Humankind has often hedged the bets it made with psychoactive substances by surrounding their use with ritual: the sacred pipe and circle of tobacco; the delicate ivory carving of an opium lamp; the sniff, swirl and sip of wine-tasting. I think we do this as a kind of safeguard against the influence of the drug; by encasing its use with ritual, we attempt to control its power.
It was the part it has played in this kind of ritual that fascinated me when I first saw the absinthe fountain several years ago on the zinc bar at the now-departed La Capitale restaurant. That, and the drink’s place in the lore and legend of Bohemian Belle Époque Paris — Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, the Moulin Rouge, tiny cafes in Montmartre.
The fountain — which today stands atop the bar at table FIVE 08, a restaurant that opened in July in the same spot downtown — plays a key part in the traditional way of preparing absinthe by dripping ice water onto a sugar cube and down into the liqueur. Formed in the shape of a woman, this fountain’s art nouveau beauty is reminiscent of Isadora Duncan: silvery back slightly arched, arms upraised to hold a glass bowl with a silver lid.
“Is that an absinthe fountain?” I asked bartender Rob Melton (aka Rob Drinkenstein or Rob the Bartender). I marveled that it should be here in Salem, Oregon, not in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans or some other storied section of a fabled city.
“There are two tales about the Lady,” Melton told me and my two friends as he set the fountain on the bar in front of us. “Do you want the good story or the truth?”
Working, as I always do, on the principle that there is more truth to be had from fiction than fact, I asked for the good story.
“My grandfather, who was the proprietor of a small café, brought two things with him when he left Paris in June of 1940, just ahead of the German army,” Melton said. “One was the family Bible; the other was his absinthe fountain. The Bible has been lost, but the Lady survives — a testament to freedom, art and love everywhere.”
The other story, the more mundane one, was that Melton found the fountain while browsing in an antique store in Seattle. The proprietor tried to sell it to him as a serving container for lemonade or iced tea, “but I knew what it was,” he said.
Melton, a Salem native, has tended bar here for 29 years and has owned the Lady for 17. After I first saw him at La Capitale, he worked briefly at Amadeus before helping open table FIVE 08 this year. He is a bartender of extraordinary showmanship. Watching him make Spanish coffee — pouring brandy in a stream, lighting the vapors to a blue fire, tossing in cinnamon that pops and sparkles like miniature fireworks — makes you want to stand up and applaud, especially after a few cocktails. “I like to do a little something different, to know a bit of the history of what I am pouring, give a bit of a show,” he said.
No wonder he was drawn to absinthe. He has become a fountain (sorry — I couldn’t help myself) of information on the spirit — its history and the elaborate ritual of its ingestion. Melton told me that absinthe was invented at the end of the 18th century by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland, as a patent medicine. Marketed as an elixir and cure-all, it was prescribed in 2-ounce doses and, since it was between 45 and 75 percent alcohol by volume, it soon left people feeling much better.
After five years, the good doctor sold his formula to the family Pernod, who began manufacturing absinthe and marketing it as a cocktail in France. It soon gained great popularity with all segments of society, particularly the Bohemian artists, writers and intellectuals who frequented Montmartre, where it became known as “the green fairy” — “la fée verte” — a well-known figure on bottle labels and advertising posters. Absinthe soon became popular throughout Europe and made its way to the U.S. through New Orleans. By 1878, 8 million liters of absinthe had been imported to the U.S.
I like to do a little something different, to know a bit of the history of what I am pouring, give a bit of a show.
Absinthe is a (usually) green, anise-flavored spirit, made from a number of botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood), green anise and sweet fennel. Wormwood contains the chemical compound thujone, which at one time was thought to be a mild hallucinogen.
Studies have shown that thujone, when consumed in enormous quantities, can cause seizures, but the amount contained in wormwood is negligible, and the hallucinogenic properties of thujone most likely originate in the mind of the consumer. Oscar Wilde famously stated that, after three nights of drinking absinthe, “The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe.” But then, that was Oscar.
Absinthe is an acquired taste. An old joke is that the word absinthe is Greek for “undrinkable.” The first sip can be a shock. Medicinal and bitter, absinthe has a pronounced flavor of aniseed. To me, it has something in common with aperitifs, such as Dubonnet or Campari, and with ouzo or grappa. Cough syrup also comes to mind, but so does a garden full of herbs. Connoisseurs talk about floral and tobacco notes. Sipped slowly — and it should be sipped slowly, as the green fairy is close to 150 proof — absinthe grows on you.
According to Melton, at the same time absinthe was being introduced, blight destroyed much of the French grape crop, creating a shortage of wine. Absinthe was a cheap alternative. “That’s where it got its bad name,” he said. “Absinthe is so much stronger than wine, and it was being consumed in great quantities. Many different companies began manufacturing absinthe. There was a lot of really bad absinthe on the market — like bathtub gin or moonshine.”
As Wikipedia tells it, some of the cheaper manufacturers chose to skip the time-consuming secondary maceration of the herbs that produced absinthe’s natural green tint, and instead introduced toxic copper salts to give the drink its characteristic color. This toxicity added to absinthe’s already worsening reputation — the drink was rumored to cause epilepsy, tuberculosis and madness, and absinthe drinkers became viewed as degenerates. The U.S. banned absinthe’s sale in 1912, and by 1915, it was outlawed in all the major countries of Europe except Britain (where it had never been popular) and Spain.
But times change. Although illegal, absinthe continued to be produced underground. In the 1990s, connoisseurs of the drink, pointing to modern studies proving the exaggeration of the drink’s psychoactive properties, pushed to re-admit the green fairy to polite society.
In the past 15 years, absinthe has undergone a revival, following the adoption of modern European Union food and beverage laws. In 2005, absinthe was legalized for the second time in Switzerland and Belgium, and in 2007, it returned to the U.S. and to France — and quickly developed the kind of hip following it had enjoyed at the turn of the previous century. “Absinthe enjoyed being illegal,” Melton said, with a smile. “It was a great marketing ploy.”
As fascinating as absinthe’s history is, the ritual surrounding its preparation is even more enchanting. Melton found the outline of the ritual (or as he calls it, “the tour”) in an old book; his version, I have discovered, seems to be a combination of the French and the Bohemian methods of preparing absinthe.
Melton placed the fountain on the bar and filled the glass bowl with ice. Three of us were participating, so he poured an ounce of absinthe into three tumblers. He used Pernod Absinthe; it is a bright grassy green, tinged with gold, “the color of peridot.”
He placed a small, flat, slotted, silver spoon across each glass, added sugar cubes soaked in absinthe on top, and lit each one on fire. He lit the cubes three times — “once for love, once for luck and once for fertility.” After extinguishing the cubes, he turned on the spigots of the absinthe fountain. Ice water, drip by drip, fell onto the sugar cubes and into the glasses.
Melton shone a mini-mag flashlight into my glass and the absinthe lit up clear neon green. The cloud of water swirled and sparkled in “the dance of the green fairy.” I was already entranced, and I had yet to take a single sip. He dumped the remains of the sugar cube into the glass and added more cold water. The cloudy bloom, or “louche,” grew — lore has it that the louche is the wormwood releasing its hallucinogens — and the whole drink turned to a green-tinged opalescence.
My friends and I talked and sipped our cloudy green drinks while Melton entertained other customers down the bar. I looked closer at the fountain. She was cast, perhaps, from brass? Her pewter or nickel plating was wearing thin in some places, and a yellow metal showed beneath. She had no markings. “I really don’t know how old she is,” Melton told me. “She may be newer than I think.”
Still, on that Salem evening as dusk turned to dark — the time that the French call l’heure bleue (and that the absinthe drinkers called l’heure verte,in honor of the green fairy) — the Lady, like a woman from one of Alphonse Mucha’s posters, spoke to us of Belle Époque Paris: small cafes, good food, music, laughter, good talk and good company; of art, and possibility. Appropriate, I think. That could work here.
Laura Gildart Sauter writes a column on local farming for Salem Weekly and has had her short fiction and poetry published in obscure literary journals.
Originally from Iowa, Frank Miller came to Oregon via Japan, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y. His photography can be viewed at www.fmillerphotography.com.