid lore. “In the day it was just a wonderful drink that people would enjoy. They’d stop by a café for the ‘green hour,’ have a drink with a friend and talk about the world, because they didn’t have Facebook at the time.”

“Have you ever had hallucinations?” I ask somewhat facetiously.

“Not while drinking absinthe,” he says. “I’m an artist and a musician so I’m a little nuts anyway.”

Then comes a charming gesture of friendship.

MacDonald leaves the table and returns with a small amber vial in hand. It is vintage Edouard Pernod absinthe. He pours the dark, caramel-colored liquid into a glass and initiates the traditional preparation.

“This is the real thing,” he says with a tinge of excitement. “You’re getting some pre-ban absinthe.”

I taste it. The herbal flavor is mellow, warmer and richer with deeper character.

“You just went back in time about a century.” MacDonald says. “It’s darker and mysterious and it’s edgy, and now you feel the lemon and black pepper on your tongue.”

For Scott MacDonald, green—at least when it comes to absinthe—is not ambiguous or controversial at all. It’s about sharing and sociability.

“Absinthe creates this magical, wonderful environment for people to come together and enjoy each other’s company,” he says. “It’s about the connections between people. That’s all we really have.”

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T.W. Barritt is a passionate baker who studied the art of bread and pastry at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. He is the author of “Long Island Food: A History from Family Farms and Oysters to Craft Spirits" published by History Press.