Night Crawler

As the Wormwood Turns

Graven begins preparing cocktails for the crowd, filling the crystal reservoir in the bottom of each glass with absinthe and straining ice-cold water through a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon. As the water drips through, it forms cloudy pearls that pierce the green pool, then rise again to diffuse the absinthe with a shimmering translucent glow. This is the louche, a principal component to absinthe enjoyment. The Deva is most beautiful; it is clear how artists were inspired to re-create the almost supernatural shade of green in their work, but everybody is eager to try the Swiss red variety, for novelty's sake. The crowd sips and discusses the merits of each individual brand, the complexity of the flavor, the subtlety of layers.

Made from the extract of wormwood, absinthe was once thought to cause absinthism, characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, and hallucinations. Proponents of the drink, however, note that the symptoms are as likely to be attributed to the high alcohol content (up to 75 percent) as anything else. Though the intoxication from absinthe is noticeably different from that of most alcoholic beverages -- slightly more lucid and empathetic to intent observation -- the hallucinatory aspect, so often attributed to the quaff by those who have not had it, is largely overemphasized.

"I've drunk a lot of absinthe in my life," admits Myrddin, "and only once have I had even mild distortions in perception -- trailers and slight wavering around my peripheral vision."

"The studies that outlawed absinthe were conducted over 100 years ago by injecting guinea pigs," sighs Kallisti. "There is more thujone [the active ingredient in wormwood] in your average turkey stuffing than in a bottle of absinthe." According to Matthew Baggott's Frequently Asked Questions about absinthe, vermouth, chartreuse, and benedictine all contain small amounts of thujone, and wormwood has been a longtime favorite flavoring for vodka in Sweden.

"If you get into the history of absinthe," continues Kallisti, "you realize that the temperance movement was started by French wine producers who were hysterical because absinthe had become the drink du jour. Their sales were plummeting, so they concocted absinthe hysteria."

The partygoers sip their milky green cocktails and recall the dark days when they had to concoct their own absinthe from half-complete recipes.

"You ever smell valerian root?" asks a blue-tressed lass between tarot card readings. "It smells like a cemetery and dirty socks, but it doesn't make you jump back. It's vaguely enticing."

"Homemade absinthe tastes like dish detergent," suggests another guest.

"You don't really want to drink more than four glasses, even of the good stuff," warns Kallisti as the third round is poured. "The hangover is awful, a little like Jagermeister."

More guests arrive with a very harsh-tasting Portuguese brand. They flounce about in corsets and bloomers, draping themselves over armchairs, trying to look drawn and desolate, like the woman in Degas' The Absinthe Drinker, but it's no good; the party is in full swing. The delicate ritual of absinthe pouring gives way to absinthe martinis and a New Orleans favorite, absinthe and 7UP.

"It's hot there," says Myrddin with gravity as the fire crackles, the tarot cards shuffle, and the absinthe gently glows.

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