Greener Pastures

Greener Pastures

Known for its green color, black licorice taste and supposed hallucinogenic properties, absinthe goes by many clashing names. Is it the green fairy, or the green fiend? The green muse, or the green menace? The sacred herb, or the devil’s drink?

Science and clear-headed historical investigation tell us the technical answers are neither, neither and neither, respectively, but that hasn’t stopped absinthe’s dueling legends from swirling. The one side—given a boost by the long string of artistic and cultural giants who’ve sworn by it, like Baudelaire, Manet, Degas, Wilde, Picasso and Hemingway—is that it’s high inspiration in a glass. The other side—propagated by countless warning voices since the liquor’s popularization in mid-1800s France—is that it’s a bewitching siren, beckoning the impetuous to their doom.

You can see how both treatments could end up making it all the more alluring. So could the special way it was prepared. The classic method splashes absinthe into a glass, then places a flat slotted spoon across the rim with a sugar cube on top. Water is then carefully poured over the sugar, slowly melting it into the pool below, the liquor’s bright, transparent green morphing into a pale, opaque green-yellow.

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By 1880, the application of mass production techniques had helped absinthe—until then largely a European devotion—make its mark in America, and in New Haven. Under the heading “The Dangers of Absinthe,” the December 21 New Haven Evening Register sounded a false but no doubt effective alarm:

The habitual drinker becomes at first dull, languid; is soon completely brutalized, and then goes raving mad. … The drinker is in most cases in seeming good health, having no thought of his peril, until the hour when illness has declared itself. He is apt, indeed, to believe that he is remarkably well, and to consider all the stories about absinthe mere bugaboos. The earliest symptoms of ailment lead to an examination, and to the knowledge that his entire system is deranged, usually beyond restoration. His first illness is apt to become his last, and death is a welcome relief.

Yet absinthe continued to be a favored drink for the rogue and the vogue, as subsequent Register editions indicate. In March 1882, a gossip column about famed actress Sarah Bernhardt’s son, Maurice, described him as a graceful athlete who could fence with the best, but also as a pleasure-seeking playboy, an incorrigible spendthrift and a heavy drinker of absinthe. A June 1885 dispatch characterized New York City’s “best-known… dude”—at that time meaning “dandy”—as “addicted to the single glass, evening dress, absinthe, late suppers and ladies’ ballet.” An October 1885 dispatch says, “At the Pequot House New London, where most of the foreign diplomats were this summer, the favorite drinks were absinthe and French liqueurs.” A June 1890 edition told of a rascal who, on his way to “call on some ladies,” would ask bartenders to put a few drops of absinthe on his fingers. He would then run the stuff through his mustache, thus hiding the less desirable scent of the whiskey he’d actually been drinking.

Absinthe was a drink for the fashionable, the cosmopolitan, the rakish, the bohemian—and anybody who aspired to the same. You could say something similar today, on the other side of 125 years—95 of which saw absinthe banned in the U.S.—and you wouldn’t be wrong.

But on the other hand, it’s always in style to just drink what you like, and absinthe isn’t merely aspirational. Even without those fabled hallucinations, the liquor’s buzz is noticeably different from most others’. It develops more smoothly and roundly, like one big arc instead of a series of escalating pulses. It gives you timely notice of what’s happening, so you can enjoy it more, and reflect on it.

That was the general feeling yesterday evening at The 9th Note jazz club, 56 Orange Street, where “Absinthe Wednesday” saved drinkers $2 a pop. The owner, Christian O’Dowd, and the core of regulars who’d convened at the bar, seemed buoyant, as if riding a wave they’d had time to reflect upon.

You wouldn’t think it would feel like such a positive moment. Following months of uncertainty catalyzed by a set of mysterious, anonymous noise complaints, the club’s officially been evicted from its Ninth Square home. This Saturday marks the last night of service.

But it seems as if there’s some relief in this new certainty, and an optimistic sense that the eviction is only a temporary setback. O’Dowd says he’s working on securing a “bigger, better” location downtown.

For the next three days, at least, you can still find the green fairy at 56 Orange. Having given absinthe a place of honor befitting its hereditary coolness—off-menu—there are still plenty of signs that it’s available, like the absinthe-soaked gummy bears the bartender will offer you if you’re looking a little peckish. There’s the traditional serving accoutrement—ornate glass, slotted spoon, sugar cubes—kept on the back bar, not to forget the bottle of green stuff labeled “Grande Absente.” If you’re really eagle-eyed, you might even spot the “no absinthe” list posted behind the bar, a facetious do-not-serve list that’s more like an honor roll. O’Dowd says he uses it to rib the various characters who come into the bar, including his most diehard regulars.

If you order a classic absinthe from bartender Jesse Burke, he’ll follow the steps detailed earlier, using a small silvery kettle with curved spout to do the water-pouring, and he can tell you plenty about the history if you ask. The glass I had was balanced: each taste brought a blast of sweet licorice, not bitter, with a fresh, herbaceous undertone. Despite the absinthe being 138-proof, it hardly burned at all on the way down, leaving just a slight singe in the throat—a memory of something that came before, to be renewed with the next sip.

The 9th Note
For three more days: 56 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Today 4pm-1am, Fri-Sat 4pm-2am
(203) 691-9918
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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