Absinthe, known to its 19th-century indulgents as "the green fairy," was a favorite of Edgar Allan Poe and "The Scream" painter Edvard Munch, who relied on it for inspiration, escape, and solace. On the down side, the "authentic" but illegal form of the drink -- which contains enough of a potentially toxic plant called wormwood for the FDA to consider it an "adulterated beverage" -- is famous for deteriorating brain cells and rotting livers aplenty, and is thought by many historians to have contributed to Vincent Van Gogh's ear-cropping incident and his later self-inflicted gunshot to the head. (The true version of absinthe has been illegal in the United States since 1912, but Pernod is an innocuous yet still alcoholic substitute, with extra anise seed substituted for the wormwood.)
To make your own, non-wormwood absinthe substitute, place one pint of vodka in a large jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add two teaspoons of anise seed, one-half teaspoon of ground coriander, one and two-thirds cups of sugar syrup, four cardamom pods, one-half teaspoon of marjoram, and two teaspoons of chopped angelica root. Let it steep for up to a week.
Once the brew is steeped, there are three different ways to prepare and drink it.
The late French playwright Alfred Jarry drank the bitter, emerald-colored spirit straight. The other two, more ritualistic ways involve water, sugar cubes, and an absinthe spoon or trowel, says Jim Lanza, who hosts periodic Pernod parties at Edison's Pub, served in traditional fashion.
For the version involving flames: Fill the spoon with sugar, and dip it into the flaming Pernod, which will caramelize and ignite the sugar. Add water to extinguish the flames and to dilute the bitter taste.
For the one without flames: Balance a sugar cube on a slotted spoon on the rim of the glass of Pernod, then drizzle cold water over it, letting the sugar slowly dissolve into the drink, turning it a milky opaline.
Eric Scott, a Cleveland State University student who lives in Lakewood, has dabbled in absinthe production for about two years. Art history classes, filled with stories of art made under the influence of "the green fairy," still lifes of glowing green glasses and decanters, and the bluish-green faces of absinthe drinkers, sparked his interest.
Not content with Pernod, Scott ordered an authentic bottle from the Czech Republic over the Internet. His roommate, Steve Anderson, had procured a bottle on his return trip from Japan while in the Navy. Neither produced the hallucinogenic effects.
"We got pretty drunk, but that was it," Scott says. "A pretty somber, deep buzz."
Seth Gardner of Cleveland Heights sampled absinthe while studying for a summer in Prague.
"I didn't know what I was drinking," he says. "A fellow student bought me a shot, and it was terrible." Gardner soon learned how to prepare the sweetened version and became a disciple.
"It made your brain have a pulse and your body have no borders. I could hear all my thoughts like some foreign voice was telling them to me, and I was sure everyone else could hear it too." It sure beats guzzling spiked cider.
-- John Arthur