Still Life with Absinthe

Called the cocaine of the 19th century, absinthe was so central to that era’s artistic life that it appeared in the paintings of masters ranging from Van Gogh to Picasso, and in the writings of such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Emile Zola. No wonder it piques the fantasies of today’s explorers, especially those who travel to Czechoslovakia, Spain, and other parts of Europe where it can still be sampled. Be forewarned, however: Despite its renewed celebrity status as Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor’s “perfect drug,” the stuff can be nasty, and its active ingredient, wormwood, even nastier. (Last September, a leading U.S. medical journal reported renal failure in a man who drank essential oil of wormwood.) In this piece from The Idler (Winter, 1997), Black Box Recorder musician and writer John Moore describes his flirtation with the Green Fairy.

One winter, studying the bottles in a Prague bar, I noticed a particularly inviting one filled with emerald green liquid that looked like it could inflict damage. It was absinthe. I knew a little about absinthe but, like most people, I thought it had been banned and was gone forever.

Before taking a sip, I studied it. Its scent was pungent and alcoholic, its color spectacular. It seemed to catch the light and looked quite unnatural. The first mouthful exploded on my tongue and vaporized up through my nostrils. I had to swallow it quickly. I could feel its intense heat running down my throat, burning its way into my stomach. What little taste there was, was dry and bitter, tinged with aniseed. It had a real afterburn. I felt like it had been injected, not swallowed. There was no gradual seeping into the bloodstream — this was the bloodstream. Armed with a glass of water, I finished it, then ordered another glass. A friendship had begun.

I soon learned how to drink absinthe properly. Of course, you can drink it neat (preferable for the first glass, otherwise you miss out on the burn), but the best way is to add sugar and dilute it with water. This gives drinking absinthe a ritualistic feel, like using intravenous drugs. Both involve spoons, fire, and patience: similar means to a not completely dissimilar end.

Pour the absinthe into a glass (narrow is best, because it reduces evaporation). Fill the spoon with sugar, then dip it into the absinthe. Once the sugar is soaked, light it and hold it over the glass until it melts into the absinthe, which catches fire; this is when you add the water. Sometimes it is difficult to put out the fire; you may have to blow on it.

Absinthe’s effects are different from those of standard drinks. I am not sure whether this is due to the ingredients or the fact that the alcohol is twice the strength of most other spirits (70 percent by volume). Drinking absinthe has a relaxing effect — the first few glasses, at least. It is very warming, perfect for a hip flask on a winter’s day. As far as I can remember, I have never had hallucinations while drinking it, but it does produce vivid dreams, invariably surreal and obscene.

The drink is made by soaking dried wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, still found in health food shops and used to kill intestinal parasites) in ethyl alcohol, along with herbs to hide the bitter taste. Aniseed is the dominant flavor, although fennel, hyssop, and lemon balm are also used. The Oxford English Dictionary describes wormwood as “an emblem of what is bitter and grievous to the soul”; in Russian, it is chernobyl. Found everywhere, it is native to Asia and Europe, where it grows along what is said to be the path the exiled serpent took from Eden.

Absinthe is commonly believed to cause hallucinations, convulsions, degenerate behavior, and even brain damage. Modern research has shown that wormwood releases a chemical called thujone, which has a molecular structure similar to that of marijuana’s active component. It isn’t clear whether the thujone in absinthe is sufficient to cause such severe effects, however. It is far more likely that alcohol is the culprit.

Although it makes a brief appearance in Greek and Roman history, absinthe didn’t become popular until the end of the 18th century. It is said that a French physician living in Switzerland, Pierre Ordinaire, invented it in 1792, but it’s more likely that he was the first to market it. The drink was popularized by another Frenchman, Henri-Louis Pernod, who built a small distillery in Val de Travers, Switzerland, in 1805, then the Pernod Fils factory at Pontarlier, France. The business grew steadily. In the war with Algeria, absinthe was given as a malaria preventative to French troops, who developed a taste for it that survived their return home. Successive failures of the grape harvests in the late 1800s also fueled its popularity: As wine prices went up, absinthe prices came down until they were well within the reach of the hoi polloi. Millions of liters of la Fee Verte (the Green Fairy), as it was affectionately called, were consumed each year. Exported everywhere, it became the drink of choice for artists and artisans alike.

Eventually, the voices of dissent, especially those of priests and vintners, made themselves heard. Temperance leagues formed, and the press launched a moral crusade, reporting absinthe-related crimes and creating conspiracy theories. Left-wingers said it robbed the working class of dignity, while right-wingers denounced it because libertines drank it. Some claimed it was a Jewish plot to destroy France; one distillery even marketed a brand called “Anti-Jewish Absinthe.”

By 1900, medical evidence was beginning to tip the scales. The imminence of war led to a panic over poor health: The average Frenchman’s chest was two inches smaller than the average German’s, and the asylums were full of people whose mental conditions were attributed to absinthe. In 1905, when Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray shot his entire family after a heavy day’s drinking, the story made headlines all over Europe, proclaiming him “un absinthiste.” (He had also consumed several bottles of wine, brandy, and creme de menthe, but that was ignored.) That did it; the bans began. Belgium was first, in 1905, then Switzerland in 1908, the United States in 1912, and, two weeks after the outbreak of war, France in 1914.

In 1990, Randomil Hill, a Czech distiller, began to produce absinthe legally again. The drink is also available in Portugal and parts of Spain, and is gaining an ever-widening following.

Along with the palette knife and pen, absinthe was essential to the 19th-century sensual explorer’s toolkit. Whether it worked for or against creativity is debatable, but one cannot deny that the legacy of work these old soaks left behind is among the finest of all time. Like the Italian Renaissance, the age of absinthe drew a map for the future.

You may want to check out some lively Net sites on the subject before imbibing, or, if you’ve already done the dirty deed, you can participate in an online survey conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, Drug Dependence Research Center. As researchers Matthew Baggott and Dr. John Mendelson point out, “Little is known about absinthe’s effects in humans. Research from the early part of the century is difficult to interpret, and no modern research has been carried out.”

At least not yet. Cheers.

RX FOR THE MORNING AFTER

After a night of drinking absinthe, your hangover may mimic the German katzenjammer (wailing of cats) or the Norwegian jeg har tommermenn (workmen in my head). But even if it’s more like the French gueule de bois (woody mouth) or the Italian stonato (out of tune), you’ll probably want some kind of relief.

You could try imagery (picture yourself on a boat in stormy waters, then visualize the gale subsiding) or acupressure (squeeze the web between thumb and finger for one minute on each hand) to ease nausea. Vitamins (especially B and C) are also helpful; try E-mergen-C, a good ready-made mixture. But if your head is still wailing, these curative cocktails may be your best bet. (Note: They do the trick with less romantic intoxicants as well.)

Spinach Sour
A popular Asian remedy that replaces minerals flushed out by alcohol. Simmer lots of spinach (heads and roots) over low heat for two or three hours and drink.

Banana Peel Punch
The liquid from boiled banana peels is a traditional Chinese detoxifier.

Cayenne Cordial
Sprinkle a small amount of cayenne pepper into water and gargle with it to stimulate production of saliva and gastric juice. Used for centuries to soothe sensitive tummies.

Poison Passion
Take a 6C or 12C tablet of poison nut (Nux vomica) — a homeopathic remedy available in health food stores — every three or four hours.

Alfalfa Spritzer
A Mexican favorite. Steep 1 teaspoon each of alfalfa seeds and dried orange leaf in boiling water for five minutes, strain, and sip.

FenLem Fizz
Before breakfast, drink 4 ounces of water with the juice of half a lemon and 1 or 2 drops of fennel essential oil.

Carrot Colada
To flush and rehydrate your system, drink a mixture of these juices: 8 ounces carrot, 1 ounce beet, 4 ounces celery, and 1/2 to 1 ounce parsley.

Yogurt Daiquiri
Drink a mixture of 1 tablespoon yogurt, 1 cup water, and a pinch of cumin powder three or four times during the day.

Kudzu Kamikaze
This Chinese tea, used to treat alcohol abuse for more than 1,300 years, curbs the desire for alcohol and relaxes stomach spasms to relieve nausea. Use equal parts kudzu root, umeboshi plum, and fresh ginger root.

Coconut Cooler
Plain coconut water calms the stomach.

Tikta Tonic
From India: Take half a teaspoon of tikta powder — or aloe vera, myrrh, or sudharshan — three times during the day.

Ritual Remedy
n order, try these 18th- and 19th-century folk remedies: Suck on a sugar cube drizzled with clove oil, chew on a parsley sprig, drink lukewarm chamomile tea, and take 1 or 2 teaspoons of plain honey every half hour for two or three hours.

Ayurvedic Digestif
A teaspoon of lime juice and a pinch of cumin powder in a cup of orange juice quells queasiness. Or add a teaspoon of lime juice, half a teaspoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt to a glass of water, then toss in half a teaspoon of baking soda just before drinking it.

Last Resort
Rub cabbage juice on your forehead to end your headache.

— Lucy Bassett


THE ABSINTHE HALL OF FAME

Vincent van Gogh, artist (1853-1890): He painted Still Life with Absinthe (1887) and developed an absinthe craving that scientists say may have prompted his appetite for paint and turpentine, and his propensity for bizarre behavior.

Charles Baudelaire, poet (1821-1867): “One must be drunk always.”

Edgar Degas, artist (1834-1917): His The Glass of Absinthe (1876), a painting of a glassy-eyed man and woman at a cafe, is a well-known depiction of imbibers.

Ernest Dowson, poet (1867-1900): “Absinthe makes the Tart grow fonder.”

Ernest Hemingway, writer (1899-1961): “Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.”

Oscar Wilde, writer (1854-1900): “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Emile Zola, writer (1840-1902): His novel L’Assommoir depicts the sleazy lifestyle of alcoholics in 19th-century Paris.

Paul Verlaine, poet (1844-1896): “For me, my glory is but a humble ephemeral Absinthe /drunk on the sly, with fear of treason /and if I drink no longer, it is for a good reason.”

Pablo Picasso, artist (1881-1973): Among his famous paintings are Woman Drinking Absinthe and The Absinthe Drinker (both 1901) and The Glass of Absinthe (1911).

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, artist (1864-1901): Drank absinthe from a hollow walking stick.

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