I first met the green fairy in damp, gray August 1998. That summer, my pal Andrew and I lived in grimy north London. We shared a two-floor flat with chain-smoking Aussies who chugged cheap champagne and obsessively played Jenga. Andrew was an office lackey; I slogged at the Great American Bagel Factory.
“Do you really want a Marmite-and-butter bagel?” I’d query customers hell-bent on that salty, sticky yeast spread. “How about peanut butter and jelly?”
“I’d rather lick your bum,” snarled one patron, snatching his buttery plain bagel. Was my rump really preferable to creamy Jif?
“We’re not in the States, Josh,” chided my pot-bellied boss, who likely hired me because my American Jewry lent his company street cred. “Peanut butter and jelly is a load of tosh. Stop pushing it.”
I did. By quitting. Andrew and I then purchased Eurail train passes and hit Amsterdam, where we slept in a park frequented by bike-riding drug dealers. During Buñol, Spain’s La Tomatina festival, we flung ripe tomatoes at strangers. And in gothic Prague, we drank crisp Pilsner Urquell and absinthe.
“This is what the fuss is all about?” I said, shaking my scruffily bearded head at the grass-colored liquor—Jägermeister infused with wildflowers and licorice. It was as disappointing as losing your virginity and realizing you preferred dry-humping a pillow. Absinthe was hyped-up hooey, the 100-proof equivalent of Miley Cyrus. So what if Van Gogh hacked off his ear under absinthe’s hallucinogenic grip—drink enough raspberry Mad Dog and you’d lop off an appendage too.
Nonetheless, absinthe’s brain-addling rep hastened its doom. “It leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse,” wailed early 1900s French temperance leader Henri Schmidt. “It is truly madness in a bottle.” Schmidt and fellow killjoys spearheaded absinthe’s ban. By 1912, absinthe was also barred in America, making the liquor as unobtainable as affordable health care.
A lucrative booze is hard to suppress forever. Last year, absinthe gained legality; spirits companies minimized the presence of FDA-banned thujone, a psychoactive drug present in minute quantities in wormwood (a key ingredient). Of course, you’d need to slurp an absinthe pond to hallucinate, but our nanny-state government ain’t much for common sense.
I decided to give the green fairy another go-round. I started small, sampling the absinthe-rinsed rye Sazeracs at white-tiled cocktail repository Weather Up (589 Vanderbilt Ave. betw. Bergen & Dean Sts., no phone; B’klyn). Then I hit wood- and marble-drenched Clover Club (210 Smith St. betw. Baltic & Butler Sts., 718-855-7939; B’klyn) to sample the wondrous Improved Whiskey Cocktail: An icy glacier anchors a fragrant sea of rye, bitters, maraschino liqueur and absinthe. It’s both strapping and gentle, a smack with a goose-down pillow.
I saw absinthe in a new light. It wasn’t a rock-star frontman, but an axe-wielding sidekick—Slash! Keith Richards! And it’s never wise to let sidekicks steal the limelight, I was reminded one eve at Chinatown’s White Star (21 Essex St. betw. Canal & Hester Sts., 212-995-5464). Sasha Petraske, the cocktail maven behind Milk and Honey, opened White Star in the former King Size. It was a wink-wink name for a rail-thin hip-hop hangout drenched with graffiti murals and chest-rattling bass. Petraske added dim Moroccan lanterns (they provide the bar’s name), lowered the easy-listening beats and installed vest-clad barkeeps and a draconian drinks policy: only beers, wines and straight-up spirits, chiefly absinthe.
A lesser owner riding a one-trick pony would quickly go bankrupt—hey, let’s open a hookah bar!—however, Petraske possesses magic pixie dust. He convinces customers to pay double digits for drinks and crave absinthe like it’s the first cup of morning coffee.
“Four Kübler absinthes, please,” orders a gentleman with side-parted hair. Ah, Kübler—the Swiss brand as colorless as my chest come December. I nabbed one too. And waited. And waited. Petraske traffics in slug-slow absinthe pageantry, with a chilled-water drip dissolving a sugar cube into the aromatic spirit. It’s lovely to observe when you’re nursing a full drink but as irritating as too-tight underwear when stone sober. “Your absinthe, sir,” the bartender announced 10 minutes later.
I grabbed the cool glass, greedy and eager, and brought it my cracked lips. The first milky swallow was sweet and licorice-like, my tongue numbing like a trip to the dentist. The second sip revealed more sugar, more anise—ad nauseam, add nausea. Absinthe is a novelty, a pulse-quickening thrill ride for the pseudo-adventurous. What sugar-mad alcoholic ever drank enough absinthe to go nuts? I’d have to be crazy to order another round.