After a 95-year ban, absinthe, one of the last great taboos, is legal and, better yet, available in Charlottesville at Zinc. Theoretically anyway. When I went by Zinc last week to have a glass, I was told the West Main Street restaurant was sold out. After six months of no one seeming to care that they serve the fabled herbal liquor (sometimes called the Green Fairy because of its bright emerald color), all it took was one mention in Restarauntarama and they sold out in a week. Absinthe, the drink of choice for Rimbaud, Gauguin and Hemingway, to name but a few of its famous fans, is believed to be both a mystical drug that gives inspiration, and an evil potion that drives men mad. Few drugs can match absinthe for literary pedigree and sepia-tinged nostalgia. This isn’t the first appearance absinthe has made in our area, but previously it took a lot more effort to find it.
“It was just kind of always in the back of my mind as this exotic drink,” Denise Abell says over the phone from her home in western Albemarle County. Her fascination with the glowing green beverage began in high school, she says, inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s many paintings of sad absinthe drinkers. As the years went by, despite traveling all over the world with her husband, renowned National Geographic photographer Sam Abell, she had never chanced upon the mythical beverage.
“Both of us got to be around 60 years old and Sam was trying to think of different things to do for my 60th birthday.” To make her Belle Époque dreams come true, her husband enlisted my help in planning an absinthe-themed party. I worked for nearly a month to acquire all the necessary accoutrements: two bottles of authentic absinthe (ordered online and illegally from France), special absinthe glasses and absinthe spoons—part of the traditional method of preparation.
“We had a small group of friends over,” Abell says, “and decorated a very small room with tiny green lights and a green silk tablecloth and mentioned to everybody, without giving anything away, to just wear something green.”
“Everybody responded differently,” she continues. “One guy was reluctant to taste it at all, another guy didn’t want to dilute it with water or sugar, wanted to taste it straight up. …Oddly the women I think were just very willing to greet the Green Fairy!”
The attraction for Abell was not the illegality or the supposed hallucinatory aspect (although she admits that she and her husband may have “gotten a little high on it”). For her, it was the history and sheer beauty of the drink, not to mention the uniqueness of the night. “It turned out to be a very wonderful, wonderful event,” she says.
Tell you the truth, I‘m not bothered that I missed out on the absinthe at Zinc. I’ve had my fill over the years, and frankly I find that it tastes worse than green NyQuil without getting you anywhere near as stoned. Despite what absinthe devotees and wannabes say, all it really does, in my experience, is get you very drunk. No surprise: Absinthe is usually around 70 percent alcohol. And now that it’s just another bar drink, I predict it will lose a lot of its cachet.
But an absinthe-soaked 60th birthday party? That only comes around once in a lifetime. I’m already stocking up for mine. Look for your invite any day now.