The Green Fairy is Blue

Tonight was an uncommon surprise. Apparently, the Green Fairy has already fallen on hard times in Portland. Maybe it’s the economy, but I think there’s something even more sad going on.

I had the opportunity to invite a bunch of friends to go out for absinthe. So, I made plans. I called Integrity Spirits to find out if they had their tasting room open yet, and found out that they’d as yet been unable to work out all the issues with the OLCC. So, no tasting room. However, I was told that the Green Dragon next door not only had Trillium absinthe, but also had all the equipment for a proper ritual, including the water fountains.

Everything sounded excellent, so I announced to my friends that we’d be meeting at the Green Dragon for absinthe, and assumed all was set. Well, tonight was the night of the gathering and Green Dragon, I’m afraid to say, was an epic fail.

To be fair, the portabello mushroom burger I ordered was quite good. Further, I want to acknowledge that our server was new, and so should reasonably be given all kinds of slack. Even further, our server had, I apologize for this up front, one of the most attractive rear ends I’ve seen in person in many months, if not longer. However, the Green Dragon was a complete disappointment to me, and I was embarrassed by their approach to the service of absinthe.

They did indeed have a water fountain. It was quite attractive, and was prominently displayed on the bar. However, they would not offer to bring it to our table. They also discouraged us from going to the fountain to watch the loche happen. Moreover, they didn’t have even a single absinthe spoon, and also had not a single sugar cube anywhere.

The Green Dragon did not offer any absinthe mixed drinks, such as the chrysanthemum. Nope, not a single one. So that means they were intending to serve absinthe by itself. Yet, they were neither prepared nor willing to prepare it in a way that offered the experience of the ritual to their customers. So, why then, I wonder did they bother even having the water fountain at all? It’s as if they thought that, like a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear, that absinthe without an audience needed to be slowly mixed … without sugar, mind you … in order to be served. They clearly, and without any doubt, have completely missed the boat on that aspect of the experience.

Not only did they miss the boat, but they were pretty adamant about not accepting a lift in the life raft when offered. Their interest in absinthe appeared, and this is at a venue that is next door to the producer of the very absinthe itself, to be no more than to slop another syrup into a glass and shovel it for a swap of more money than it was worth.

I was finally able to get a mediocre explanation secondhand from someone through our server, who was trying her best to humour me during a busy night for which she and her amazing body are to be admired … but, I digress. It appears that Trillium is supposed to not have the bitterness of traditional absinthe and thus, they claimed, did not need the sugar. Yes, okay, how nice. Isn’t progress wonderful? They can do amazing things with plastics these days too, but I don’t want that in my absinthe either. I ended up roughing it with a spoon and a freakin’ packet of sugar with iced water poured from pint glass.

Where’s the ritual to this experience? I might as well soak anise in a bottle of 151 and save myself the trouble and expense of an $11 drink. And, how odd is it that someone offering to actually pay $11 for a drink is being told they cannot have it served how they like, and in a way that is completely reasonable and rational?

You can have your absinthe any way you like, apparently, as long as you take it without ritual or any richness of experience or appreciation for history. It’s as to real absinthe as Las Vegas’ New York is to the real New York … as one dimensional and cartoonish copy rendered without soul.

Well, I’d had enough. Instead of staying and paying, as we’d intended, a significant amount of money on food and absinthe at the Green Dragon; I, having had a rich and rewarding experience in the past, suggested we leave and relocate to Clyde Common.

Clyde Common was, as I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the first places to serve absinthe in Portland; and, in the early days it was significantly, without reservation, the best place for the experience. They did not have a water fountain yet, but they had a variety of spoons and were not only able but quite positively excited and willing to serve absinthe as an experience with meaning.

Only, how odd it was to find that even at Clyde Common the experience, in only a few months since I was last there, had already degraded to the point where my server gave me a similarly blank look when I asked for specific things, things which I’d had there in the past. There was little initial ritual to the service of our absinthe, and when I started to ask for more I got much the same sadly blank reaction from a server that clearly was not familiar with the experience.

Clyde Common did, in the interim since I was last there, get a fountain, but they had it behind the bar and also had little interest in moving it. They still had spoons, but our initial service was of already prepared absinthe, having removed all of the ritual from view. Also, when I ordered mixed cocktails with absinthe, our server had no idea what I was asking for … and I later learned that the bar had to use their iphone to look up the recipe for a drink that I had ordered there in the past several times. (Well, thanks internet! I owe you one, I guess.)

When I asked, after my companions had experienced absinthe once there already, and tasted a variety of mixed absinthe cocktails, for our next round to be served with an actual slotted spoon at our table, and to have the absinthe poured over the sugar cube so that it could be set aflame … I was told no.

Wait. What? I had to explain everything I asked for several times, and this was no exception. The server was confounded by what I was asking and when he went to ask at my insistence, he returned with the excuse that they don’t do that. Of course, I then explained that they had done that several times in the past, in fact, thus making my request not unreasonable at all …

Finally, the person in charge of the bar came up to our table, on the mezzanine to talk with me directly. He explained that the bar manager didn’t really like the idea of having burning things at the tables (in spite of the fact, I didn’t bother to point out, that there were 3 burning candles on our table alone) and, more reasonably he pointed out that the burning of the absinthe on the sugar cube was more eastern european and not really traditional. [While perhaps vaguely true, I was recently assured by my friend Joseph that, when he was recently in Paris, he was in fact served absinthe in this very fashion; Q.E.D. a fortiori, bitches! – 12oct08 @ 11:15pm] Further, that doing that changed the flavour.

Well, how bizarre that a drink that’s only been around since slightly before the 1900’s could have the quite evident historical preparation be divided into a historic-but-traditional and historic-but-non-traditional service like that; but, fine, I pointed out that the change in flavour was part of the reason to do it, since it caramelized the sugar and changed the temperature of the absinthe; and, since my friends at the table were not able to experience the loche, this was another reason for asking for the full experience.

To the credit of Clyde Common, and further proof that Green Dragon was a sad mistake, is that once I had taken the time to demonstrate and explain my own enthusiasm for the experience; the staff at Clyde Common went even further than I had asked. Not only did we have then the chance to experience the loche, see the ritualized use of the slotted spoon and a real sugar cube, but they even brought the fountain to our table.

For the amount of money that we dropped, I sure feel like I had to do a surprising amount of work to get the experience we were not only hoping to have but for which we were excitedly willing to pay.

The Green Dragon was an epic fail. Clyde Common proved itself to be far from common, but required more effort than it should have. In the end, the Green Fairy is in sorry shape in Portland.

Update 12oct08 @ 11:24pm:

Added to this experience, I want to reflect that absinthe extract, essentially what’s called Bohemian absinthe, makes quite excellent homemade hard candy. I forgot how easy making hard candy is to do; well, not including clean-up I suppose, but it’s still easier to clean up than fondue, which difficulty is a tragedy of cosmic proportions.

Also, there is apparently a venue that’s opened near Wonder Ballroom in NE which I am told offers a respectable absinthe experience, so at some point I’ll have to drag myself and others to check out the lounge at the Secret Society Ballroom & Recording Studio … which just with a name shows a certain, exciting promise.