We dare you to walk into a bar and order some absinthe with coke. Better yet, ask for an overproof rum lemonade. Or a raicilla on the rocks. No luck?
In the West, a standard bar order will involve beer, wine or one of five spirits: vodka, tequila, rum, gin or whiskey. Perhaps the more adventurous requests will feature sambuca. Short of a specialty cocktail creation, it would be rare to request a drink that deviates from this norm.
Consequently, several spirits have garnered reputations for being ‘taboo,’ reserved for artists or party animals or Americans. We cannot endorse the consumption of these liquors, but we do hope to demystify some of them.
The best known of the bunch, absinthe is an icon of the Roaring Twenties. Parisian bohemians swilled it in their salons, and it rose to prominence as the hallucination-invoking drink of choice for writers and painters. From Picasso to Hemingway, Paris was bewitched by the Green Fairy. Still today, it can be consumed in the French fashion: painstakingly combined with a sugar cube and icy water.
Notably, reports of absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties may no longer apply. This can partially be attributed to the actual poison that often tainted early 19th and 20th century absinthe – specifically oil of wormwood.
The wormwood theory had been proposed long before the 1920s. In 1864, psychiatrist Valentin Jacques Joseph Magnan exposed guinea pigs, among other small animals, to straight alcohol and to wormwood oil. The animals that consumed alcohol became drunk, but they recovered with no long-term effects. The guinea pigs exposed to the wormwood oil promptly suffered from epileptic seizures. It is not known what they saw before they died.
Modern absinthe has been cleansed of its seizure-inducing properties. Greek ouzo and French pastis are available as substitutes, in case you remain wary of the green liquid’s ill-gotten reputation.
Technically, ‘overproof’ rums include anything bottled over 100-proof, which results in an alcohol percentage of at least 50%; however, many tip the scales at 151-proof, or 75.5%. For comparison, the typical vodka found in a bar would be 40%.
When your co-worker brags about his ‘pure alcohol’ martini, he has no idea what he is talking about. Overproof rum might be the closest thing to literal pure alcohol that is available to human beings, short of breaking into a warehouse and rolling out your own barrel of ethanol, Breaking Bad-style. It was adopted by the British Royal Navy as their beverage of choice, and its strength was supposedly proven by mixing it with gunpowder and igniting the result. Today, it is enjoyed primarily in Jamaica.
In case you don’t know, 75.5% means that 75.5% of the liquid in a bottle is pure alcohol, otherwise known as ethanol. For comparison, the US offers a gasoline called E85, petrol that is 85% pure ethanol. Overproof rum could fuel your car. (Well, probably not.)
Raicilla might not be a household name, but it is colloquially referred to as ‘tequila’s rebellious cousin.’ The spirit is derived from the agave plant, widely known as the plant from which tequila is distilled. A South American moonshine, it has a 400 year old history that involves brushes with the law and underground distribution channels.
Yelapa, the small Mexican village from which it originates, warns on its official website that when raicilla is imbibed for the first time, “you should be in secure surroundings among people you know and trust, and use cautious moderation.” It is lauded as the queen to tequila’s king, hidden in the shadows yet no less powerful.
Today, raicilla has moved onto the mainstream market, where it is sold between 35% to 40% in volume. Similar to absinthe, it has evolved from a notorious past and joined the modern age of responsible drinking. Both spirits can now be enjoyed in polite company.