Seven absurdly long years ago, in an era before Snapchat or Dat Boi memes, before ISIS or Netflix original series, Cracked ran an article on animals that can get you high. One entry concerned a folk drug made by drowning salamanders in brandy. It was said to cause spontaneous sexual attraction to trees and inanimate objects.
We didn't even need to attribute images back then. Layout team was the wild goddamn west.
As I dug into the story, I found a 2003 article and a 2011 article in a textbook by Slovenian academic Miha Kozorog. His research suggested salamander brandy was just a creation of shady, drunken bootleggers who used the poison in the salamander's skin to give their hooch an extra kick. The f**k-wine myth of salamander brandy came from a Slovenian satirist named Blaz Ogorevc in the late '90s. He wrote for a magazine called Mladina, which, as best as I can tell, is a more political, Slovenian Cracked.
Blaz Ogorevc is something like the Balkan Hunter S. Thompson, without guns and dynamite but with a lot of satiric stories involving substance abuse. So while he's not an inherently unreliable source, he's exactly the kind of dude who'd spin a tall tale about tree-f*****g under the influence of magic liquor. Had Cracked been fooled? There's nothing we take more seriously here than fact-checking, so I stole Editor-In-Chief Jack O'Brien's credit card, booked a flight to Slovenia, and spent a week finding out.
Most of the young people I met in the capitol, Ljubljana, had stories about salamander brandy. A few claimed to have tried it, always at a party with lots of other people, never with any evidence. Some people said it was just another sort of liquor; others wove lurid stories of intense drug trips. I think most of them were lying, or at least exaggerating. But as I got further out of the city, in the medieval town of Skofja Loka (the apparent world capitol of salamander-endruggening) I ran into stories with more specific details.
Skofja Loka: Where half the bars are older than the city I was born in.
First, it was schnapps -- not brandy. Many rural Slovenians take pride in their home-made schnapps, which varies in quality from delicious to "Holy s**t why would anyone make liquor out of cumin?" Most of the folks I spoke with in old taverns across the ancient town claimed salamander brandy is not hallucinogenic: It just hit harder than normal moonshine and "took the legs out from under you." When I asked if I could find any, the answer was always the same: "Not here. But some shady rednecks in the village over still brew it."
This town, in the beautiful Poljanska Valley, had a nickname my interpreter, Neza, always translated as "Clusterfuck." She drove my friends and I into the valley to find Clusterfuck, and the truth about salamander brandy ... but, unfortunately, we didn't get much more information. It had been common after World War II, some old-timers told us, but times were better now -- so who'd drown salamanders for a high anymore?
My trip to Slovenia ended with new friends, wonderful sausage, and bitter disappointment: Salamander brandy is real, or had been. But I'd failed to find it. A normal website would've left the story here. But this is Cracked, goddammit, and if we don't spend thousands of dollars tracking down the truth behind every single error in our articles, what will we spend thousands of dollars on? More Getty images of Ryan Gosling?
Luca Carlino/NurPhoto via Getty Images
I had to cash in the company 401(k). It was the right decision.
Sure, that's actually a wonderful use of our funds. But this is too!
As soon as I got home, I ordered a European fire salamander from the internet, because we live in a world where strange foreign amphibians can be on your front porch within 48 hours of an impulsive decision to buy one. DON'T WORRY -- I didn't drown the little guy in schnapps. I'm not a monster. After giving him a month to settle in, I just sort of ... milked him.
I used non-latex gloves, washed in distilled water, and I massaged his mucous glands until he squirted out a little poison. I conducted 10 milking sessions over the course of a month, each time washing the poison-smeared gloves off with vodka into a mason jar. By the end of it, the salamander was fine and I had 150 milliliters of salamander liquor. Slovenian schnapps is made out of basically any fermentable object, so I didn't feel like substituting vodka was a problem. Again, cumin schnapps exists.
After two months waiting for my salamander to acclimate and then milking him, it was time for me to drink. I downed all four shots within the space of 20 minutes. I felt a little drunk, but nothing more. Certainly no tree-f*****g bouts of psychedelic lust, which was a real bummer. I lay down, fell asleep, and woke up maybe an hour after my first sip needing badly to pee. I tried to get up and almost fell flat on my ass. My legs were wobbly, like I'd done a light dose of GHB. I staggered to the kitchen, drank water, and staggered back weirded thoroughly, the f**k, out.
The next morning I felt queasy and my stomach hurt. I was lightheaded for hours. Perhaps it was just my reward for drinking before bed after a month or so of abstaining from alcohol. But I don't think that explains it. My experience was consistent with many of the tales I'd heard in and around Skofja Loka: Salamandified booze "takes the legs out from under you." And that's the best conclusion any of us is going to get until some bold grad student gets funding to follow in my footsteps with real science.
And more salamanders.
But for now, I can rest easy knowing my months of effort helped puzzle out the truth behind a single entry in an article we ran seven years ago. And it also gave me most of a chapter in my new book, A Brief History Of Vice. Oh dear God please buy it.
You can read more about the truth behind salamander brandy, and more about the insane ways our ancestors have gotten high, in my new book, A Brief History Of Vice.
See why you have to do a hefty amount of drugs to make a drug bust in 6 Realities of Buying Drugs (While Wearing a Wire) and learn how Breaking Bad missed the mark when you read 6 Realities of Cooking Illegal Drugs (Not Seen On TV).
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