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Around the Bar in a Day

Ever wonder what's in those crazy bottles in your grandparents' liquor cabinet? Here's a guide to some of the spirits of apocryphal origin.

Absinthe

The very word conjures up romantic visions of Bohemian Paris. The green muse inspired artists like Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, and occultist Aleister Crowley described the intoxicating draught as a "fascinating but subtle poison, whose ravages eat men's heart and brain." Legend has it absinthe is the only liquid other than blood consumed by vampires. The anise-flavored wormwood spirit was invented in the late 1700s and used as a cure-all for various ailments. French soldiers developed a taste for the high-proof herbal remedy, and its popularity spread.

At the end of its heyday--a time known as the great collective binge--absinthe was charged with causing dementia, epilepsy and death. By the early 1900s, it was banned in most countries, including the United States. But modern absinthe enthusiasts insist that if the liqueur were judged by today's standards, it would be considered no more harmful than other legal libations.

Whether despite or because of its dark legacy, the seductive green goddess seems to be enjoying a renaissance. Kylie Minogue portrayed La Feé Verte in Moulin Rouge; Martha Stewart has gloated over her collection of antique absinthe spoons; Marilyn Manson has been indulging in the wormwood aperitif. Part of absinthe's lasting allure involves the ritual that accompanies drinking it. To cut the bitterness, a cube of sugar is placed on a slotted spoon over a glass containing a shot of absinthe. Traditionally, water is slowly dripped over the sugar, trickling into the absinthe until the mixture louches, turning from a bright emerald green to a milky opaque color.

Those familiar with absinthe's effects say that, consumed in moderation, it offers an alert buzz and enhances one's perception. The lucid clarity and mild euphoria are due to the high thujone content, which is a result of the wormwood. While still banned in America, absinthe is legally produced in Spain and the Czech Republic, and is available in parts of Great Britain.

--Sarah Quelland

Ouzo

Ouzo, the classic Greek anise-flavored liqueur, is made from a combination of pressed grapes, herbs and berries doctored with any number of ingredients, including mint, wintergreen, hazelnut and fennel. Characterized by a bold licorice tang caused by the anise, ouzo is an integral part of Greek culture. Anise oil dissolves and becomes invisible when combined with alcohol, so in the bottle, ouzo is completely see-through.

However, the stuff is never consumed straight. Instead, it is mixed with water or an ice cube, gradually lowering the percentage of alcohol and causing the anise oils to slowly transform into white crystals. What used to be clear liquor then becomes an opaque, milky-white liquid.

In Greece, varieties of ouzo number in the hundreds, and its consumption is as much a philosophy and an art form as it is a libation. Taken in slowly, surely and with time on one's side, ouzo is usually consumed with nuts, olives or appetizers like blackened octopus, calamari or fried cheeses.

One should not visit Greece without spending at least one relaxed afternoon buried in a side-street tavern, chatting with the locals over a slow bottle or two. In American bars, on the other hand, ouzo is often slammed as a quick shot--a ridiculous tactic. If you order ouzo at a bar, get it with an ice water back. Then contemplate the clear liquid before you mix it with the ice water and watch the chemical reaction that takes place.

--Gary Singh

Tsikoudia

When contemplating Greek libations, ouzo is what usually comes to mind first, but on the isle of Crete, the 75-proof distilled spirit tsikoudia reigns supreme. Tsikoudia (pronounced see-KOOD-ee-ah) is a crystal-clear wine-based hard liquor similar to schnapps and flavored with thyme. Like grappa in Italy, it is made from the must-residue of the wine press, and its consumption in the Mediterranean area goes back centuries. The mountain folk and mad hermits of Crete make their own special varieties with secret herbs, giving the liquor a hallucinogenic twist.

Almost always ceremonial in nature, tsikoudia consumption is an integral part of all social gatherings on the isle. Anyone visiting Crete will get offered a welcoming shot of the stuff sooner or later. After your first visit to a native's home, you will be coerced into slamming a few shots. It is difficult to refuse. The drink seems to give one a unique clearheaded feeling, and you don't get a hangover the next day at all. In fact, after a few glasses, your spirit is lighter, your breathing freer and your heart more ardent, completely reflecting the zeal and passion of Cretan civilization.

Tsikoudia is also known as "firewater," and to the mountain men of Crete, it is the elixir of life, a cure-all. Throughout the rest of Greece, it's called tsipouro or raki, a more general moniker of Asian origin. Best of all, it's cheap. When they actually charge you for it, one shot tips the scales at just over a dollar. Online you can order it from www.greekproducts.com.

--Gary Singh

Salmiakki Koskenkorva

Salmiakki Koskenkorva is one of the craziest drinks in the world, and in Finland its consumption is arguably a national pastime. A derivative of Koskenkorva Viina, a popular Finnish vodka, the booze is made by dissolving a pungent salted black licorice (salmiakki) into the vodka. This completely smothers the taste of the alcohol, making you think you're drinking sweet candy juice when in reality you're downing 76-proof hard liquor. Dangerous, but fun!

The treacherous concoction actually killed a few people back in the early '90s, so the Finnish parliament decided to ban the stuff. Never ones for the alcohol-regulated life, the Finns responded by simply making their own version on a mass scale, so the government eventually gave up and lifted the ban. Koskenkorva is actually a small town in Finland that translates as "dead water in the rapids," and the label on the back of the bottle is intentionally upside down, so you can read it while you drink.

An alternative name is Salmiakkikossu, and it's commonly referred to as "Flakpanzer Fuel." Sadly, Salmiakki Koskenkorva is not available outside Finland, but here's how you can make an equivalent: get your hands on any brand of Scandinavian salted licorice candies, crush them and dissolve them in warm water until you have a thick solution. Let the stuff cool and pour it into a bottle of any unflavored vodka. You may have to try this a few times in order to get the proportions right, but it's either that or go to Finland instead.

--Gary Singh

Soju

From soccer to music to food to soap operas, Korea is overtaking Japan as Asia's pop-culture capital. It's a state of cool that Associated Press has dubbed "Kim-Chic." The ripple effect is being felt stateside with the spike in popularity of the traditional Korean table spirit soju.

Soju was introduced from China during the late 13th century. It was the preferred toast of the upper classes and royalty. Today, soju is quickly displacing sake and cosmopolitans as trendy mixer du jour. Soju is derived from rice, barley and sweet potatoes but can also include modifiers like honey, herbs, cinnamon, pear, bamboo sap and even pine cones. Straight soju tastes like vodka with a bitter bite. Its alcohol content hovers between 23 percent and 45 percent; the lower the number, the cleaner and more refreshing the taste.

The Rohan Lounge in San Francisco is the first to capitalize on the soju boom with a full menu of soju-based cocktails. Drinks include the Asian Blonde (soju, fresh carrot and orange juice with a splash of lemon-lime, shaken and served up) and Ginju (soju, ginger, fresh lemon and lime juice, mint with a splash of ginger ale). After the amazing run made by South Korea during World Cup 2002, you can bet that there was a shortage of the perky libation, what with everyone toasting victory and defeat, and intent on getting "chuihessueh"--blitzed out of their gourds.

--Todd Inoue

Mescal/Tequila

Are mescal and tequila the same thing? Both are derivative of agave cactus, so what's the deal? Here are some interesting facts courtesy of the experts at the tequila-slinging Left at Albuquerque restaurants in Campbell and Palo Alto. Tequila and mescal break down into three kinds--silver (aged up to three months), reposado (aged between three months and a year) and añejo (aged over a year).

We're tickled to announce that our highly scientific taste test has solved the mescal/tequila confusion. The test featured one $29 bottle of Don Amado Mezcal de Oaxaca, Mexico and a $31 bottle of Patron from an unidentified spot in Mexico. Both were silver, the least-aged tequila. The designated tester discovered that the mescal, traditionally the peasant version of tequila because it is cheaper to make, boasted a woody and slightly rough flavor. The Patron, costwise a "middle-of-the road" tequila, tasted smooth and begged to be sipped for hours. So the final answer to the mescal/tequila confusion is this: quickly guzzling several shots of anything that's 100 percent de agave has one inevitable and pleasing result--you will go blind, stupid and/or crazy.

--Allie Gottlieb


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From the July 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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