The Pigdog Interview
When I got into this absinthe thing, it was already a trendy weirdness. Bad people: gothic types, vampires, and, well, people like us, were starting to get into this special green liquid... I don't know why. I was obsessed with it from the first time I found an opportunity to drink it. I don't even read Anne Rice...
Green glowing goop that tastes like nasty black licorice and looks like radioactive waste in a glass. Don't forget, it's not just super-charged alcohol (50% or more), there's wormwood suspended in that tincture. You know, the stuff that makes you chop off your ear and kill people? Actually, that's just an old wive's tale. Ha ha. Or is it?
Wandering around strange Burning Man-related parties this year, which are something like a cross between the seventh level of hell and a high school paper on paganism, I got me some absinthe. Down, down, down... in the basement at the "Flambe Lounge" party was "Absinthia." A vision in emerald, she and her minions were serving up plastic cocktail glasses full of absinthe, with the special aesthetic bonus of a green glowstick in each glass, for four dollars a pop.
What I'd stumbled into was the much rumored "Absinthe Underground." Here I was, in San Francisco, in the basement of some sort of gym that had been rented out for hedonistic evilness, and I had an unlimited supply of absinthe. Needless to say, I went crazy!
The team of writers and editors that we had dispatched to the party all went crazy that night. Some of us ended up in terrible situations that deserve special coverage in their own right. But let's not talk about that. These experiences culminated in a Pigdog Special Investigation on absinthe. The first leg in the investigation was to search AltaVista for every reference to absinthe. "What the hell is it?" we asked. Ultimately, we had to go back into the absinthe underground to find real answers...
On a grainy San Francisco day, Mr. Bad, Splicer (on photography), and I tracked down the Madonna of absinthe, Absinthia, at her plush uptown absinthe lab, for an interview and a chance to get us some more absinthe.
--El Snatcher (12/02/98)
Keepin' it real.
Mr. Bad: Tell us a little bit about what you're doing as you do it.
Splicer: Is it OK if I take a few, uh, pictures?
Absinthia: Should I put on my mask?
Mr. Bad: Why don't you try and miss her face for these pictures, and then we'll get her full face with the mask on. Is that OK?
Absinthia: Yeah, let's do that. OK, so what I'm doing is, I'm, I put the spoons on top of the glass, I put the sugar cube on top of the spoon. I pour one part, one ounce of absinthe into the glass, over the sugar cubes And then I'm gonna pour in five parts water so the sugar cube slowly dissolves into the glass, changing the color to a milky green.
Absinthia Helper Guy: Is the background music gonna interfere with your recording?
Mr. Bad: You know, I have no idea, but I'm guessing that that's not a good thing...
Snatcher: It shouldn't matter.
Mr. Bad: You don't think it should matter?
Snatcher: No, I've done it before.
Mr. Bad: OK, I guess we'll just yell real loud.
Snatcher: That was actually one of my questions. I've heard of several different ways people prepare absinthe...
Snatcher: One of them seems to be lighting the absinthe on fire.
Snatcher: ...which is...
Absinthia: Which I've done before. But I generally serve, in public places with lots of people, in plastic cups.
Snatcher: Oh. And that wouldn't work so well.
Absinthia: No. I've had a lot of accidents. As long as I don't burn the sugar. Some times I do it. I probably will out in the desert.
Mr. Bad: Great.
Absinthia: Cheers! (handing absinthes to Mr. Bad, Snatcher)
Snatcher: Thank you.
Mr. Bad: Thank you. So, do you, uh, partake?
Absinthia: I do, I do. Not a great deal. And when I'm serving it, I don't start drinking till after midnight or so, because I've done that, and I can't get through the night. It just takes me Somewhere Else.
Mr. Bad: But on a regular night, how many do you do? I've seen you at work, and you're like (mimes pouring) boom! boom! boom!
Absinthia: I've never had more than three glasses.
Mr. Bad: Oh, no no no. I don't mean how many do you drink, I mean, how many do you make?
Absinthia: How many do I serve?
Mr. Bad: Yeah.
Absinthia: I have served anywhere from six to 12 bottles in one night.
Mr. Bad: And how many glasses out of a bottle?
Mr. Bad: Wow.
Absinthia: The night I served the higher number I had an assistant with me.
Mr. Bad: We've actually been looking into the equipment, and yours is beautiful. Real nice stuff.
Absinthia: Yeah, the spoons are all antique. They're imported from France.
Mr. Bad: How did you get a hold of them?
Absinthia: There's actually a store in San Francisco where you can buy them.
Mr. Bad: Really?
Absinthia: Yeah. You go in, and you ask for absinthe spoons, and they totally know what you're talking about.
Mr. Bad: Wow. Cool. Did you bring one in when you got your tattoo?
Just add water...
Absinthia: Oh yeah. Actually, (picks up an absinthe spoon and holds it close to her breast) this one, the slots are based on this one and (picks up another spoon) then the little loops part there is based on this one here.
Mr. Bad: Cool. So how long have you been doing this?
Absinthia: About a year and a half.
Mr. Bad: How'd you get into it?
Absinthia: I had absinthe a couple of years ago at a party. I had a great night. It was so much fun. So I started researching absinthe and finding out more about it. I have a background in art history, and the study of absinthe is the study of art history.
Snatcher: Have you seen this book (pulls out Absinthe: History in a Bottle)?
Absinthia: Yeah, I have that book. It's a great, great book.
Snatcher: I was gonna ask you, like, in here, they have all kinds of pictures of absinthe cocktails. Some of them seem to have a huge amount of water, and some of them have seltzer water...
Absinthia: Absinthe spritzers. I've made those before.
Snatcher: There's a picture of Hemingway in here drinking absinthe...
Crazy Absinthe Book
method that I use to prepare is called an absinthe drip. There actually
are different recipes. A friend of mine is sending a recipe book.
With different drinks that you can make with absinthe.
Mr. Bad: I've only seen the drip, like you do it, or mixed, I think, in port?
Absinthia: In port?
Snatcher: (Excitedly) Yeah! Absinthe, wine...
Absinthia: I have a bottle over there (points to bottle marked "Absynth") that a friend brought back from Prague for me. That you're supposed to just just put it in a shotglass and drink it straight.
Mr. Bad: You do infusion, right? You soak it for a long time, like a tea.
Mr. Bad: Have you ever tried the distillation?
Absinthia: No. I haven't. I'd probably blow up my house.
Bad Czech Absinthe
Mr. Bad: So you started doing it about a year and a half ago?
Absinthia: I started researching about it years ago. I made my first batch on April Fool's Day. I was going to a Victorian party, and rented a costume. It was a green dress -- green's always been my favorite color -- and I came down this green stairway in this green dress holding these green bottles, and my friend nicknamed me Absinthia. So Absinthia's birthday is April Fool's Day.
Splicer: What year was that?
Absinthia: About a year and half ago.
Mr. Bad: So that'd be ninety... uh, something.
Mr. Bad: How much absinthe do you make, at a time?
Absinthia: I probably make about a case or two at a time. I'm right now making about two to four cases a month.
Mr. Bad: Where do you do it?
Absinthia: In my kitchen.
Mr. Bad: 2 to 4 cases... in your kitchen. That's a lot! Do you have, like, a big VAT or something?
Absinthia: Umm. No, not really.
Snatcher: Like, a big cauldron!
Mr. Bad: I know! I like that idea.
Absinthia: I do a couple of bottles at a time, so I don't need a vat.
Mr. Bad: Oh. OK.
Snatcher: Oh, uh, sugar cubes! Do you use just run of the mill sugar bushes?
Absinthia: Plain sugar cubes
Snatcher: Just plain ones?
Absinthia: Not laced with anything. Just sugar.
Snatcher: What's your take on the effects of absinthe? Is it really hallucinogenic?
Absinthia: It is hallucinogenic. It's not like an alcohol high at all. It's very different.
Snatcher: It seems like the general consensus -- I read a couple of articles in different magazines about it -- this guy in this book, he seems to say that absinthe was banned because a sort of hysteria took over...
Absinthia: It was a scapegoat.
Snatcher: Yeah, it was a scapegoat, and people didn't understand alcoholism at the time.
Absinthia: It was also near the era of Prohibition. The country was leaning in that direction. But wormwood, the active ingredient in absinthe, can be very dangerous. Somebody recently sent me an article from the New England Journal of Medicine that some guy was researching absinthe on the Internet. He bought a bottle of wormwood -- a tiny little bottle -- and thought that was absinthe. And drank it. He was in the hospital hallucinating for 17 days.
Snatcher: Yeah, I read about that. It was the essential oils. He had renal failure. So you think that there's definitely a difference between regular alcohol and absinthe?
Absinthia: Oh yeah. I don't even like alcohol. I don't even drink that much. It's kind of like smoking a joint, but it's much more social than that. It's more outgoing. I think there's a chapter in that book that says it's got a similar compound structure to THC.
Snatcher: I read that. But I also read this Scientific American article where they, uh, where he calculated that if you drank enough absinthe for the, uh, I guess it's called thujone [?], the active compound, that you would be so drunk at that point that it would be almost impossible to know, but, personally, I've felt a difference.
Absinthia: Well, so, like I said, I've never had more than three glasses, and I was thrashed. It was too much.
Snatcher: How bout, like, uh, toxicity? Do you think that it is a dangerous thing?
Absinthia: I think anything, in excess, can be dangerous. I'm very safe in my methods. No one I know of has ever gotten sick. I do think that there may be something between the sulfides in red wine that don't mix well with the wormwood. I know in France that when they were all stirred up about absinthe, they'd mix several bottles of red wine with the absinthe.
Mr. Bad: Instead of the water, like you do it...? That's interesting.
Absinthia Helper Guy: Like you were saying earlier, the LD50 of alcohol is a lot lower than the LD50 of absinthe. So people are gonna puke from the alcohol before they're gonna overdose from absinthe.
Mr. Bad: So why do you think absinthe's kind of making a comeback over the last few years? Where's it coming from? Is it you?
Absinthia: (laughs) Well, someone had to serve it to me, right? I don't really know. Millennium fever? I don't even know what that means.
Mr. Bad: Kind of that, like, end of the century, fin de siecle thing? Kind of mirroring the Gay '90s of the last century?
Absinthia: Yeah, well, it's a new way to get high. It's decadent. It's got a great history to it and it's interesting. Well, hey, it appeals to me.
Snatcher: I keep reading articles that mention an "absinthe underground" (makes quotey gesture with fingers). So if somebody served it to you, well, do you know of other people making it?
Absinthia: I do know a couple people making absinthe.
Snatcher: Anybody on the level that you do?
Snatcher: See, yours is really neat because you have the full liquor bottles...
Absinthia: ...and I have the labels...
Snatcher: ...yeah, and the labels...
[An ambulance went by outside right about here. The voices on the tape are inaudible for a couple seconds. Could it have been The Man, perhaps trying to stop us from discussing the Absinthe Underground? Note to self: investigate.]
Absinthia: Most of the people I know only make a few bottles.
Snatcher: Have you tried the absinthe that's legal in Spain? You have that bottle (points to Prague bottle)... Have you tried it?
Absinthia: That's the only kind that I've had. One thing I've been working on is my recipe. My recipe is originally from a family in the French countryside. Everybody I gave it to said it tasted like soap. It was written up in the SF Weekly and they compared it to Joy dishwashing liquid.
That's when I started reworking it and changing the recipe. I've been working on the recipe for a while. It's like the way that I cook: every time I make something, I change it a little bit. I've got to a point where everyone I give it to thinks it tastes really good.
Snatcher: (Enthusiastically) I think it tastes great.
Absinthia: I've had Europeans say, "This is the best absinthe I've ever had."
Snatcher: Well, it clouds up right, and it has the right color, and it does taste good. So, well, have you ever thought about maybe distilling?
Absinthia: I have thought about it.
Snatcher: Have you seen this? (Pulls a computer printout from his backpack). This is plans for an absinthe still. (Hands it to Absinthia).
Snatcher: You can keep that if you want to.
Absinthia: I'd love to.
Mr. Bad: Yeah. You could put it on the roof. A big still.
Snatcher: I was wondering, just because it seems like that you have all the qualities of good absinthe already, so why bother to do the distillation.
Absinthia: Yeah. Well, I have a wormwood plant over there (points to a kind of scraggly looking little plant). It's never been real happy. Yeah, right there, the little one over there.
Mr. Bad: This calls for a picture.
Splicer: I gotta get in here.
Mr. Bad: Oh, uh, sorry...
Mr. Bad: So, um, you do a couple of Burning Man-associated parties. Do you do any other parties? Like, are you available for bar mitzvahs or weddings?
Absinthia: (laughs) I try to stay low profile. I think a bar mitzvah or wedding would not quite work. You never know who you're going to run into. I try and stay in the artist community. But, yeah, I serve non-Burning-Man-related parties all the time.
Mr. Bad: I can tell that you're kind of nervous about (serving absinthe). Like, you don't like to have your picture taken. Have you ever had a problem?
Absinthia: I've never had problems. I had a booth set up, an Absinthe Den, at Burning Man last year, and the sheriffs were all over it, they were all over the area, and I had no problems. I don't think they know what it is.
Absinthia Helper Guy: There's actually no law in the California penal code specifying absinthe as being illegal. We're in the same category as other drugs.
Snatcher: I heard it's regulated by the Food... uh...
Mr. Bad: The FDA.
Absinthia Helper Guy: [Ramble ramble] I guess there's a misdemeanor for adding deletrious [sic] substances to alcohol, which absinthe could be minorly considered that.
I don't think anybody really regulates it.
Absinthia: Serving and selling above a certain level is illegal. I guess a certain quantity, I'm not sure...
Mr. Bad: Oh, so you have to get a bar permit or something.
Snatcher: Well, what I read is that it's a certain level of absinthe, some parts per million, and that's why absinthe is still contraband in the United States. Like, it can't be distilled and sold in the United States. But it's not a scheduled drug. The laws are just concerning its toxicity rather than it's medicinal...
Absinthia Helper Guy: It's kind of ironic, because alcohol is also a poison. So much other things are poison, but I guess the moral imperative drives what's OK and what's not OK [I think that'd be the definition of "moral imperative", but whatever -- Mr. Bad].
Splicer: I hate to interrupt, but we're losing a little light and I'm going to have to switch over to the flash, which I know is kind of distracting...
Absinthia: Do you want to do some pictures?
Mr. Bad: Do you want to do her with the mask now?
Splicer: Sure, that would be great.
Splicer: OK, I want to get a picture of you on the couch, and then you can do away with the mask if it's uncomfortable.
Absinthia: It is a little uncomfortable, but I've served in it for an entire evening.
Mr. Bad: Really?
Absinthia: Oh yeah. Well, you have to suffer for your beauty, right?
Va Va Voom!
Absinthia Helper Guy: [Looking at computer] Ah. Well, I thought I recognized Pigdog. From the bulletin boards of yonder [sic]?
Mr. Bad: Yeah, that's us.
Snatcher: Rat Head, PolySpock...
Mr. Bad: NirvanaNet...
Snatcher: Yeah, NirvanaNet, Pirate's Hollow.
Absinthia Helper Guy: 2400 baud.
Mr. Bad: 8N1.
Helper Guy: Yeah.
Snatcher: Well, I guess that's pretty much all we had...
Mr. Bad: Well, I have a couple of crazy questions left.
Mr. Bad: OK, so, back to the legality.
Mr. Bad: It would make me nervous, because, you know, you're out in the open, publicly serving this stuff. Do you get nervous?
Absinthia: Well, I keep my eyes open, I always do. But I pick and choose where I serve it carefully.
Mr. Bad: Do you ever feel like a big bootlegger or something?
Absinthia: Oh, totally. I came clean to my father when he told me he was importing Cuban cigars.
Mr. Bad: What'd he say?
Absinthia: I wanted him to try it. I gave him a glass but he wouldn't touch it. He doesn't really drink much, though.
Mr. Bad: Do you know if anyone's moving to make it legal again?
Absinthia: I haven't heard anything. It's strictly underground.
Mr. Bad: OK, what else do I have here... Did you hear about the young man who was "tripping" on absinthe and jumped off a 20-story building to his death because he thought he could fly?
Absinthia: When did that happen?
Mr. Bad: Oh, well, I made that. I was kind of hoping to get a good quote from you on that. But that would be cool, wouldn't it? Those always make the best drug stories.
Snatcher: I was gonna tell you what we were going to do along with this. We were gonna have a review of this book (Absinthe: History in a Bottle) and have you ever seen that movie Total Eclipse?
Absinthia: No, I've heard of it, though.
Snatcher: [Rambling] Well, there's lots of absinthe drinking in that; Leonardo DiCaprio's in it, and it's really weird. It's about Rimbaud, I mean, Rambo. So I'm gonna merge the review of that movie with the review of this book. And then we also still have a bottle of your absinthe that we bought at the last Flambe Lounge, and we're kind of making some of our own as a lark, an experiment, and then we'll have a taste test and compare your absinthe, which will be the standard, to our absinthe, and I've ordered an absinthe spoon, so, we'll be getting that soon, and we'll have that soon, so it should be a big Absinthe Spread. We'll have a related article in the next issue, see, we're going to Burning Man, of course, and I guess we'll see you there.
Absinthia: I'll be guest appearing in the NeighBARhood from time to time, and Cyberbuss is having a party on Friday night, and I'll be serving there too.
Snatcher: We'll be having our Jed Sanders' Hillbilly Theme Camp, so you should stop by.
Absinthia: I'll be sure to stop by.
Absinthia: Let me give you something... [goes looking around in a closet].
Splicer: Are you familiar with Matt Wagner's assertion that magic is green?
Absinthia: No. Is magic green? I wouldn't be surprised.
Mr. Bad: So, I guess Snatcher kinda beat me into my last question...
[An Absinthe Express card appears...]
Mr. Bad: Oh, that's great! I love it! Fabulous. Look at that! That's cool. Don't leave home without it. Did you make that?
Absinthia: Yeah, I scanned it and changed the name.
Mr. Bad: That's great.
Mr. Bad: So, do you have any suggestions for emerging absinthists like ourselves? Like, we're interested, we want to start doing it ourselves, any suggestions or ideas?
Absinthia: Be careful.
Snatcher: You said something about, no, your assistant said something about people getting sick from vodka absinthe?
Absinthia: Yeah, I have heard people, I have people come up to me all the time and say, "I've had absinthe in this country or in that country," and that's how I figure out where it's legal and where it's not. And people come up to me and say they've had it in Japan and got really sick. "I had it in Japan and got really sick." Or, "I made it with vodka and I got really sick."
I try to use just Everclear as my base, rather than vodka.
Mr. Bad: Would you be willing to give us, like, the secret recipe?
Absinthia: Hah! Not a chance!
Mr. Bad: No way?
Absinthia: Trade secret. He (random guy) doesn't even know the recipe.
Snatcher: Have you tried Pernod?
Absinthia: I have not tried Pernod. Umm, I don't really see why you would drink it.
Snatcher: I don't either.
Absinthia: It's absinthe without the kick.
Snatcher: I tried it, and it was flavorful, but it wasn't any more flavorful than your drip.
Absinthia: That'd be like smoking a joint that you know is not gonna... It's like non-alcoholic beer, you know?
Splicer: I like non-alcoholic beer.
Mr. Bad: Well, you're an exception. Anything else? Hmmm... (looks at list of questions) Not available for children's parties... That's hard. My nephew's having his birthday this month and I thought...
Absinthia: Well, I card. If someone's really young, I'm gonna card them.
Mr. Bad: So the under-eight crowd just wouldn't make it, huh?
Mr. Bad: OK... Oh, do you carry a pistol when you're serving? Like, if a rival absinthe gang came in and tried to muscle in on your turf?
Absinthia: No, but I travel with people who do.
Mr. Bad: Cool!
Absinthia Helper Guy: I'm her security entourage.
Mr. Bad: Great. Well, is that it? So, thanks a lot...
Snatcher: So this should be coming out soon. We're gonna put all these questions in there, and lots of pictures, and it's gonna be really long.
Mr. Bad: You know, the only thing I regret is that we were hoping that you'd come off a little more sinister you know, like with some "no comment" questions or something. I guess we didn't ask the right questions. Ummm... (accusatorily) Where do you get your wormwood?
Absinthia: No comment.
Mr. Bad: There you go! Perfect. Thank you very much. That was perfect. We had to get one of those. OK, I'm turning this thing off now.
Back to your regularly scheduled Pigdog...
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