Thursday, May 24, 2012

Plunging into the absinthe abyss

Phnom Penh Advisor, May 24, 2012

“Don’t drink it. This stuff is poison.” That’s how Johann starts his sales pitch.

Johann’s story is an advertiser’s dream. He’s been running a small distillery on the nearly-deserted Koh ta Kiev for the last eight months, creating absinthe, an aromatic green spirit notoriously associated with creativity and madness. But his marketing technique seems intended to discourage potential customers. “It tastes like shit,” he tells me, then adds, “Don’t put that in, but actually, it tastes worse than shit.” I can’t tell if he’s joking.

I met Johann, a charismatic California native whose lanky 6’8” frame is covered in tattoos, when I recently visited the islands. He showed me his distillery, a small, efficient setup that allows him to produce hand-crafted absinthe on an island that has neither electricity nor running water. The setup is also mobile, which means Johann, who goes by his first name, can easily move from island to island as the whim takes him.

Despite his protestations, I eventually try the stuff, a special batch he made that’s 85% alcohol by volume, or strong enough to power my boat back to the Sihanoukville mainland and very likely the world’s most potent absinthe. And surprisingly, it’s pretty good. Taken straight, the absinthe hits you with a blast of alcohol and bitterness. But when it’s served the traditional way, mixed with caramelised sugar and cold water, the bitterness is balanced by the delicate taste of anise and a bouquet of other herbs.

Absinthe has a long history, filled with folklore and whispers of licentiousness. Referred to in historical literature as ‘the green fairy’ due to its perceived psychoactive properties, the drink was popular in 19th-century Paris with bohemians who believed it gave an unnatural clarity and enhanced creative expression. Absinthe was also (perhaps incorrectly) associated with violent crime, insanity, and other social ills, which led to its being banned in many countries in the early 1900s.

In recent years some of the laws banning absinthe have been repealed. But while fluorescent green concoctions labeled absinthe have begun showing up on liquor stores shelves around the world, they usually lack any noticeable amount of the key ingredient that defines the spirit: wormwood. Wormwood itself isn’t illegal in most places, but a chemical compound found in it, thujone, is widely banned due to its hallucinogenic properties.

Johann began making underground absinthe in the United States 15 years ago. When he moved his operation to Cambodia he switched to using rice instead of grapes as his base. Making his product, Abyss Absinthe, in Cambodia allows him to use as much wormwood as he pleases, which means his product also offers a little-known benefit to local drinkers: wormwood is so named because of its historical use combating intestinal parasites.

It’s also extremely bitter, so Johann adds an additional 12 herbs to help flavour the drink, including anise, melissa, liquorice, lemon peel, mint, star anise and fennel. He adds damiana as well, a Mexican herb believed to be an aphrodisiac. Damiana’s status as a ‘love drug’ seemed to be borne out by an absinthe party on Koh ta Kiev a few weeks ago that reportedly turned into an expat orgy that had the whole island buzzing. Since then, Johann’s had a hard time keeping the stuff on the shelves.

Perhaps absinthe evokes Impressionist Paris, but it also turns out to be right at home on a tropical island. The green phosphorescence in the waters seem to glow that much brighter after a glass or two and I suddenly understand why Johann does what he does. As he puts it, “I live on an island and I make booze. How much better does it get than that?”

  You can find Abyss Absinthe in Sihanoukville at the following locations: Utopia, MoMo’s and Done Right and Wish You Were Here on Otres Beach and on Koh Rong at Paradise Bungalows and Monkey Island.