In Search of the Green Fairy: On the Absinthe Trail in Berlin

Writer Jenna Rose Robbins heads off the beaten path in Berlin to rediscover this much-maligned anise-flavored spirit.

Forget everything you think you know about absinthe: You’re not going to experience grand hallucinations, no matter what you learned from reading Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Arthur Rimbaud.

“Absinthe leaves your head clear. You don’t get tired like you do with alcohol,” said Hermann Plöckl, owner of Absinthe Depot. The Mitte shop, which carries upwards of 300 varieties of the anise-flavored alcohol, doubles as a quasi-bar, with more customers sipping from delicate, green-filled glasses than in any of the other bars I’ve visited tonight. At Plöckl’s suggestion, I’m sampling a brand that has less of the anise flavoring that typifies absinthe.

Plöckl is chock full of info on absinthe—as well he should be, having run the Depot since 1998. In less than 30 minutes, I get a crash course in absinthe history, from its rise to popularity in France in the late 18th century to its nearly worldwide ban in the early 1900s and its subsequent revival in the 1990s. I also learn that setting fire to absinthe is anathema to true connoisseurs, that this is a relatively new gimmick introduced purely to heighten the presentation, not the taste.

The banning of absinthe only served to bolster its desirability, magnifying its aura of mystery and bohemian association. It didn’t hurt that the spirit had a reputation as a hallucinogen, a point long since debunked by the scientific community. Even absinthe’s trace amounts of thujone, a chemical compound once thought to be similar to THC, have little effect on the drinker. The 45 to 70 percent alcohol content, on the other hand, can knock the socks off even the most seasoned drinker.

I show Plöckl my list of other absinthe haunts and, after crossing off some lesser venues, he hands me back my roadmap for the evening. I thank him and linger for a moment to admire the shop’s array of ornate absinthe fountains, a Plöckl-approved manner of preparing the drink, and not merely a tourist ploy.

Over at Lauschangriff, the art of absinthe service is still revered. Stepping through the door of the Friedrichshain bar-cum-nightclub transports me back to my clubbing heyday in the '90s, with its subterranean dance floor the size of my living room and DJ spinning alt-rock tracks of yesteryear, a cigarette dangling precariously out of his mouth. Upstairs, the more subdued bar area, dotted with Beetlejuice-inspired décor, serves 23 different brands of absinthe, both straight and mixed in cocktails. Dieter, one of the owners since 2009, hands me the customer favorite, a Voodoo Pigalle, which he describes as “a light and unexpected” concoction of chartreuse, watermelon juice, lemon, and, of course, absinthe. The taste is so refreshing that I’m shocked to learn the drink contains 40 percent alcohol.

Zyankali, Berlin

The atmosphere is decidedly more playful, yet still appreciative, at Kreuzberg’s laboratory-themed Zyankali. A former biochemical engineer, owner Tom Zyankali, with his pirate’s moustache and metal (not metallic, metal) tie, has created a veritable wonderland of alcohol, or Unterhaltungschemie (“entertainment chemistry”), as he calls it. Science beakers bubble behind the bar, where patrons can sample both brand-name and Tom-made absinthes and other liqueurs, found under the heading “Nerdcore” on the menu.

Absithe at Zyankali, Berlin

Tom serves my drink, complete with sugar cube and spoon, atop a glass-covered, still-inhabited coffin. But even that seems banal compared to what comes next: a perfect scoop of absinthe-colada ice cream, just one of Zyankali’s seasonal flavors, which include bourbon-honey and White Russian.

For those who are merely absinthe-curious, you can find the occasional absinthe drink on the menus of several Berlin bars, including the so-trendy-it-hurts Becketts Kopf, whose ever-changing menu always seems to find room for at least one wormwood-infused creation.