A Gonzo Journey Through Berlin's Absinthe Bars
Berlin has four absinthe bars. I don’t think that’s nearly enough. I decided to visit them in one night to see if I, in not becoming a degenerate, might encourage the building of more.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
I tasted absinthe for the first time in the late 90s. A bar in the Welsh coastal town I lived in was rumoured to have imported a crate of it from somewhere—the Czech Republic or Hungary, perhaps. No one knew exactly, but somewhere that sounded like old forests and goblets. We drank it in the afternoons at the window tables. Outside, grey surf smashed against the pebble beach. Inside, green waves broke against our brains. We had no idea what we were doing, and neither did the bar. They gave it to us undiluted, without la louche, and we dropped our sugar cubes straight into the spirit. We dipped thumbs into our glasses and lit the tips on fire. We staggered about, drunker than we'd ever been, unaware that what we were drinking was absinthe in name alone. Possibly it was 'Hill's Absinthe', one of the bohemian versions first imported to the UK once the ban was lifted, but this is (I now know) a drink regarded by The Wormwood Society to be merely a luminous green, 70 percent ABV vodka. We were children who thought they were men.
Hopefully that bar now sells real absinthe and serves it properly. It was not their fault. The 'Green Fairy' had been banned, by then, for most of the century; a victim of paranoid authorities peddling fear of the effects of this 'poison': depression, hallucinations, violence, madness. Still, now, it has failed to wholly shake off its negative image. Mention 'absinthe' to your average Mensch and, although they might breathlessly describe an urge to try it, they might also mention a fear they might trip out and saw their ear off in a hayfield.
That won't happen. Thujone, a compound found in wormwood, and the active ingredient in absinthe, affects the body in much the same way as caffeine. If you do start hallucinating while drinking absinthe it's because you are drinking some of the poisonously shit stuff, or because you're a late-stage alcoholic. What you should experience is increased mental clarity and lucidity; a sort of drunkenness that heightens your senses, rather than the regular kind which poos on them.
Absinthe was once a phenomenon. Originating in Switzerland in 1792, it quickly spread across the continent and to the United States. By 1910, just before the ban, the French were consuming 36 million litres annually. Much of that was during ' L'Heure Verte' (the Green Hour), which started at 5 PM each day, when absinthe drinkers congregated in cafes to become wonky. (Think of it as 4:20 for men in tops and tails.) Van Gogh loved it, as did Rimbaud, Picasso, and Verlaine. Ernest Hemingway loved it too, and declared it to be "brain-warming, idea-changing alchemy." The taste of it (often anise) can rile some drinkers, but the effects? No.
When I moved back to Europe, I hoped to reacquaint myself with the drink, properly this time, and expected it to be easy to do, as it had been legal there for more than 15 years.
Germany's history with absinthe is unclear. Michael Schöll of Berlin's Absinth Depot told me that the shop's owner found "a collection of pornographic caricatures related to absinthe dated 1912" which, as far as he knows, are "pretty much the only proof of the consumption of absinthe in Germany [at that time]" and "lead us to believe that absinthe must have been available for those who really wanted to get their hands on it." But the caricatures' strong relation of absinthe to prostitution and degeneration makes it very likely that the only places it was available were the more gritty and 'dangerous' districts of Berlin (and maybe of other larger cities in Germany). According to the owner, "absinthe was seen as a drug rather than an alcoholic beverage."
As for the present, Berlin has four absinthe bars—that is, four bars dedicated to absinthe. I don't think that's nearly enough: there are 3.5 million people in Berlin. I decided to visit them in one night to see if I, in not becoming a degenerate, might encourage the building of more. I took my friend Ernests with me. Yes, you're reading that right, not 'Ernest' (as in Hemingway), but 'Ernests', like the Latvian tennis player. Ernests, who despises absinthe, was there for company and to look after me. For the latter, however, he was of little help. At the first bar, Ernests drank an absinthe, and continued to as the night wore on.
We start in the educational surroundings of the Absinth Depot, located in the Scheunenviertel, Berlin's old red light district. More than 100 different types of absinthe are sold there, and bottles jam the insides up to the high ceilings. The walls are covered with patterned, gold lamé wallpaper and period propaganda that tell you 'you will be alright'. Also for sale are silver spoons (for holding sugar cubes over the glass), and water fountains for your louche.
I drink a classic absinthe, Lemercier Amer, produced by a family distillery in southeastern France since 1811. The bottle notes: "A deliciously smooth, light, and refreshing drink with many typical absinthe flavours present: aniseed, wormwood, star anise, and liquorice. Notes of coriander, angelica, cardamom, and mint are also evident to some drinkers; 72 percent alcohol; 30-35 mg thujone." Both flavours and alcohol content are evident to me, and I am happy drinking my opalescent liquid, feeling my brain begin to warm, listening to what Ernests tells me is the Flying Burrito Brothers drifting from the speakers. Ernests, however, is ill at ease. His absinthe, which shall remain nameless, and which he chose because he doesn't like the taste of anise, is minty. It looks and tastes a little bit like Listerine, and is making him wretch theatrically. I stand between him and the bar to hide his squirming face from Michael, whom I don't want to upset, and draw Ernests' attention to a man who has just entered and who seems to be speaking in a language no one understands and pointing at things he refuses to buy. We watch him until he leaves, when our attention is drawn to an unattended bag by the counter.
Ernests speculates that it may be a bomb.
"Don't worry," I say, "this isn't an airport," and the next time we look, it's gone.
From there we take the U-Bahn to Druide in Prenzlauer Berg. Despite our different taste experiences, both of us agree we're feeling pretty dazzling. There is a spring in our step and a literary bent to our conversation. We look upon the world askance, knowingly, our brains giggling with wisdom and compassion for our fellow man. The yellow train skims our green bodies over the city through the dark in its long womb of clanking light, and we smile.
Skipping over the gloomed intersection, we arrive at the bar. But what is this?! Horror. It is loud, and the tables are full of heehawing plebs. Backpackers, perhaps. Years ago I might have been among them, but now I am old, have drunk a dictionary and an eyeglass, and, frankly, they revolt me.
This is where people come to get drunk, to smash themselves on absinthe, ignorant of its vivifying fruits. See the top-ten list of strongest, favouritist absinthes they peddle. It's like a bloody football league table. With a sigh we both order number 1, top of the top ten, Maldoror, a French absinthe, 66 percent alcohol, with 35 mg thujone. Before I can slap him in the face, the barman dips the sugar cube in my drink and sets it on fire. Admittedly, the little blue, wavering flame is pretty, but inside I weep. Hurriedly (which is no way to drink absinthe), we down our violated liquids, one eye swiveled to the exit. Before leaving, nature calls. As I move through the grim hubbub, one voice cries above the rest, "I love fucking science! Don't get me started!" And in the toilets I am shaken by the full-throated, lusty howl typical of a student about to 'av it large or someone seconds from releasing a soul-emptying gush of vomit. We flee. Yahweh, save us from these proles!
In Lauschangriff, a tram ride (on which one feels like an otter made of caterpillars) from P'Berg to Friedrichschain, we sink in to lush chairs and order absinthe from a bar conspicuously lacking it. The barman's pink skull rises up a ladder to reach a dusty bottle off the top shelf. He pours us a big shot of it. That's it. We ask for water, and are given a big glass of it each. Confused, we pour the absinthe into the water and sip our pints of cloud. What is it? 77.7 percent absinthe from Sachsen. Horrible. The walls are all red, crimson in fact. On it, I believe, are great glowing yellow big-lashed eyes, and nostrils as paintings. I ask the barman if this is the absinthe bar, Lauschangriff. "No," he says, "it's the same address but next door, and it's closed right now."
Oh well. The drink has no mouth and cannot therefore drink us or itself. We must act upon it as we would any other drink that waited for us. Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My' quivers through our skulls: "Once you're gone, you ain't never coming back." Both of us are finding it hard to speak. It's not that there isn't plenty to say. On the contrary, the thoughts are tumbling to the tongue, but they stick there, as if the organ is growing, swollen in some kind of waspy, anaphylactic wasp death. We lisp.
One of us says, "Toothpaste could be spread on the wasp to ease the pain."
Of course it could. There is truth in this. It is also true that, "there is life in the bottom of your buttons", that "the harmonica is a fine instrument for absinthe," and, sadly, "there is gland that cannot care about everything." But none of these facts make the living of life any easier, and as we loll in our seats and sink into sweet, toungue-batter babbling oblivion, Rage Against the Machine begins to play. It's angrier than the fairy wings flapping gossamer inside us and it becomes time to leave. To leave for another bar, on the brown, truncated line of the U5. Though our minds be bibbling now, we are steady on our feet, admiring the tiles of the station that pass, and feeling warm again toward man's machines that move him and all he endeavors to do in the name of what is good and right.
A girl is standing by us. One moment her face is calm, then she screws it up as if about to sneeze, and watery, red pepper sick splatters the ground. We run from the splash and the stink to another carriage, but here too there is sick on the floor, viscous and beige. As the train pulls in to our station, Ernests puts out his hand to open the door then snatches it back. A clod of sicky porridge clings to the handle.
In Zyankali, a 'cyanide bar' in Kreuzberg, a wizard in a lab coat, with long hair and a waxed and twizzled Dali-esque moustache, takes my order. On the bright yellow, bubbling menu are absinthe cocktails (with names like 'Menace to Sobriety'), Hapsburg (the world's strongest absinthe), and a selection of psychedelic shots containing agwa, cannabis, mandrake liquor, or paan. Also there are two types of homemade absinthe, one aged in a sherry cask. The bar is gleaming, hung with gas masks. I look around, Ernests is gone. I take Marilyn Manson's creation, Mansinthe, a suitably Satanic 66.6 percent, and watch the water fountain drip its slow drops into the goblet of it. Shadows cast on the wall, and I hear hectic jazz.
Marilyn claimed to have written his song 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' in 12 hours on a bottle of the green stuff. I hear those lyrics now as I swallow his juice: "So my bon mots, hit-boy Tommy Irons, rowdy rowdies, honey-fingered Goodbye Dolls, Hellzapoppin. Open your third nostril…"
I do that, breathe deep, eyes closed, and I hear different voice, not singing: "I will tell you about the tiny girdles of German whores."
"I'd like that," I say, and I open my eyes. Ernests has returned, is sitting in front of me on a black leather gurney, his grinning head framed by the luminous yellow crash-test dummy site walls. He leans forward as if to impart a secret, "Look into Marilyn Manson with reference to self-fellatio possibilities with or without rib removal." My head slumps forward, no, not to try it out, but because I am stupendously inebriated. I am high fizzing lone man, and your kidney dish of salted popcorn dries my mind. I look up. Ernests is nowhere to be seen. I take a turn around the place, hands clasped behind my back like a gentleman detective.
The walls are decorated with posters on astronomy, chemistry, the periodic table, alongside anatomical designs and medical advice – including one on how to treat a headache. One wall in a side room is completely covered in purple-lit, hanging tomato plants and, while I stare at it, a ghostly hand appears from its centre and hands me the drink I should have been carrying with me. In a lit cabinet by the stairs are shelves full of tiny skulls. Bird skulls perhaps. And I wonder if birds get headaches in the same way we do, and, if so, how they treat them. Is there a berry they go to? Is that what worms are for? And how did these ones get here? Where are their bodies? Are they ground up in the drinks? Did they remove their own ribs for fellatio? Are they like us? Like Marilyn?
I drink one of the homemade absinthes after my Mansinthe is gone, but with no-one to talk to and one more bar to visit, I decide to move on and take my lonesome carnival back across town.
At Lauschangriff, finally, I order a Capricieuse, an aromatic, 72 percent fellow; an old recipe. It's one of 17 absinthes on the menu, which also includes cocktails such as the Bloody Absinthe Brain. Though I am plump with the vivifying effects of my thujone, I have become tired. Not in the floppy way a skin-dweller gets after drinking beer, or whiskey, or wine, but in a thin, high, and tingling way a body might feel—its mind still free, but now out of reach—after a festival drug binge. I let its fumes overcome me. Against the wall is a long, curved metal sword which turns out to be a chair. I don't sit in it. I sit in something else. The bar's interior is red and dark, kind of plush, leathery; like being inside a Fallopian tube without all the little hairs. A man walks past me towards the reggae and tries to give me a low-five, which I return awkwardly, barely touching his palm. He doesn't mind. A black dog drinks from a bowl in the corner. At a standing table, two men in long coats discuss chess problems, their heads bent over a tiny wooden board. And by the window, next to a thin, bearded, dread-bunned man rolling a cigarette, another sits wordlessly eating a tray of sushi. I watch his mouth move, right up to the last piece. He puts the prawn tempura between his teeth, closes his lips, and I follow the tail as it flicks from side to side as chews. Then he flicks his head back like a wolf and it's gone.