I've been working hard to edit Spin the World Around: One Man's Mission for Intention and Unconditional Love and make it the most notable travel memoir since Eat, Pray, Love... except it covers 24 countries instead of 3 and is about a guy instead of a girl. Anyway, I wanted to share this fun story about my experience with Absinthe in the Czech Republic with an excerpt from the upcoming book.
"I can tell you so many bloody stories," the ornery British bartender bellowed in an accent somewhere between England and Australia. "I was serving at this bar down the street, and a guy wanted me to give him a third shot of absinthe. I don’t serve anyone a third shot. I told him, 'No way!' They made me do it, so I gave it to the fucker. Bloody hell. Two hours later, I got a call from the fire brigade that the guy took his pants off and was dancing naked at another club. Of course, the cops came," he bellowed. "Never drink a third shot of Absinthe."
(Brno) – With a flexible schedule, I stopped in Brno on the way from Prague to Bratislava for one night. I was originally going to stay with Dave Moriarty’s parents, but that fell through, so I checked into the Hostel Mitte around 5pm, just after sunset. For 15 euro, a bunk in what I called a luxury hostel provided modern rooms and comfortable beds in a smoke-free environment.
Over a dinner of roasted goose with dumplings at Hostinec U Seminaro, I planned an absinthe bar crawl. The hostel provided a great map, and suggestions from Dave got me started. At 7:30pm, I visited the Traubka. It was dead, but I sat down at one of the old sewing machines used as a table and ordered myself a shot of Bairnsfather Bitter, whose appropriate slogan was, "Create Your Own Reality."
There were multiple angles on the absinthe legend. Derived from a plant called wormwood, which herbalists used as a treatment for parasites, it contained an active ingredient called thujone. Some say thujone can cause hallucinations, and it may have led Vincent Van Gogh to cut off his ear. Others say that Van Gogh was simply a mentally unstable alcoholic artist, and thujone was an overblown myth. I wanted to sample both sides of the argument.
With its high percentage of thujone, the taste of Bairnsfather Bitter was somewhat dreadful — a cross between liquorish, Scope mouthwash, and a concoction my camp had made for the Austin version of Burning Man where I dumped a bunch of wormwood extract into a bottle of vodka and called it absinthe. I could feel more than the alcohol as soon as it touched my tongue, but I never drank enough to trip balls.
The absinthe legend went beyond thujone though, and it involved how the beverage was made. Bairnsfather was "bohemian style," made from the process of maceration, whereby a previously distilled spirit such as Everclear was poured over the herbs, allowing their character to infuse into the beverage. I soon learned that "bohemian style" absinthe was only one type, and though it would get you pretty messed up between the high proof alcohol and infused herbs, by some accounts, it wasn't the "good stuff."
To be debriefed on the other side of the debate, I visited Naproti, a pub just northwest of center. I had to ring a doorbell to be let in, and the place featured a Volcano to allow customers to vape marijuana, which was very much decriminalized in Czech Republic and could be openly smoked in clubs. Naproti's menu included vintage absinthe varieties that did not use the maceration process. For these, the herbs were distilled with the liqueur. As such, these choices did not have high levels of thujone like the Bairnsfather Bitter. The taste was more agreeable and similar to the Mediterranean liqueurs I’d experienced in Greece, Turkey, and Israel -- such as Ouzo, Raki, Elite Ha’arak, and even Tsipouro.
Naproti served absinthe ceremoniously the traditional way. This had nothing to do with a sugar cube or fire, but a small water-tap that dripped water into the poured glass of absinthe. As the water drops mixed with the liqueur, the oil extracts precipitated out, and the drink turned velvety white, like most of the other Mediterranean liquors. Connoisseurs told me that it was not true absinthe if you couldn’t select your beverage’s opacity by adding water. It was enlightening to experience the myths and legends of Absinthe in a country like the Czech Republic, where Absinthe had been part of the culture for a long time. After a restful night of sleep at the hostel, I took the train to Slovakia after having survived drinking more than three shots of absinthe in one night, albeit a little hungover.