The Ombibulous Me
They talk of my drinking but never my thirst.
The first liquor i ever experienced, as a teenager, was sambuca—the anise liqueur often served after dinner in Italian restaurants, with three coffee beans for good luck. The only reason for this is because, in our house, a lonely bottle of sambuca sat at the back of our kitchen pantry, hidden behind the hodgepodge bottles of Chivas Regal, Canadian Club, and VO. My parents didn’t drink whiskey—they were the type of baby boomers who as young adults had eschewed spirits and cocktails for the pleasures of wine—and so they likely kept those bottles on hand solely for guests who liked whiskey. As for why sambuca lurked in a dark corner of our shelf, I have never discovered an explanation. We are not Italian-Americans. It’s not as if my parents were jet-setting in Portofino (more like Ocean City, New Jersey). And we’d never hosted a foreign exchange student. Perhaps it was a gift from a guest, someone who believed that my parents might enjoy a bracing, licorice-tasting after-dinner spirit? In that case, it was one of the most misguided gifts of all time.
However, since this bottle of sambuca sat totally untouched and unmonitored, it ended up being the perfect liquor for a sixteen-year-old boy and his friends. My parents were occasionally out to dinner, and so after the police had broken up a keg party in the woods or on the eleventh hole of the local golf course and we were suddenly out of Milwaukee’s Best, my friends and I would find ourselves rummaging deep in my family’s pantry for our now-favorite Italian digestivo.
If we’d had any choice, I doubt sambuca would have been at the top of the list. After all, most American kids grow up calling red Twizzlers “licorice” and picking around the black jelly beans in the jar. My friends thought sambuca was gross, and we mainly drank it in shots. But I kind of liked it. Or at least I pretended to like it. I don’t mean to suggest that I had esoteric tastes as a teenager. In reality, I was a rube who subsisted on Gatorade and Ho Hos, gagged on mustard, and scraped the onions or mushrooms off any dish served with them. But I had seen La Dolce Vita on VCR tape, and I took on an air of sambuca connoisseurship as if I’d just returned from café life on the Via Veneto, splashing in the Trevi Fountain with Anita Ekberg, and now had a Vespa parked in the garage next to our riding mower.
The reason was quite simple: L., a certain Valkyrie-like girl who’d recently moved to our neighborhood and started hanging out with us. Her mother had an accent, and everyone said they were “European.” They had a last name that seemed vaguely Scandinavian or, as some in the neighborhood called it, “sort of Aryan.” But who knows where they came from. Regardless, the stunning blond-haired, blue-eyed L. was clearly different from most of the Jersey girls who went to high school with me. I was smitten, and had spent an entire summer trying to convince her to fall in love with me, but had remained squarely in the friend zone.
Still, I was on the lookout for ways to impress her. One autumn night, a group of us fled a busted party on the golf course. “Sambuca, anyone?” I suggested. Among our friends, L. and I walked to my house, cozily arm-in-arm in the crisp fall air. On that night, I decided to make my move.
The sambuca bottle had one of those plastic pourer spouts. After so much usage—since we didn’t really know how to use it properly and never wiped it off—a sugary crust began to form, making it increasingly hard to pour. As luck would have it, on that very night the crust had finally grown impenetrable; I couldn’t even coax a trickle of sambuca from the spout. “What’s the deal?” my friends wanted to know. “We want shots!” L. joined the chorus. Panicked, seeing my moment slipping away from me, I began hacking away at the crust with a butter knife. When that didn’t work, I grabbed a pencil from the kitchen counter and jammed it, forcefully, into the spout. The pencil immediately broke in two, and the top part somehow ended up floating inside the sambuca bottle.
My friends erupted in laughter. L. did, too. I was eventually able to pour the shots, but by then—humiliated in the way only a love-struck teenage boy can be—I’d lost my nerve and pride. When, later, I embarrassingly, tearfully, professed my undying affection to L., she gently patted me on the head and told me I was “a good friend.”
The only other thing I remember from that night is my mother dragging me to my bedroom by the ear, yelling at me. Apparently, my parents found me passed out in the kitchen in my boxers, and I would be grounded for quite some time. Fortunately (or unfortunately), my brother had earlier stashed the sambuca bottle safely in its regular hiding spot. Years later, well after I’d graduated from college, my mother was clearing out the pantry and found it. She remained puzzled as to why there was a broken pencil floating inside a half-empty bottle.
Soon after, L. began dating a guy in his twenties with a classic Mustang who drove around town with photos of L. in his hubcaps as a sign of affection—pretty much a deal maker in 1980s suburban New Jersey. Of course, I was crushed. This was my first true romantic heartbreak, and its sting was so acute that I can vividly recall the feeling more than twenty years later. What could I do? I was still a boy, and no match for a dangerous older man with a Mustang. Stealing that sambuca, gagging down the overwhelming 80-proof anise liqueur—this was about as edgy as I got in those days.
• • • • •
It’s a curious thing about memorable flavors. They always come back.
When I began writing my column, one of the first big spirits stories I covered was the legalization of absinthe. Until 2007, the mythic, louche liqueur of nineteenth-century Parisian decadence was classified as a dangerous, potentially hallucinogenic, and banned substance by the U.S. government. The reason it had always been verboten was because of a chemical called thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. Wormwood is the mysterious plant that makes absinthe absinthe—the Green Fairy, with its legends of hallucination and belle époque debauchery embraced by writers and artists such as Verlaine, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Modigliani. By the turn of the twentieth century, absinthe was so popular that the French were drinking thirty-six billion liters of absinthe versus only five billion liters of wine. But then in 1905, some crazy guy in Switzerland named Jean Lanfray, drunk on absinthe, murdered his family—which led to a public outcry against the spirit. One by one, Western nations began banning absinthe. Some historians suggest it was actually the powerful French wine industry, concerned about its eroding market, that helped trump up the Lanfray murder and lobbied for the Green Fairy’s prohibition. Regardless, by 1912 absinthe was illegal in the United States.
But here’s the thing: absinthe was never banned by name. In the United States, the law expressly prohibits any spirit that contains over ten parts per million of thujone. It took nearly a century, but in the late 2000s, someone suddenly had the bright idea to apply a little modern chemistry to the issue. A New Orleans–born chemist named Ted Breaux was creating a new absinthe called Lucid, and he began testing bottles from the late nineteenth century to show that properly made absinthe contained very little thujone. He proved that just about all absinthe, both historical and contemporary, had less than ten parts per million of thujone. The whole thujone scare appeared to be overblown, and the ban existed mainly because, until 2007, there had been no way to prove absinthe’s innocence. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau did similar tests and came to the same conclusion. The ban had been misapplied. Voila! Americans were now free to drink absinthe.
Over the next twelve months, absinthe seemed very much in demand, dovetailing with another new fad for classic, speakeasy-era cocktails. The New York Times, in December 2007, announced “A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback.” Nearly every lifestyle publication followed suit, championing the obscure, notorious spirit’s return. By the end of 2008, at least a half dozen premium absinthe brands had come on the market, most selling for more than sixty dollars a bottle, including one called Mansinthe created by Marilyn Manson. You knew the inevitable backlash was only a matter of time, but even jaded observers had to be surprised at just how swiftly the cognoscenti gave the official Thumbs Down on poor old absinthe.
The first New York Times Sunday Styles section of 2009 declared absinthe “uncool,” with Styles reporter Eric Konigsberg calling it “falsely subversive” and likening absinthe to such fleeting cultural fads as cigar bars, soul patches, women’s lower-back tattoos, brushed-nickel kitchen fixtures, and “blogging about one’s bikini grooming.” He wrote, “Once the naughty aura of the forbidden fruit is removed, all that remains is a grasp at unearned sophistication.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food section was more blunt, calling absinthe “out” in its 2009 New Year’s predictions. Harsher still: “We liked it much better when it was illegal. Somehow the notion of being illicit overrides the flavor of NyQuil dripping down your throat.”
As I observed this phenomenon, I thought, “Well, duh.” Americans mostly don’t like the taste of licorice. Absinthe is flavored with anise, giving it a strong licorice taste. These two basic truths pretty much ensured that the spirit would never be enduringly popular in the United States. So presenting the sleight-of-hand notion that absinthe was ever “cool” before being reported as “uncool”—essentially hyping absinthe, then twelve months later calling it overhyped—is breathtakingly shallow even by the usual standards of lifestyle journalism. It smacks of high school.
But maybe this makes sense. There’s always been a whiff of adolescence when it comes to Americans and absinthe, a teenage sort of longing to experience something thrilling and subversive—drama followed by the callow need to point out, Holden Caulfield–like, just how phoney it all is.
I can empathize. I first tasted absinthe while on a magazine assignment in the late 1990s, in Barcelona at a dive called Bar Marsella. “An absinthe or two at Bar Marsella” was firmly established as one of the Lonely Planet guide’s “highlights” of the city, and the crowd was a typical mishmash of backpackerish tourists from around the globe. Sure, some Moroccan guys tried to sell me hash outside. Sure, the bartender physically tossed two pickpockets out the door. And sure, that bartender was a dodgy, middle-aged American guy named Scotty, a six-foot-two, well-over-two-hundred-pound, red-haired man who wore pink shirts, who referred to himself as “Super Queer,” who claimed to be a former child actor, and who refused to tell me his last name because “as far as you’re concerned, I don’t have a last name.” Yet for the most part, Bar Marsella was “sketchy” only in a safe, air-quotes sort of way. During my twenties, I’d vaguely imagined myself as some sort of romantic flâneur, a Eurotrash-loving vagabond hanging out in seedy bars, like Rimbaud. In reality, my first sip of absinthe took place when I was a marginally employed twenty-nine-year-old writing an article for an airline in-flight magazine. The letdown was unavoidable.
Had I paid better attention in high school English class, I would have read of this type of anise-flavored disappointment from an earlier chronicler of subversive lifestyle trends, one Ernest Hemingway—once again in “Hills Like White Elephants,” as the quarreling couple finally taste their glasses of anís.
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
It may be true. That’s not to say that the actual absinthe, in the glass, was bad. It was enjoyable, particularly when you drizzled the water over the sugar cube and through the slotted spoon. But by that point in my life, I’d already experienced enough licorice-tasting firewaters to have an idea of what to expect. Absinthe, in reality, just seemed like a stronger, more bitter, more herbal version of the sambuca I’d snuck out of my parents’ liquor cabinet. And by comparison, my old act of stealing the sambuca had its own small but genuine element of subversiveness. No matter how much I wanted to feel edgy or illicit sitting in a seedy bar in Barcelona years later, how could legally purchased absinthe ever compare to stolen sambuca? Even Rimbaud had moved beyond his absinthe-drinking flâneur stage by the age of nineteen: having shocked the bourgeoisie quite enough for one lifetime, he never wrote another line of poetry.
Viewed this way, the idea that you could ever hope to sustain the imagination of adults with a sixty-dollar bottle of absinthe becomes absurd. Sure, many will purchase a bottle and try it—once—out of curiosity: Will it make me hallucinate? Will I become a decadent anarchist and write Symbolist poetry? Will I cut my own ear off, like Van Gogh? When none of that happens and they realize they don’t really like licorice, they’ll shove the bottle into the back of their liquor cabinet, where it will languish for the next decade or so. My advice to these people’s future children: if the absinthe bottle has a pourer spout, don’t try to unclog it with a pencil.