May 16, 2009

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A lifted prohibition
Absinthe is not for the weak (or the cheap)
By Tim Protzman food@hippopress.com

At the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, there are two great works by American Modernist Edward Hopper.

He’s most famous for his 1940s-era “Nighthawks,” which shows three people in a well-lit diner surrounded by darkened streets. The painting from the Currier shows his diverse use of light and color, as it’s an early morning scene in diffused light. It’s called “The Bootleggers,” and it shows a boat approaching a Victorian-looking house on a beach. Nothing about the painting says liquor, hoodlums or smuggling, but the title’s powerful enough to conjure up images of a large mother ship with whiskey and rum laying off Portsmouth, sending little rum-running speedboats to tiny rendezvous points on the rocky coast. Imagine having to make an appointment to meet your bootlegger in a park or at a McDonald’s just to surreptitiously obtain an illegal six-pack. We wine drinkers can be really happy that we don’t have to go to France or Italy to buy cases of wine and then smuggle them back to the United States disguised as cheap plaster statues of Joan of Arc or Mussolini if we opted for the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

The only organized crime figure I ever knew was Buddy R. He was in the cockfighting racket. And it took a lot of organization. Making flyers, recruiting the roosters, parceling out the bodies of the losers for soup.

I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic for the older days of wine and roses ever since I saw an old framed menu on the wall of a restaurant. A lobster roll was $1.25. A draft beer was 15 cents. There was a list of old cocktails — Alexanders, Highballs and something called a Soul Kiss, a potent brew of  3/4 ounce of Bourbon, 1 1/2 teaspoons of Dubonnet, 3/4 ounce of Dry Vermouth and 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of orange juice.

I made this drink recently and updated it a little. I used a 1/3 ounce of Dubonnet, 1 ounce of Bourbon, 1/2 ounce of Dry Vermouth and filled the Old Fashioned glass with ice and then orange juice. This gives the drink a modern update and moves it into the fruit-based cocktail area of our contemporary palates, away from the medicinal, herby and bitter flavors prefered by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

I think that during Prohibition there was a vast amount of guilt around drinking illegally and they purposely made the cocktails strong, wild, bitter and unruly tasting. It was as much an endurance contest as it was an evening of socialization.

When I talk of Prohibition and my moonshining family in the West Virginian panhandle, I always get the younger ones trying to compare it to marijuana. But before the 1960s very few people used hemp as a social lubricant. And even though many claim that our founding fathers used hemp tinctures medicinially and perhaps even socially, way more people drank than smoked or took cannabis drops.

And, yes, I see parallels between George the Bootlegger and George the Dealer, but to really understand the effect of Prohibition you have to imagine something like outlawing the driving of cars on Tuesdays or making the Internet illegal to see what it’s like to prohibit something after like 300 years of it being an ingrained part of our social culture and history.

And that’s exactly what I did last week. I tried something that was illegal. Until 2007. Now, just like 1933 all over again, it’s legal. It’s called absinthe.

I used to drink Pernod. Which tatses like absinthe with all the anise and fennel tastes, but without the wormwood or gall, which was thought to drive absinthe drinkers insane and led to the banning of it prior to Prohibition. Now it’s back.

In New Hampshire there are two nice traditional absinthes available. They aren’t cheap and if you’re not used to liquor they’ll taste awful: Lucid Absinthe Superieure for $60.49 and Grande Absenthe Absinthe Originale for $54.99.

In my opinion, the thing about absinthe that gets you so wacked isn’t the wormwood, it’s that absinthe is 106 proof or 53 percent alcohol. That puts it in a class with Rum 151 and Wild Turkey. With absinthe you taste alcohol. You taste licorice, you taste bitter herbs. And you get a little wacky. Like on half a Xanax. It lifts and separates. It’s pleasant but not overwhelming. But you gotta get past the herby taste. And don’t be fooled by the little rituals. Don’t mix it with water (it turns cloudy), don’t flame it over a sugar cube (after a few you’ll burn your house down). Just pour a half a shot and sip. I haven’t got this far, but it makes a unique cocktail. Absinthe mixes well with citrus, especially grapefruit. (The online cocktail recipes call for mixing it with Bailey’s Irish Cream, of all things!)

Absinthe is a pre-dinner cocktal drink or a post-dinner digestive. It’s too strong to sip all night and too floral and herbaceous to blend into fruit-based cocktails without you knowing it’s there.

Here are this week’s wines:

• 2003 Raimat —$9.99. From the Spanish wine region of Costers del Segre, near Priorat. Good value wine with plum, grape and candied apple fruit. Somewhat thin and wan, but better with food. Tempranillo grapes.

• 2005 Condado de Haza — $33.29. From Ribera del Duero in Spain. A little tannic with tobacco, chocolate and lead pencil flavors. I wanted a bit more from this wine.

• 2006 Taz Vineyards Pinot Noir — $24.99. This is the kind of wine I’d meet a one-eyed thug in a back alley to buy. Yummy with plum, prune, elderberry and cinnamon flavor notes. MY FAVORITE of the WEEK!!! And it’s American from Santa Barbara County! (Sideways country.)

• 2007 Sola Fred — $11.99. A rough little composition from Monsant in Spain. Nice region to watch, along with the drier wines from Costers del Segre, but disregard this selection.          

 


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8/21/2008 AVA in search of a movie
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8/7/2008 Wine at the game
7/24/2008 Reviving a star
7/17/2008 Champagne staycation
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2/21/2008 His & hers bottles
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2/8/2007 A glass of sweetness
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A Year Of Wine
An Around-The-World Holiday
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The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot
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Presenting A New England Vodka
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Rewarding Your Support Staff
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Sitting By The Fire And Dreaming Of Wine
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What it means to miss N.O.
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