09 October 2007

Absinthe, the sorcerous

"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganises and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country. "

Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic (usually 68-80%) anise-flavoured spirit derived from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium a/k/a grand wormwood a/k/a Absinth wormwood.

Absinthe is typically green, either naturally or with added colour, or clear and is often referred to as la Fée Verte or "The Green Fairy".

Absinthe is not bottled with any added sugar and is therefore classified as a liquor or spirit.

Absinthe is uncommon among spirits in that it is bottled at a high proof but consumed diluted with water to the strength of wine.

Absinthe is probably best known for its popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers whose romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture.

It was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drink; the chemical thujone was blamed for most of its deleterious effects.

The Lanfray murders* of 1906 caused a petition to the Swiss government leading to its prohibition in Switzerland, and subsequently other countries. By 1915, it was prohibited in a number of European countries and the United States.

*Jean Lanfray was a Swiss labourer convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage on the afternoon of August 28, 1905. He then attempted suicide, but failed. It was later revealed by police that he had drunk an excessive amount of wine and hard liquors that morning, along with two glasses of absinthe. Due to the moral panic against absinthe in Europe at that time, his murders were blamed solely on the influence of absinthe, which led to the petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland shortly after the murders. The petition received 82,000 signatures within a few weeks, and absinthe became illegal in Switzerland. Many other European countries would soon pass similar laws banning absinthe.

Though it was vilified, no evidence shows absinthe to be any more dangerous or psychoactive than ordinary alcohol. A modern absinthe revival began in the 1990's, as countries in the European Union began to reauthorise its manufacture and sale. As of August 2007 over 100 brands in a dozen countries are produced.

Originally a waiter would bring out a dose of absinthe, ice-water in a carafe and sugar separately and the drinker would prepare his own glass to taste. With increased popularity, the absinthe fountain, a large jar of ice water on a base with spigots, came into use. It allowed a number of drinks to be prepared at once, and with a hands-free drip patrons were able to socialise while louching a glass.

Traditionally, absinthe is poured into a glass over which a specially designed slotted spoon is placed. A sugar cube is then deposited in the bowl of the spoon. Ice-cold water is poured or dripped over the sugar until the drink is diluted. During this process, the components that are not soluble in water, mainly those from anise, fennel and star anise, come out of solution and cloud the drink. The resulting milky opalescence is called the louche. The addition of water is important, causing the herbs to 'blossom' and bringing out many of the flavors originally overpowered by the anise. For most people, a good quality absinthe should not require sugar, but it is added according to taste and will also thicken the mouth-feel of the drink. The major Swiss, French, and Spanish distillers recommend their absinthes without the addition of sugar.

Take Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon" cocktail, a concoction he contributed to a 1935 collection of celebrity recipes. His directions are as follows: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." Thanks, Ernie!

The precise origin of absinthe is unclear.

The medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt and is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, circa 1550 BCE. Wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves were used as remedies by the ancient Greeks. The first clear evidence of absinthe in the modern sense of a distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel, however, dates to the 18th century but may be older. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland, around 1792.


Ordinaire's recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. In fact, by other accounts, the Henriod sisters may have already been making the elixir before Ordinaire's arrival. In either case, one Major Dubied in turn acquired the formula from the sisters and, in 1797, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet.

In 1805 they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils.

Absinthe's popularity grew steadily until the 1840's, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria treatment. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe with them, and it became popular at bars and bistros.

By the 1860's, absinthe had become so popular that in most cafés and cabarets, 5 p.m. signaled l’heure verte ('the green hour'). Still, it remained expensive and was favoured mainly by the bourgeoisie and eccentric Bohemian artists.

By the 1880's, however, the price had dropped significantly, the market expanded, and absinthe soon became the drink of France; by 1910 the French were consuming 36 million litres of absinthe per year.

Absinthe has been consumed in Czech lands (then part of Austria-Hungary) since at least 1888, notably by Czech artists, some of whom had an affinity for France, frequenting Prague's Cafe Slavia. Its wider appeal is uncertain, though it was sold in many shops in and around Prague. There is evidence that at least one local liquor distillery in Bohemia was making absinthe at the turn of the 20th century.

Edgar Degas' 1876 painting L'Absinthe (Absinthe) epitomised the popular view of absinthe 'addicts' as sodden and benumbed.
'Absinthe Drinker' by Viktor Oliva

In January 2006, a widely published Associated Press wire service article echoed the press' sensational absinthe scare of a century earlier. It was reported that on the night he disappeared, George Allen Smith (a Greenwich, Connecticut, man who in July 2005 vanished from aboard the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas while on his honeymoon cruise) and other passengers drank a bottle of absinthe. The story noted the modern revival and included quotes from various sources suggesting that absinthe remains a serious and dangerous hallucinogenic drug:

“In large amounts, it would certainly make people see strange things and behave in a strange manner. It gives people different, unusual ideas that they wouldn't have had of their own accord because of its stimulative effect on the mind.” —Jad Adams, author, "Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle"

“Absinthe is banned in the United States because of harmful neurological effects caused by a toxic chemical called thujone”—Michael Herndon, spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

As with sensationalism a hundred years ago, the fact that a bottle of absinthe contains more alcohol than that of standard liquor was ignored.

Absinthe has long been believed to be hallucinogenic, but no evidence supports this. Few descriptions of these hallucinations exist from actual absinthe drinkers beyond a few quotes from poets after a long night of drinking.

In one of the most famous, Oscar Wilde describes the feeling of tulips on his legs after leaving a bar at closing. These beliefs got a boost in the 1970's when a scientific paper mistakenly reported thujone was related to THC and most likely had similar hallucinogenic properties based on its shape.

With the advent of usenet and web recipes 'trip reports' have been circulating for many years. These home recipes sometimes call for known hallucinogenic herbs in a mistaken attempt to recreate Absinthe's supposed hallucinogenic effects.

Today it is widely believed that absinthe does not cause hallucinations, especially those described in the old studies. Thujone, the supposed active chemical in absinthe, is a GABA antagonist and while it can produce muscle spasms in large doses there is no evidence it causes hallucinations.

The effects of absinthe have been described by artists as mind opening and even hallucinogenic and by prohibitionists as turning "good people" "mad and desolate". Sometimes called 'secondary effects', the most commonly reported experience is a 'clear-headed' feeling of inebriation - a 'lucid drunkenness', said to be caused by the thujone and other compounds.

Some, such as chemist/absinthe historian Ted Breaux, say that these effects may be caused by the fact that some of the compounds act as stimulants, others as sedatives, overall creating a neutral effect. Most others feel that the placebo effect and individual reaction to the herbs make these secondary effects subjective and minor compared to the psychoactive effects of alcohol.

Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker

Regardless, the legacy of absinthe as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues to this day. Absinthe has been seen or featured in fine art, movies, video, music and literature. The modern absinthe revival has had an effect on its portrayal. It is often shown as an unnaturally glowing green liquid which is set on fire before drinking, even though traditionally neither is true. In addition, it is most commonly known in the media for over the top hallucinations.

Numerous artists and writers living in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were noted absinthe drinkers and featured absinthe in their works. These include van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Guy de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Verlaine. Later authors and artists would draw from this cultural well including Pablo Picasso, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde and Hemingway.

The mystery and illicit quality surrounding the popular view of absinthe has played into modern music, movies and television shows. These depictions vary in their authenticity, often applying dramatic license to depict the drink as everything from aphrodisiac to poison.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As if all that is not enough, you can buy Mansinthe, Marilyn Manson's favorite absinthe.