In our unskilled attempt to lead a life of debauchery we’ve ended up in Breck’s Absinthe bar. Two things need to be said right away. First: we are now officially allowed to call Breckenridge: Breck. We’ve spent more than 3 weeks here and earned that privilege. And the second: we had absolutely no idea that Absinthe bar would be actually serving - you know - absinthe.
That just shows how naive we are. I’ve always thought that absinthe is something that has been drunk only in 19th century France. And even then by a fraction of a society that would have nothing to do with a good old bourgeoisie, which - for better or worse - we are now a part of.
It is late Sunday night. And even in a lively Breck Sunday nights in September are not exactly teeming with social possibilities. So we are the only customers in the bar. My first reaction in a situation like this (no-one else in the bar with the exception of your significant other) is to flee. Alas, it is too late. We are spotted by the bartender (and the owner of the place as it turns out) and offered seats at the bar.
And it is a beginning of a very lovely evening. Drinking absinthe resembles a bit a religious experience. First you try the drink unaltered, then you get a tank of iced water, a cube of sugar and a special absinthe spoon to make your own concoction. Adding sugary water is called louching (shading) and during the process all kinds of chemical reactions conspire to free up scents, tastes and colors. We order 2 different types of absinthe and commence the lengthy procedure coached by Alfonso (the owner). We suspect him to be French, but as it turns out he is Italian by the way of Belgium. Don’t you just love the small old continent twisted paths.
What makes this adventure even more illicit is that during most of the 20th century producing and consuming absinthe was illegal in most of the Western world. Apparently for no good reason. Well, the drink is usually made with the addition of wormwood, which contains thujone, long suspected to have hallucinogenic effect. The scientific proof of that is elusive. The fact that test subjects need to get drunk to get tested probably throws the researchers off. But now absinthe is back in bars again. Although in US it cannot be sold in packaging that project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects. It’s because in US only big farma is allowed to cause mind-altering effects. Cue in Do you have problems being happy? Is your antidepressant not enough? Ask your doctor about debilify. And while Americans cannot legally drink till they’re 21, they are put on psycho-stimulant drugs as soon as they learn to speak.
Absinthe is by no means the only menace to society according to the Food and Drug Administration. Much less known Polish Żubrówka is illegal since it contains trace amounts of coumarin. And coumarin is a prohibited additive: it suppresses the appetite. Let’s just say, without too much finger pointing, that over the last year we have seen some areas of this beautiful country where Żubrówka should be forced on people in huge amounts precisely because of its supposedly appetite suppressing effects. For now though, especially for an American market, Polish distillers are producing Żubrówka without coumarin but with artificial flavors and colors. I hear drinking it makes one crave hamburgers. Which is just fine with the FDA.
But of course we don’t talk about things like that with Alfonso. What we do engage in is a much gentler form of America bashing. You know - the kind that older siblings afflict on their younger brothers and sisters. Alfonso points out that Americans do not even know why Rimbaud was shot by Verlaine (check out Total Eclipse by Agnieszka Holland with young Leonardo DiCaprio if you have no idea what’s that about). Judging by Walt Whitman, great advocate of temperance, Americans prefer their bisexual poets sober. Perhaps on account of greater firearm density.
We also talk about beer. The Absinthe bar has a great selection of European beers for less adventurous patrons. (And here I reflect quickly on a strange twist of fate that allows me to count myself among the more adventurous). Alfonso makes a point of serving each beer in a special glass: as in - he won’t serve it unless brewery has a special glass for it. In addition to the bar there is a fondue place upstairs. With real stuff. Not what they serve in the Melting Pot, he tells us.
Sober is the last thing that we are when, after being offered couple more kinds of absinthe to try, we leave the bar. Alfonso takes his red bicycle inside (everybody has to have a bicycle in Breck - it’s the law) and closes the place. We retire to the condo hoping that the warm starry night is not a hallucination of any kind.
We promised Alfonso we would be back. And we promised to bring friends. So come to Colorado to drink absinthe with us.