Drunk by the very best of Parisian artistic society in the late 19th century, absinthe is a drink that has fascinated me for some time – well, at least since its revival in the last decade and it's unbanning in many European Union countries.
What is it? Why is it so awful that it was banned for years?
Those are the sort of questions that run through one's head.
Even the traditional preparation is about as Bohemian as it's possible to imagine.
Take a glass with a shot of absinthe, then place a special slotted spoon across the top, with a sugar cube on it. Drizzle ice-cold water on the sugar, so that it slowly dissolves into the absinthe, thus making a cloudy mixture as the herbs in the spirit are brought out. There's even a word for the cloudy look – louche, which rather adds to the mystique.
Well, there I was in Manchester, feeling not remotely grim up north and having discovered Vanilla, a most conducive lesbian bar just off the legendary Canal Street.
Having an evening to kill, I was attempting to look sophisticated by drinking G&Ts (apparently, my desire to have the Gordon's gin rather than the house standard was a sign of poshness) and trying to make myself generally agreeable to a very friendly crowd.
Now, lesbian bars and I have a history, which goes back to Amsterdam some years ago, when I visited Saarein. Delighted to see a pool table, I came instantly unstuck when it was made clear that hustling was out – this was uncompetitive pool. Which was a bit like suggesting I visit Manchester to watch City play uncompetitive football matches – although some might say that's been the reality for years.
I made an effort – which itself seemed oddly opposed to the idea of an uncompetitive game – but I readily confess to being utterly hopeless at not trying to win. Suffice it to say that I impressed nobody.
So, fast forward to Vanilla. The pool was competitive (but played in a perfectly well-mannered way) and the clientele and staff were open and friendly.
A few G&Ts down the road, I happened to notice a sign in the toilets, advertising 'flaming absinthe'. So I enquired. It materialised that the 'flaming' bit was off the menu, since it was well gone 9pm (I remain in the dark about this reasoning), but that I could have a shot of the stuff. I took the opportunity.
Canal Street may not quite be Montmartre, but it's quite Bohemian, in it's own fashion. The LGBT crowd are joined at weekends by hen parties and groups of straights, eager to enjoy the sights and get a fix of the party athmosphere.
The little plastic shot glass was full of la fée verte.
Here we go.
"Oh my God! Is that absinthe?" shrilled a girl next to me at the bar, sighting the glass. Another girl chipped in.
"I had some of that one night and I was so ill the next morning."
Now or never: I'm the daring one here.
A sip. Just a very small sip.
Boy, has it got a kick. You know how whiskey has been called 'fire water'? Well this stuff makes whiskey feel like mere water.
A man behind me, thinking he wouldn't be outdone, ordered a shot too – and gulped it back in one. He was gasping, clutching at his throat for several moments after.
A sip. Just a small sip. I'm not a total fool.
Very aniseedy. You need the iced water and the spoon and the sugar to bring out the other flavours of fennel and grande wormwood. But very pleasant none the less.
Recent research has debunked the claims that absinthe is a powerful psychoactive drug – but it's still a powerful something. The warmth spread rapidly to my limbs, but my mind stayed clear (well, as clear as those G&Ts and an absinthe allowed).
I decided to melt into the night while I could still think about doing so.
Did it make the heart grow fonder? Well, it did nothing to quench my extreme horniness. But since my chances of pulling had decreased with the arrival of a very loud gang of straight women celebrating one of their number's 21st birthday, I popped into a nearby CloneZone and purchased a cheap and nicely proportioned dildo. It was enough to help make the rest of the evening, in a bland hotel room, very pleasant. And even appropriately louche.