Supposedly, Van Gogh cut off his ear under the influence of absinthe to give it to a prostitute. This might be the most famous of all anecdotes in the history of the green fairy, but Oscar Wilde's quote comes in a close second: "After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world". Truth or myth? Legal or illegal liquor? And finally, what we all really want to know: does it make you trip? Barcelona is a city with a long absinthe tradition, including its manufacture, and is home to a few bars that serve the spirit. And most importantly, every so often a new one opens.
And yes, absinthe can make you trip. Thujone, an essential oil, is the basic ingredient of wormwood or Artemisia, the main herb used in making absinthe. Evidence shows that it can cause epileptic seizures. When combined with alcohol, it releases its properties in a different way. Every drink has its kick, and absinthe is similar to whisky or vodka in this regard, although stronger. But you won't see any fairies: its hallucinogenic properties are almost non-existent these days.
5 bars to practise the ritual
They say drinking absinthe used to be like smoking a serious spliff: if it was good, you didn't have to wait long for its effects to take hold. Supposedly, this was the kind you could find at Bar Marsella back in the day, popularly known as the oldest, operating absinthe bar in Barcelona. Established in 1820, the bar has long had the reputation as one of the green fairy's favourite haunts. But anyone coming here with hopes of reliving the escapades of Baudelaire or Hemingway will instead find a throng of sangría-fuelled Erasmus students and the odd myth-obsessed person being instructed in the ritual without any glamour whatsoever. However, on a slow night, we can easily pretend to be Johnny Depp in 'From Hell' at this tavern steeped in nostalgia.
Ahhh, absinthe! The artificial paradise that produces monsters, and this chapel near the port is consecrated heart and liver to the worship of this beverage brewed by Lucifer himself. Dark, dusty, recycled and as disjointed as a bad trip – watch the personalised TV hanging from the ceiling, Argghh! This trippy little pub offers psychonauts a choice of brands and variations. If you’re into the hard stuff, try the cannabis absinthe: two hammerblows for the price of one. Just the thing for hard times. Oh, and they have beer and snacks and stuff too.
This is the place to drink absinthe, although the owner, José Ángel de la Villa, explains that “people keep asking for it, but they get it all wrong, poor souls”. Poor souls? “They're caught up in the hype: an incredibly strong, hallucinogenic drink... No one gets knocked out by a glass of absinthe”. Compulsive aesthetes can indulge in the ritual of Verlaine: a glass with a line that lets you know how much of the spirit to pour, a perforated spoon atop the glass with a sugar cube, and then you pour water into the spoon. The sugar quickly combines with the green liquid and that's it. De la Villa rejects the idea of burning the absinthe. “That's one of those stupid things tourists do, who know as much about absinthe as they do about making paella”.
If you're a beer person, this is the place for you: here it costs just 1 euro! As a result, it's usually quite busy. In honour of its name, the bar also pours the potent, green spirit for 4 euros a glass, and their mojitos (5 euros) are also very popular. A Raval classic that draws a young crowd – it’s a popular hangout for Massana art school students – the Absenta is the second incarnation of a hundred-year-old bar. Another good spot to sip a glass of absinthe and admire the ritual preparation.
The younger sibling of the Absenta in La Barceloneta sports a far less cabaret-inspired and decadent look. Instead, it's a wood panelled cocktail bar with an aesthetic reminiscent of Barcelona's libertarian heyday. The bar hosts live jazz and blues concerts in the basement and has a nice terrace on Plaça del Pes de la Palla. It boasts a wide variety of absinthe, which is served the Czech way, with a lump of sugar and flambéed. Besides being very pretty, the burning of the absinthe reduces its alcohol content. The owner reminds us that drinking and producing absinthe has a long tradition in Catalonia.
And if you're looking to buy...
The range this shop stocks in whiskies, rums, orujos, brandys, cognacs, cassalles, aniseeds and other liquors is enormous. It is also one of the Barcelona shops that sells the most brands of absinthe. Behind the store's facade as a delicatessen lies the alcohol: The Fine Spirits Corner.