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Monday, November 12, 2007

Absinthe Returns

Dear reader! Should this column impress you as being more than usually lyrical, recalling perhaps the imagery and elegance of poetry by Baudelaire or Verlaine; should it seem a bit decadent, redolent of Oscar Wilde’s withering hauteur; should it have a touch of madness or perversity, combining, say, the tastes of Toulouse-Lautrec with the passions of van Gogh; should it simply sound direct and forceful and knowing like one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters; should it do any or all of that, let me credit something that each of these figures fervently paid tribute to: the green fairy, the green goddess, the green muse, the glaucous witch, the queen of poisons.

Swim Ink 2/Corbis

Privat-Livemont’s 1896 poster advertising absinthe.

Musée de Picardie, Amiens

Albert Maignan’s “Green Muse” (1895) shows a poet succumbing to the green fairy.


For this column was conceived under the influence of a green-colored, high-proof herbal liquor that was illegal in the United States for more than 95 years. And not just here, for when that mini-Prohibition began in 1912, alarm bells were ringing all over Europe. In 1905 a Swiss man murdered his family after drinking absinthe, leading to the liquor’s banishment from that country, where it originated. The French thought they risked losing World War I to robust beer-drinking Germans because of the dissolute influence of absinthe, so it was banned in that nation as well.

The medical evidence was also damning. As early as 1879 The New York Times warned that absinthe “is much more perilous, as well as more deleterious, than any ordinary kind of liquor.” A 19th-century French doctor, who made a lifetime study of absinthism, chronicled its symptoms: “sudden delirium, epileptic attacks, vertigo, hallucinatory delirium.”

But recently this anise-flavored spirit has been seeping back into the mainstream. In 1994 a museum devoted to absinthe opened in Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. With its limited availability and exotic reputation, the drink inspired cultish devotion. It tantalized with its promises of visionary consciousness, so elaborately celebrated by a century of artists and writers.

Now absinthe has been widely restored. The European Union gradually hodgepodge of bans and widened absinthe’s availability. And this year two brands of absinthe made according to traditional recipes have been legally imported to the United States.

Last spring a French brand, Lucid, made its debut here, using 19th-century distilling methods and replicating chemical analyses of pre-ban absinthe. A Swiss absinthe, Kübler. appeared on the American market a few weeks ago, using a 1863 family formula.

One reason legal barriers have fallen is that, as The New Yorker reported in 2006, the regulated chemical thujone, found in wormwood and once thought to have been the cause of absinthe’s lure and its dangers, did not show up in any significant quantities in analyses of historical absinthe. So these authentic replicas, despite containing wormwood, do not pose a legal challenge. And the alarmed pronouncements about absinthe made from the beginning of the Belle Époque have been proved groundless, which was decisive, a Kübler spokesman said, in swaying United States government regulators.

This still leaves open the reasons behind absinthe’s reputation as an intoxicating source of creativity and invention, a power that led Hemingway’s character Robert Jordan, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” to carry around a flask of this “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.” It also leaves unsettled the cause of what led absinthe to be attacked, as one 19th-century poet put it, “the Devil, made liquid.”

The New York Times

1 comment:

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