Absinthe is an alcohol distilled from the flowers and leaves of the wormwood plant. It is a pretty potent beverage, and it has been rumored to have hallucinogenic properties and to make people crazy™ (like Vincent Van Gogh who was very fond of the stuff and died in an insane asylum). Due to these rumors, it is illegal in many countries, including the United States, but became legal again in France about 20 years ago and it seems to be quite popular here. It is sometimes called La Fée Verte (the green fairy) because of the purported psychoactive powers and the normally green color of the drink.
Going our with friends and colleagues in Lyon, absinthe frequently ends up in front of me at some point in the night. I rarely order it, but last night I found myself at a bar that seemingly specialized in stuff, aptly named La Fée Verte so I ordered one glass, and somehow ended up with 3.
Absinthe tastes a bit like licorice, and feels a bit like kerosene in your stomach. It is usually served with added sugar, either caramelized around the edge of the class or just as a big sugar cube in the middle of the drink, and is often also served on fire. I am still undecided about whether or not I like this drink, but at least I didn't burn myself this time.
I do not really understand why bars, or restaurants, like to serve things on fire. Obviously the fire needs to be extinguished before it can be consumed, and absinthe is served cold, so the fire doesn't add much to the drink. I suppose it helps to caramelize the sugar or something.
The first time I had absinthe I was at a pub with a friend watching some American Football and drinking some Irish beers when the bartender came over with 3 glasses of the devil's brew. He set one in front of me, one in front of my friend, and the other in front of himself and lit them all on fire. He then gave a brief description of the drink and how you are supposed to drink and then gave us a demonstration. With the glass flaming in front of him, he slammed his hand palm down on the glass, which cuts off the oxygen supply to the fire and quickly extinguishes it. When the fire burns off the last of its oxygen, it creates an air pressure difference and the suction causes the glass to stick to the palm of your hand. You then lift your hand up with the glass stuck to the bottom of it, and slam it back down on the table (lightly) which I guess mixes up the drink a bit and releases it from the bottom of your hand. Then it's bottom's up.
This was all pretty cool, but the entire time this guy was giving his speech and demonstration, my glass was still on fire (my buddy's fire had gone out), so as fire does, it had done a good job of heating up the sides of the glass. The bartender reignited the fire on my friend's glass, and then following his instructions we both slammed our palms on the glass, lifted it up and slammed it down again. This went well for my friend with the newly started fire, but as I slammed my palm on my glass I now had an extremely hot glass stuck to the bottom of my palm and after slamming it back down, I had a nice circular blister on my palm for a week.
So last night when the absinthe came out on fire, the first thing I did was blow it out, and slowly mix my drink with a spoon. I'll leave the manly fire extinguishing to the guys with a higher pain tolerance than me.
I have to say thanks to all the people I went out with last night (I am sure they all read this :-)). There were 7 of us, and we consumed a decent quantity of alcohol, and I think I only paid for 2 drinks! French people are quick on the credit card when it comes to paying for their friends, so I am sure I owe 6 other people a few rounds. Next time is on me.
Oh, and it is a proven fact that drinking absinthe greatly improves one's ability to speak French.