Toward the end of his short life, painter Vincent Van Gogh consumed a steady diet of intoxicants. Chief among them was absinthe, a potent, pale green, anise-tinged spirit that was all the rage at the time, especially among the painter’s fellow bohemians in 1880s Paris.
Van Gogh had such a love of “the Green Fairy,” as it was called, that he devoted a still life to the drink — three years before his death. On April 12 and 13, “Vincent,” a one-man play (written by the late Leonard Nimoy) at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts will explore Van Gogh’s private life, and a preamble on opening night will be devoted to la fée verte.
Before the April 12 performance, the Patchogue Arts Council will hold an absinthe tasting in the theater’s lobby, and in an ornate traditional style: diluted with water and sweetened with sugar, as it would have been sipped by Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde.
“Sometimes, if you’re not drinking [absinthe] the right way, you’ll dislike it,” said Beth Giacummo, executive director of the Patchogue Arts Council, which has organized the event. “There’s a mystery to it, and it can be a very different experience,” compared with other kinds of alcohol.
The tasting begins at 6 p.m. and will star three U.S.-produced absinthes as well as an absinthe fountain, an urnlike tower that slowly drips water into absinthe, usually over a sugar cube, to bring the spirit into full bloom. Those additions render absinthe murky, mellower and a little bit sweet, as well as dilute its high proof. “The ritualistic aspect of preparing absinthe is part of its experience,” Giacummo said.
Absinthe, born at the hands of French doctor Pierre Ordinaire in the 1790s, gains its bright hue from chlorophyll-rich herbs (namely anise) and botanicals. The spirit hit the big time under Henry-Louis Pernod, whose family purchased Ordinaire’s recipe and produced millions of liters of the stuff throughout the ensuing decades. (Pernod and pastis are cousins to absinthe).
Absinthe’s popularity began to peak in the late 1800s — first, with the French aristocracy and later, people of all classes, including writers and painters, who were keen on its purported mind-bending effects. L’heure verte, or the ‘green hour,’ became a widespread pre-dinner custom.
But just as that fever crested, so did anti-absinthe sentiment: Wormwood, one of the original distillates (and specifically thujone, one of its components) was said to corrupt the mind, and by 1915 absinthe with thujone was being banned for sale in the United States and parts of Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, absinthe is now legal in the United States (as long as it doesn’t contain thujone), though most of the time you’ll find it as a cocktail ingredient. The tasting in the Patchogue Theatre lobby will be a full-on historic recreation, said Giacummo: Some staff will dress as Green Fairies, there will be faux cypress trees, and green screens will enable guests to take pictures of themselves with Van Gogh’s paintings. (They’ll be small bites on hand as well).
Of the three absinthes to be opened, only one (Leopold Bros Absinthe Verte) will be the traditional green; guests will also taste crimson-hued Corsair Red Absinthe, distilled with hibiscus, tarragon, citrus and dragon wormwood, as well as Vilya Spirits Extrait d’Absinthe Blanche, a clear absinthe.
The tasting costs $35 on its own, or $60 with the performance.
WHAT: Pre-performance absinthe tasting for “Vincent,” a one-man, one-act play about Vincent Van Gogh
WHERE: Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St. Patchogue
WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. on April 12
COST: $35 for just the tasting; $60 for tasting and performance
Three places to drink absinthe on LI
Much of the absinthe in Long Island bars is used as an ingredient in cocktails such as a variation of Sazerac. Finding absinthe served the traditional way, with water and sugar, is trickier. These three Long Island spots can oblige:
62 Park Ave., Long Beach; 516-431-7846, lbsocialny.com
LB Social has an absinthe fountain on one end of the bar, and uses it to dilute an absinthe called Vieux Carré, distilled in Philadelphia.
387 S. Oyster Bay Rd., Plainview; 516-653-0090, brasseriecassis.com
This French spot keeps two absinthes on hand — Grande Absente and Pernod Absinthe — to pair with its ornate absinthe tower, which drips water across a sugar cube into the drink.
Blackbird Kitchen and Cocktails
3026 Merrick Rd., Wantagh, 516-654-9200, blackbirdli.com
Bartender Jonathan Gonzales prefers to leave absinthe dilution in the hands of his guests, supplying the spirit, a carafe of water and some simple syrup so you can blend to taste. He keeps two absinthes behind the bar, one each from California and France.