The Seelie Court (a non-alcoholic absinthe inspired daiquiri-ish cocktail)
PLUS: the unfortunate lack of non-alcoholic absinthe in the US market; a brief history of absinthe mythology; rehabilitating wormwood’s reputation; and the dangers of fairies, green or otherwise.
Happy Sober October, everyone! Before I get started on what is likely to be the longest newsletter I send for a long time, if you are participating in Sober October, click the “Leave a Comment” at the end of the email to let me know if you’re participating, and what you’d like to read about non-alcoholic spirits, cocktails, beers, wines, etc. in the rest of October’s issues!
When I started delving into the non-alcoholic alternatives for drinks I hadn’t had in years, there were three things I wanted to find: a decent dealcoholized sparkling wine; the ingredients to make a dirty-but-virgin gin martini; and fake absinthe. The first two I found relatively quickly (which I’ll save for another newsletter— can’t give all of my secrets away at once, after all!). But non-alcoholic absinthe?
I’m still searching.
In the US, at least, it’s just not available. Quite a few brands in France make non-alcoholic pastis, but forget getting any shipped here. Even if the exorbitant cost and long delays weren’t a factor, there’s no guarantee that it would get through customs. Besides, licorice flavored liqueurs are not absinthe.
Absinthe requires wormwood.
Not to perpetuate even more of the magical clap trap surrounding absinthe (that I’ll get into in a minute), but something alchemical happens when bitter, herbal wormwood blends with woodsy, clove-infused anise and greener, minty fennel. Absinthe makers refer to this three ingredient mélange as “the holy trinity,” and like its slightly sacrilegious moniker, the combination yields an altogether new flavor: licorice’s sticky sugar dries and darkens to the still-a-bit-sweet essence of autumn leaves decomposing, with a mentholated edge that recalls a crisp, cold gust of wind. It tastes, in a word, witchy.
But the reason that absinthe is on my short list of must-find replacements is that the second favorite drink of only the fanciest vampires; the glowing emerald key that unlocked the genius of Baudelaire and Rimbaud; the Green Muse that drove van Gogh to revolutionary artistry and self-inflicted violence, that nearly ruined Strindberg and finished the job on Verlaine; the irresistible Green Fairy whose mind-altering, captivating, even enslaving reputation precedes her, is frankly so much better in legend than it is in real life. Admittedly, I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience with it, but the alcoholic versions I tried before I quit drinking were less flavorful than fennel and wormwood pastilles I’ve eaten, anise and artemisia teas I have drunk, and there are candles and perfume that evoke the seductive danger and mystery of the holy trinity better than real absinthe. It’s not even a pure green, but a yellowish chartreuse.
Of course, given the mythology around it, there’s no way absinthe could do anything but disappoint.
Absinthe’s popularity peaked in Belle Époque Paris, arguably the best possible time and place for anything to be immortalized aesthetically, and was subsequently banned almost the world over by 1914, arresting its image and iconography for nearly a century in the suggestive undulations of Art Nouveau’s whiplash lines. The louche effect that transformed the clear, peridot liquor to an opaque, mint green moonstone when mixed with water made bartenders into alchemists. Coupled with the drink’s reputation, perpetuated by advocates and detractors alike, that every glass was a glamorous gamble as likely to provoke violent madness as transcendent creativity, this magic-trick-in-a-glass was the perfect drug for a fin de siècle culture hooked on novelty and theatricality. Despite (or perhaps because of) the drink’s controversy, by the 1860s absinthe was so wildly popular that the French, in their never-ending quest to give every color its own hour, christened 5:00 PM “l’heure verte”: the green hour.
The preparation of absinthe evolved into an elaborate ritual that rivaled the Consecration of the Host for religiosity. Ornate and utterly unnecessary accoutrements, collectively known as absinthiana, became must-have instruments to properly summon the Green Fairy. Flat, decorative slotted spoons kept sugar cubes suspended over glasses specially shaped to mark both the correct amount of absinthe and the level to which water should be poured. Tall glass and silver fountains poured a thin, hypnotically slow stream from multiple spigots over the sugar cubes and into the glasses below.
Even the advertising took on religious overtones. Henri Privat-Livemont’s instantly recognizable illustration for Asinthe Robette swaps the balding old Father for a nubile sybarite, draped in a completely transparent chiffon sheet that conceals exactly nothing, raising a glass of absinthe as if it were Communion wine, a stylized spoon and sugar cube perched on top. This bed-headed red head stares heavenward, back arched, eyes wide and lips parted in awe as a stream of water drips down from an unseen source. She is consecrating a cocktail.
This was getting wasted as mysticism.
Not all of the artists of the time were acolytes of the Green Muse, and the slump shouldered, dead eyed Absinthe Drinker became the subject (and de facto title) of dozens of paintings. Manet may have been the first in 1859, but Degas took a break from creeping on underage ballerinas long enough to paint his own, and at least 4 or 5 are credited to ever-prolific Picasso (though his drinkers are treated with a bit of ambivalence, perhaps because the notorious womanizer occasionally flirted with the Fairy himself). The composition and iconography were as consistent as the religious allegories painted in the Renaissance, always some version of a drinker at table, glass of absinthe before them, staring despondently into the middle distance.
The European temperance movement maligned absinthe above all other alcoholic beverages."Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people,” claimed one anti-absinthe advocate at the time. “It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.” Not only temperance advocates but medical experts greatly exaggerated absinthe’s role in violent crimes, sometimes to the point of absurdity, as in the murder trial of Jean Lanfray. A Swiss farmer, Lanfray murdered his entire family and attempted to kill himself after returning home from a much-more-than-three-martini lunch. Arguing against the death penalty for reasons of temporary insanity, his lawyer insisted that judge and jury overlook that the murderer had consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, coffee with brandy, and two creme de menthes, but focus only on the two glasses of absinthe with which he ended his meal. A prominent doctor and psychiatrist who testified as an expert witness confidently stated the horrific crimes were the result of an obvious case of “absinthe madness.” Lanfray was judged temporarily insane and avoided capital punishment, though his murder suicide was only temporarily interrupted; three days after the trial, he hanged himself in his jail cell.
Switzerland quickly banned absinthe a few months later, becoming the first of many nations across Europe, the Americas, and the Commonwealth countries to enact such a prohibition.
Of the three herbs and spices comprising the holy trinity, wormwood alone took the fall for absinthe’s dangerous effects; the sale of anise and fennel liqueurs remained unaffected. Scientists at the time erroneously identified thujone, a naturally occurring molecule in wormwood, as the psychoactive chemical responsible for absinthe’s unusual effects. While thujone can produce a mild euphoria, and at extreme concentrations could cause muscle spasms, seizures, and theoretically death, it does not cause hallucinations, agitation, or depression. In any case, the concentration in wormwood is so low that one would likely suffer fatal alcohol poisoning long before drinking enough absinthe to feel its mildest effects.
So if wormwood was innocent, what was the cause of the hallucinations, the initial ecstasy and agitation, the eventual depression and despair?
Turns out, it was copper poisoning.
To shortcut the second maceration necessary to produce the desired green color, producers of cheap absinthe by added toxic copper acetate to the first, clear distillation. While acute copper toxicity induces vomiting (hardly an unexpected result of drinking too much any type of booze), at lower concentrations copper remains in the body and builds up over time, causing the overproduction of norepinephrine and epinephrine. Excitability, agitation, racing thoughts, and insomnia result, followed by an inevitable crash of despair and depression. Basically, cheap 19th century absinthe was booze with the added effects of amphetamines. The the 72-hour poetry writing benders, the lovers’ quarrels that ended in gunshots, the DIY ear removals, and the suicidal despair were the result of nothing more esoteric than common sleep deprivation induced psychosis
Sounds a lot less fun than that scene in Moulin Rouge with Kylie Minogue.
Absinthe experienced something of a revival in the mid 2000s, as the prohibitions were lifted in every country that had previously banned it (save Vanautu in the South Pacific, where it remains illegal). Now stringently regulated, especially for thujone content, and entirely lacking in toxic coloring agents, it will neither cause uncontrollable artistic visions nor copper poisoning. While it is unquestionably safer to drink absinthe now than it was at the beginning of the last century, more and more research is revealing the negative effects of consuming any kind of alcohol. Since everything Y2K is hip again, I suspect we’re soon to have an avalanche of non-alcoholic absinthe options. The enterprising non-alcoholic producer that bottles the platonic ideal of absinthe’s taste, color, and scent has the opportunity to make an alternative that is not only non-alcoholic but actually better than the liquor it imitates.
I, for one, look forward to drinking something that tastes worthy of the legend, hopefully sooner rather than later: I have it on good authority that we will have at least one non-alcoholic absinthe, made by a quality producer, available in the US before the end of the year! While I am excited to try it, had their product been available when I first began tinkering with zero proof cocktails, I would never have made this week’s cocktail, The Seelie Court, which my best friend declared, and I quote, “the best non-alcoholic cocktail I’ve ever had.”
Finding no available one-to-one absinthe replacement, my search for the same flavors led me to Nickel Dime’s Fairy Dust, a delicious syrup infused with the holy trinity of anise, fennel, and wormwood. A full bottle will make 30 of these cocktails if shaken and served up, or 10 if you make the frozen variation.If you’re hesitant to go all in on this cocktail, Nickel Dime sells a pack of 2 ounce samples of all 4 syrups, and I can assure you I will be sending out recipes for each of them over the next few months. If you’re a licorice fan, however, buy this immediately. Stir a teaspoon or two in your cup for a heavenly matcha latte, or throw it in a blender with some milk and vanilla or pistachio ice cream for an out of this world milk shake.
The brand of non-alcoholic rum isn’t critical in this particular drink. I like Lyre’s, but if you have something on hand to serve as a fairly neutral, sweet-but-not-too-sweet base, it will probably work just fine. Sexy AF Amar-Oh is a requirement, and they make excellent products that I find myself reaching for almost every time I start crafting a new drink. They have a hefty slip that adds much needed body to non-alcoholic cocktails because they use glycerine, rather than sugar syrup, as both a sweetener and a base for flavor extraction. Their brand identity seems designed to appeal exclusively to a certain kind of straight millennial white woman who still finds Carrie Bradshaw aspirational, and if that isn’t your aesthetic, trust me when I tell you to look past it and buy yourself a Sober Bartender Set if you have the money.
For the frozen version of the cocktail, omitting the Cocktail Punk Pastiche Bitters has no discernible difference, but the shaken version, while still quite drinkable, does taste like it’s missing a note if the bitters are left out. If you’re in recovery and concerned that adding alcoholic bitters to your cocktail will get you drunk or that you’ll “feel” the alcohol— don’t. A few dashes of bitters won’t even increase the alcohol by volume to what’s in a glass of orange juice or a slice of sourdough bread. On the other hand, if you’re worried that having 2 ounces of bitters on hand will start a series of cascading justifications that lead to you relapsing, or you don’t want them in your home because you’re afraid that you will drink them straight, please leave them out with not only my blessing but at my insistence. There is literally nothing on earth that tastes good enough to jeopardize your sobriety.
Sadly, the resulting cocktail is not green, but you can always close your eyes and imagine it while you sip. Or do it the Belle Époque way: stay up three nights in a row scribbling symbolist poetry and see if the color doesn’t change.
RECIPE: The Seelie Court
2 ounces Lyre’s White Cane Spirit (or other non-alcoholic white rum alternative)
1 ounce Sexy AF Amar-Oh
½ ounce of Nickel Dime Fairy Dust cocktail syrup
¼ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1 or 2 dashes of Cocktail Punk Pastiche Bitters
Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with ice.
Shake vigorously until well chilled, about 30 seconds.
Strain into Nick and Nora glass or coupe glass and serve immediately.
VARIATION: Sunbathing at the Seelie Court
2 ounces Lyre’s White Cane Spirit or other non-alcoholic white rum alternative
1 ounce Sexy AF Amar-Oh
1½ ounce of Nickel Dime Cocktail Syrups Fairy Dust
½ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
2 dashes of Cocktail Punk Pastiche Bitters
Add all ingredients to blender with ice.
Blend until smooth.
Serve in a highball or margarita glass.
Watch and/or read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
While most of the rest of Europe and many of its former colonies hopped on the prohibition bandwagon, the United Kingdom never instituted a ban on absinthe. Not because of any great cultural affection for it; in fact quite the opposite. While the French were can-canning with the fairies, absinthe never really caught on across the Channel.
Not exclusively, I think, because they were living through their restrictive and oppressive Victorian Era during France’s Belle Époque, but because the people of the British Aisles know that Fairies are dangerous as hell and should be strenuously avoided whenever possible. Even those of the Seelie Court, the fairies more like humans who are occasionally friendly or even helpful to us (and the namesake for this week’s cocktail), but especially those from the Unseelie Court, who will attack humans at night without provocation, just for the sport of it.
Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is set in an alternate history Regency England, where magic is real, magician is a recognized profession like professor or Member of Parliament, and a curmudgeonly old sorcerer and his dashing young pupil spend over a decade as frenemies locked in a bitter rivalry over who is the greatest magician in England.
In case you were wondering why I’m recommending a book and miniseries that is set in:
1) England, rather than France;
2) The Regency Period, and ends more than 40 years before the first known Absinthe Drinker was committed to canvas;
3) About magicians, rather than artists and poets living in Montmartre garrets,
it’s because Susanna Clarke’s story makes it very, very clear why you should STAY THE HECK AWAY FROM FAIRIES. Even if— no, especially if they are not the product of copper toxicity fueled sleep deprivation.
Much of it takes place in the English countryside and in London but there are detours to Venice, Spain, and Portugal (to support the Duke of Wellington with magic, of course), and all of the main characters are complicated, frustrating, lovable, defendable, infuriating, and interesting human beings.
Except, of course, the one who isn’t human at all.
The story features actual sorcery, a mad king, war, an apocalyptic cult, zombies, freakin’ Napoleon, and still the scariest thing in the entire book is one solitary fairy.
And it’s not even close.
Written intentionally (and I think very successfully), in a Jane Austen-like Regency style appropriate to its historical setting, it is also very long, the combination of which has caused more than a few people I know not to finish it. I encourage you to try, because it really is phenomenal, and I was delighted by the virtuosic exercise of a writer completely in command of this style, despite finding the one Jane Austen novel I have read (Sense and Sensibility) agonizingly boring when I had to read it in college.
Luckily, if you just can’t make it through the book (or if you prefer a much shorter time investment) Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was made into a fantastic miniseries a few years ago. It’s the rare page to screen adaptation that cuts a ton of the source material without compromising the plot, major characters, or general tone of the story, and I cannot recommend it enough. Unfortunately, it’s no longer on Netflix, but you can purchase it or rent it from Apple, Amazon, Google Play, or YouTube for around $15-20.
Much less than you might spend shopping eBay for vintage absinthiana in preparation for the all non-alcoholic can-can parties and poetry salons we will get to have in 2022.
Until next week, keep your drinks zero-proof and your heures vertes éternelles!
Burke & Hare’s Howling Woods candle, which makes my apartment smell like I’m living in a box of Good & Plenty, and Lvnea’s Les Lunatiques perfume, which smells like absinthe bubblegum, respectively.
In Absinthe: The Exquisite Elixir, authors Breaux and Wittels claim that in France this was, in part, funded by a wine industry threatened by absinthe’s popularity.
Ed. note: it does not
Only one recorded death has been attributed to an “overdose” of wormwood, and that was in 1997 when a guy drank an entire bottle of steam-distilled wormwood oil intended for use and dilution in perfume, which he ordered off the internet, mistaking it for absinthe.
Frozen cocktails require a higher sugar content than those that are stirred or shaken, because cold decreases our sweet taste receptors, making bitter flavors taste more pronounced, and because sugar acts to bind the ice into a smooth, stable consistency that melts more slowly. This is true for all frozen cocktails, not just this one, so if you’re looking to cut down on sugar, be warned before going to town on a bunch of virgin frozen margaritas at your next Taco Tuesday.