- Feb 23, 2009
Green fairy is here
he green fairy is believed to induce hallucinations because of its high alcohol content
I will free you first from burning thirst
That is born of a night of the bowl,
Like a sun 'twill rise through the inky skies
That so heavily hang o'er your souls.
At the first cool sip on your fevered lip
You determine to live through the day,
Life's again worthwhile as with a dawning smile
You imbibe your absinthe frappÃ©.
Absinthe Frappe, lyrics by Glenn McDonough
QUIETLY, the green fairy has tiptoed into India, flying right out of the bohemian bars and apartments of Paris, writings of Rimbaud, Wilde and Zola, and paintings of Degas and Van Gogh.
A few five-stars have started serving absinthe, as also a few bars in merry Goa, and a handful of liquor shops in upscale neighbourhoods like Bandra or Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. But a number of places still don't serve it.
The world's wildest drink, absinthe, comes with staggering baggage.
While it was banned in several parts of the world till recently, there was no ban in India mainly because our vast grey government had no clue it existed (some excise officials MiD DAY spoke to still don't know what it is). India has just started uncapping the first bottles of the world's most potent drink, which often packs up to 75 per cent alcohol close to double of whiskey or rum.
Absinthe has been linked to wild behaviour, murder and madness. Many also believe it was psychoactive, though the allegations have never been scientifically established. America banned it in 1912, with a leading magazine calling it "France's green curse".
Which is why perhaps Patel Wines at Cuffe Parade has been receiving a growing number of queries since it started stocking absinthe from last month. They have already sold four bottles at Rs 4,200 for a 500 ml bottle.
At Bandra too, absinthe notoriety is at work. "Price is no deterrent. We stock brands of vodka that cost more, and a 750 ml bottle of absinthe here costs Rs 4,099," said Mansur Sheikh of Silver Coin Wines at Bandra's Union Park. "We have 6-12 bottles at any time and sell five bottles to foreign and local buyers every month."
At the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower's Starboard, absinthe flows freely at Rs 750 plus taxes for a 60 ml shot.
They have been selling it since the end of 2008.
"The demand is definitely greater from our foreign clientele. There is no imposed limit on the amount we will sell to a customer," said a hotel spokesperson.
Far suburbs, however, are yet to warm up to it. "We don't get college students asking for it. It's mostly older clientele. Absinthe buyers form less than five per cent of our customers," said spirits wholesaler in Powai, Naveen Hotkar. Hotkar said absinthe had only been available for the last two months and his store has sold three bottles so far.
Hitting a wall
In Bangalore, however, absinthe hits a legal wall. Ananthmurthy, a liquor dealer with the Wine Merchants Association, Karnataka, said the maximum alcohol content permitted in the state was 44 per cent. The permitted alcohol content varies from state to state, he said.
Lounge bar Fuga on Castle Street lists absinthe on the menu. But it refused to serve our reporter when she asked for it.
"We used to serve absinthe one-and-a-half years ago, but not after we faced legal problems," said a spokesperson for the establishment. Regulars, however, say Fuga still serves it to them on special request.
Biju Nair, assistant F&B manager at the Zuri, said absinthe would hit the social drinking scene sooner than later.
"We are eagerly waiting for permission from the state excise department and this might happen soon," he said.
"But we won't be selling it by the bottle. It will be sold across our bars and every customer will be served just 60 ml as the spirit has a high alcoholic proof and excessive consumption can be hazardous."
Aditi Shah, 27, organiser and founder of Best of Bombay bar crawls, said absinthe certainly had a lot of curiosity attached to it. "However, I think it should be sold only in high-end restaurants and five-star hotels. Selling it at all outlets could lead to its abuse," she said, adding that it would be impossible to regulate the amount sold.
"You could stop selling it to me after one drink but you couldn't refuse accompanying friends. I think the best idea for an establishment stocking and serving it would be to either have waiters personally caution customers, or have a note on the menu mentioning that excessive consumption of absinthe is harmful."
A green, legal haze
Many hotels were not keen to stock absinthe. At the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai, stocking the green fairy isn't profitable.
"Absinthe is traditionally served in European countries where temperatures are low. Pushing the drink in Delhi or Kashmir would make more sense, but for Mumbai's climate and also taking into account the restricted demand from local clientele, we don't see much sense in serving it at our restaurants and bars," said Jasjit Singh, F&B Manager at the Four Seasons Hotel at Worli.
At Pune, Parag Kathuria, director of sales at Taj Blue Diamond, told Sunday MiD DAY: "We do not have the permit nor are we serving it in our restaurants."
Sanjay Bansod, F&B Cost Controller, Le MÃ©ridien, said: "We do not serve absinthe as we are only authorised to serve drinks which contain up to 50 per cent alcohol."
Laws seem to be unclear in and around Delhi. "Our hotel doesn't serve absinthe, though there is no specific reason for this," said Mamta Bhatt, a representative of Radisson MBD Hotel, Noida.
But Sahil Grewal, bar manager of the plush Den in Gurgaon, said: "The liquor is banned and any sale is undercover. Excessive consumption is dangerous. Since many foreign guests still demand it, we offer them Vacari Sambuca as a substitute."
The famed Smoke House Grill in GK II, too, has received similar requests. "We don't serve it in our bar because of its high alcohol content, though requests from well-travelled foreign clients never cease," said owner Shiv Karan Singh.
But Singh of Four Seasons, Mumbai, was quick to squash myths. "Absinthe is an aromatic drink containing aniseed and wormwood which was initially believed to produce hallucinogenic effects in the drinker. Research since has proved that the drink is safe for consumption," he said.
'Absinthe? What's that?'
The excise department of Karnataka was clueless about the drink. Excise deputy commissioner Ravi Shankar had no clue what this drink was all about. "The distributor has to take licence from the excise commissioner to import spirit or liqueur. But I have not heard of anything called absinthe," he said.
"We do not provide a license for any kind of liquor that has a particular peg limit or permissible amount of consumption," said Sanjeev Ahuja, deputy excise commissioner, Delhi.
"Every state has its own regulations but an imported alcohol under excise regulations can be routed and sold to other cities in the state if wine shops are stocking it here," said a retired joint commissioner from the excise department in Mumbai. "There are some exceptions when an alcohol is imported under the hotel's EXIM policy but if a wholesaler is allowed to sell it, there should be no problems in selling it anywhere in Maharashtra."
(With inputs from Urvashi Seth, Swati Kumari, Shree Lahiri and Debarati Palit)
Tryst with absinthe
Kunjal Botadra, 24, software engineer, Bangalore
"My first experience with absinthe was almost a year ago. The first thing that struck me was its bright green. We stuck to the traditional way to prepare the drink known as pelle, which is to pour ice water over a cube of sugar sitting in a spoon.
"My cousin's friend got it from the US but the proof wasn't very high. I've heard that the kind you get in Germany has a 70 per cent proof.
"It was really nice to see the sugar, ice and drink get infused into each other. Smoky vapours emanated from the glass: it was a really pretty sight. Though people claim that absinthe has hallucinating effects, we sadly didn't get much buzz."
Sumana Jayanth, MiD DAY feature writer from Bangalore
"Our gang was excited when a friend coming back from Germany mentioned he had a surprise for us. We met and he pulled out this bottle of green liquid: my first encounter with absinthe.
"After explaining how to prepare it, he wished us good luck and left. But disregarding his advice and trying to make it simpler, we just poured some sugar in the glass, poured the alcohol and added some water. It tasted sweet. We emptied our glasses in a fraction of a second. We didn't feel a thing and so decided it was time to pour out a second one. This time, it hit us.
I began to wonder why the walls of my house turned green. I saw clouds of colour around me, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. The colours then began to feel a bit blinding, and so I headed for the balcony to stare at the sky in the warm summer night. I felt rainbows were exploding on the horizon.
"I staggered back in to find some of my friends deeply engaged in a conversation on life and death, and the rest were hazy to say the least."
What is absinthe?
Absinthe is a strong herbal spirit distilled with a great number of flavourful herbs like anise, licorice, hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm, angelica and wormwood. Its nickname, the green fairy, is because it is a natural green. It could also be colourless.
Absinthe has an extraordinarily high alcoholic proof ranging from 45 to 75 per cent. It gained notoriety because of the presence of wormwood in the spirit which is derived from the essence thujone, classified as a convulsing poison. Recent research has, however, proved that absinthe has no harmful effects on the drinker, though patrons do claim to have hallucinated under its influence.
How is it served?
Absinthe (30ml or 60ml) is placed in a glass and a special slotted spoon is placed above the glass with a sugar cube on it. Cold water is then slowly dripped on to the sugar cube until the water to alcohol ratio reaches 3:1 or 5:1. It is also a popular cocktail ingredient.
Green fairy is here