Phnom Penh’s absinthe bar offers drinkers the chance to channel the spirit of Van Gogh, but what happens when one man attempts to drink every variety of the mythical drink?
IDNIGHT on a Wednesday and a lone figure stumbles down Street 51. With his sunken eyes and incoherent growls, he channels the spirit of George A Romero at the peak of his powers. He raises a shaky hand to hail a moto but soon finds that he lacks the poise to stay upright. The most troubling thing about the scene is not that this person seems to have left the land of the living. It is that this person is me.
Rewind four hours. I’m sitting bar-side at L’Absinthe Bar, which was opened just two months ago in downtown Phnom Penh. True to its name, L’Absinthe Bar is centred on a menu of authentic European-imported absinthes, most of which were only made legal in Europe within the past few years.
In front of me lies a daunting row of each of the 16 absinthes on offer, arranged in ascending order from cheapest to most expensive. Each glass is handsomely adorned by an “absinthe spoon” with a cube of sugar placed on it. My task is simple, yet simultaneously insurmountable: drink each one and live to tell the story.
French owner Thibault Sargentini explains that L’Absinthe Bar was the brainchild of a debauched night out with friends in Kampot. He came to Cambodia after losing his job in France, where he worked in the steel trade industry. Resolved to turn turmoil into tribulation, he hit the road in search of new adventures in Asia.
“Losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me,” explains Sargentini.
“I designed L’Absinthe on the French model of a bar in Cannes,” he adds. “Absinthe is a good concept. I wanted something that wasn’t rotten like Chez Rene, but also not too bourgeois, like Saint Tropez. Absinthe suits me.”
Displayed on the wall is a poster proclaiming “absinthe la morte”, translated literally as “absinthe the death”. While he prepares my drinks, Sargentini explains that this description might not be as outlandish
as it first appears.
“France is traditionally a country of wine, but absinthe became fashionable in the late 19th century, popularised by la Bohème,” he says. “Of course, absinthe had a bad reputation because it was consumed by the artists Baudelaire, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh – they said it drove him crazy. This was true with the impure alcohol. If the distillation is too light, if it is not hot enough, methanol forms instead of ethanol. So it’s dangerous, people can become blind in one hour and many people died.”
Despite his assurances that his absinthe is safe and that I “will be fine”, it is impossible not to feel plagued by the notion of absinthe as the mythically powerful, delirium-inducing substance that legend has built. But I have come here to complete a noble quest and backing out now is out of the question.
I eye the first glass anxiously and, not knowing how to proceed, look to Sargentini for guidance. He drops the cube of sugar into the glass of Deniset Klainger absinthe, before retrieving it and lighting it on fire; an impressive technique first made popular by the Czechs. The flame and the cube are then doused with cold water, turning the previously green liquid into a milky looking concoction of water, sugar and absinthe.
My apprehension grows and, hindered by sweaty palms, I lift the glass and take a tentative sip. My taste buds don’t seem to compute. Is this really the perilous concoction I had read about? Satan’s nectar that had caused Van Gogh to lop off an ear?
It was good, really good. Sweet and smooth, I finish it in less than a minute.
Emboldened, I decide to tackle the Hapsburg Deluxe. At 85 percent alcohol, this monster was the strongest drink L’Absinthe had to offer. I carefully set the lighter on my lap aside before taking the plunge.
Not bad at all. Despite raising my body temperature by at least five degrees, the Hapsburg Deluxe was certainly smoother than its absurd alcohol content would suggest. I tackle the rest of the drinks in the $3 price range with confidence and am not disappointed by any of them. The Emile 45 and the LaSala are particularly palatable.
After a brief musical interlude, consisting of music which may or may not have been audible only to me, the $4 absinthes beckoned. First up was the Clandestine;
an intoxicating marshmallow deliciousness. Each drink tastes better than the last now, undoubtedly due to an increase in both inebriation and absinthe quality.
A little over an hour later, the five empty glasses that comprised round two are becoming hazy. All that await are the two $5 glasses. They loom ominously; bigger and scarier than the previous drinks. I am about to capitulate, when a couple of French patrons who had been observing my absinthe adventure whisper: “He can’t finish.”
Those three words provide all the motivation necessary. Guided by a drunken will to prove two absolute strangers wrong, the penultimate drink is rammed down my overworked gullet before the fifth toilet break of the night becomes a necessity.
The last glass is staring me down. I can see it in his eyes. It takes an eternity to hoist it to my lips and it becomes the straw that broke this drinker’s back. A black hole has formed in my mind but friends say I described the last drink thus: “It is wrapping around my tongue and making love to me like a passionate French kiss.” Absinthe, it seems, really does make the heart grow fonder.
Additional Reporting by ELeonore Sok