By JOHN DeMERS
Artists of the world, rejoice. After nearly a century of being banned – blamed for madness, violence and other occupational hazards – the spirit of choice for 19th-century creative types is available again to those of the 21st century. And this coming Saturday at AvantGarden, a group of international experts will strive to explain how and why.
There will be no shortage of absinthe to drink.
“I really like small-batch bourbons,” offers Houston-based photographer Damian Hevia, “and I’ve tasted my way through the world of single-malt Scotches. And hey, I’m Cuban, so I certainly know rum. But once you’ve tasted absinthe, those things just don’t have as much punch.”
You’ll no doubt spot Damian at this week’s absinthe tasting, a kind of “spirited” seminar at the old-house-garden-music-venue-watering hole on lower Westheimer. And assuming your eyes can still focus after a few of the drinks, which turn a cloudy greenish hue when the proper splash of water is added, you’ll certainly see his photographs. Absinthe, you see, must be considered Damian’s favorite supermodel. Several of his artistic, highly stylized images of the spirit and its serving paraphernalia will be offered for sale, right along with colorful absinthe-themed posters from Europe in the 19th century. For that was surely the drink’s heyday.
According to Damian, a full house is expected at this first-of-its-kind event for Houston, beginning with an absinthe presentation that will quench curiosities. The meaning of terms like artemisia absinthium, Dr. Ordinaire, louche, verte, blanche, dose, thujone, and L’Heure Verte will be revealed by renowned absinthe historian and master distiller Ted Breaux of Lucid Absinthe (Viridian Spirits) along with Legendré Herbsaint historian and collector Jay Hendrickson.
After the talking, the celebrating will begin, says Damian, with what he terms “general frivolity” and absinthe tastings traditionale, including a venerable New Orleans spirit reissuing its original 1934 recipe. Special absinthe cocktails will mix it up a bit for the palette. Light hors d’oeuvres, live jazz by Cory Wilson Jazz Coretet and modern classical music by Two Star Symphony, absinthe art for sale, green fairies (long the drink’s primary emblem or metaphor) , and Belle Epoch-inspired attire will fill out the evening.
Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is credited with the creation of absinthe in 1797, initially a sort of patent medicine/cure-all. A guy named Pernod (how appropriate!) opened the first distillery in Switzerland but, by 1805, had moved the operation to Pontarlier in France. One of the earliest markets for absinthe, and forever one of the most colorful, proved to be soldiers of the French Foreign Legion. To them, the stuff was disease prevention in a canteen; and during their campaigns through North Africa in the 1840s, there were so many diseases to prevent.
With these stout-hearted souls as its marketing force (and their rough “men-in-uniform” image as an early part of poster advertising), absinthe took Paris by storm – as would virtually every other invading army after that. In short order, the period between 5 and 7 p.m. became known – no, not as happy hour but as l’heure verte (the Green Hour) in honor of the favored beverage. The fact that it was actually two hours mattered no more to revelers then than it does to happy-hour regulars today. Drinkers couldn’t get enough of this mix of grande wormwood, green anise, fennel and other European herbs. And if that seems a weird way to make a drink, just think of the concept of “root beer,” OK?
Artists loved absinthe in the 19th century. And before long, anything excessive that an artist was wont to do got blamed on the absinthe he’d no doubt been drinking. Even in the popular imagination, long before the long arm of the law got involved, people who went nuts were accused of having been driven to it by absinthe. And families with loved ones in asylums found it easier to blame absinthe than a host of other possible reasons, starting with their own gene pool. That, it seemed, only drove the artists farther, with absinthe turning up regularly in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, van Gogh and Picasso, as well as in the poems and lives of dissipated poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine.
Even in France, the sales of absinthe finally did what was once thought impossible, outstripping the hold long enjoyed by French wines. The wine industry was so hobbled by absinthe that, when temperance movements of the early 20th century singled it out as the enemy, the wine industry was quick to chime in with support. The Swiss were the first to ban absinthe in 1910, with the United States following suit in 1912 (the now-infamous USDA Food Inspection 147) and France three years after that. And that was the legal situation until 2007.
New Orleans native Ted Breaux, one of the speakers at this week’s AvantGarden event, helped lead the charge to abolish the ban in recent years, along with a Swiss distillery named Kubler – no, not the place with all those elves. Breaux teamed up with his business partner and New York attorney Jared Gurfein to provide evidence of the spirit’s purity and safety when produced with strict adherence to historical methods, flying in the face on 100 years of misinformation and disinformation. The absinthe ban was finally lifted in 2007.
If you want more information about the event, provocatively titled “Absinthe Revealed: A Celebration of Tastings and Truth,” you should RSVP at www.avantgardenhouston.com/absinthe.html. AvantGarden is located at 411 Westheimer and the phone is 832-519-1429. With tickets sold at the door, the entire events costs $20 per person, the celebration-only available for $15.
Photo by Becky Cash: Damian Hevia and John DeMers enjoy their own l’heure verte.