The forbidden elixir of La Belle Epoque returns
Ice water dripped like plasma over a sugar cube poised on a spoon, then fell into the lucid green liquid at the bottom of the glass, each drop spreading a liquid mist until all the emerald clarity was replaced by opalescent cloud. A half-remembered line of poetry crept up on me: "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." Where did that come from? I couldn't think, mesmerized as I was by the cube crumbling under the ever-so-slow trickle. The sugar gone, I filled the glass with more water and put it to my lips. There was a hint of anise, like pastis, but also the delicate aroma of bitter herbs that I'd never tasted before. So light. So refreshing. So…intoxicating. My first glass of absinthe.
I was among friends, and all of us were a little giddy as we drank, knowing that what we were doing had been against the law for most of the last century. "Oh, I feel so warm," said a Frenchwoman among us. "So warm. Do you feel that?" A gentleman friend of hers laughed. "A votre santé," he said, "to your health," which reminded us all that absinthe has often been thought noxious. And the line of poetry went through my head again. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." Yeats. Ah. It was W. B. Yeats. He must have known a lot about this stuff. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Same poem. "The Second Coming." Ah, yes, I said to myself, half aloud, and sipped a little more.
So delicate in the mouth, so powerful in the mind, absinthe was the absolute favorite poison of poets and painters in that great and terrible time known as La Belle Epoque. It was said to give genius to those who didn't have any, and take it from those who did, but, be that as it may, Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso cannot be imagined, truly, without it. In several volumes by French researcher Marie-Claude Delahaye and in Barnaby Conrad III's excellent Absinthe: History in a Bottle, you get an impressionistic notion of a world so thoroughly suffused in anise-scented cloud that you start to wonder if any writer or artist with vision was immune to the drink's charms. Poets found new language on the page, painters discovered new strokes on the canvas. Manet, Degas, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec certainly imbibed. Poet Paul Verlaine practically drowned in the stuff and his evil-genius/boy-lover, Arthur Rimbaud, believed absinthe was just the thing for "disordering the senses" and freeing the imagination. Even in the 1920s, after absinthe was banned in much of Europe, Ernest Hemingway knocked it back in Pamplona, and Harry Crosby, the rich, romantic, suicidal founder of the Black Sun Press in Paris, liked a splash of the contraband liquor in his dry Martinis.
As I drank, I had the Delahaye and Conrad books at hand, and searched the indices for a reference to W. B. Yeats. Surely "The Second Coming" was inspired by the green muse. But I found no reference. Academia has failed us again, I thought, and paused to appreciate the slight numbness penetrating my lips. Then, another notion leapt into my mind. The Wizard of Oz! Again, no mention in either index. If L. Frank Baum was a closet absintheur dreaming himself to somewhere over the rainbow, there's no record of it. But?why else would the Emerald City be emerald? I took another sip and pondered.
The drink itself is simply beautiful to behold. Wine and opium were nothing, wrote Baudelaire, compared to "the poison that spills from your eyes, your green eyes, lakes where my soul trembles and is turned upside down." The preparation of absinthe at cafés on the grand boulevards of Paris during "the green hour" from 5 to 7 was a prettier ceremony than high tea, and a lot more stimulating. Silver-spigoted tabletop fountains dispensed the ice water, which cascaded over sterling spoons into hand-blown glasses. Absinthe was strong: typically about 140 proof. Its flavor came from several different herbs, but from one -- the serpent-branched wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthium) -- it also acquired a dose of the neurotoxin alpha-thujone. The bitter wormwood herb, it was said, lined the path on which Satan slithered out of the Garden of Eden. But was the drink made from wormwood part Hell, or part Paradise? The debate raged for most of a century. Like no other libation, absinthe had a personality, a myth and character. La fée verte, the green fairy, was not only a magnificent muse, but a magical seducer.
In an era when ladies' bodies were whale-boned and bustled, women adored this elixir that liberated their minds. Compared with the cordials to which polite society had condemned them, this drink was so wonderfully fresh. "Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder," joked the poet Ernest Dowson, and even among the most buttoned-up women it lessened inhibitions and loosened libidos. As absinthe consumption spread through society, its use and its users raised all sorts of intemperate questions about discipline and order, love and art, drowning with every swallow the fake innocence of the times. So, temperance crusaders fixed on it as the locus of all evil. An anti-alcohol campaigner in France declared that, "If absinthe isn't banned, our country will rapidly become an immense padded cell where half the Frenchmen will be occupied putting straightjackets on the other half." So ferocious was the moralizing onslaught against absinthe and the marshalling of pseudoscientific evidence that even after Prohibition came -- and went -- the stigma endured. Of course, so did the mystique, but only as a dimly remembered sin of the past. So, it is intriguing, indeed, that now, in the first (rather tepid) years of the twenty-first century, absinthe is coming back.
Or almost. Over the last few months liquors called absinthe, or absint or absenta, have proliferated in British bars and clubs, and even in a few American states. Absinthe aficionados on the Internet have tracked down about 30 labels produced by little enterprises from the Iberian Peninsula to the Japanese archipelago. But most of these alcohols are, as it were, denatured. Many are limited to 85 or 90 proof, and the wormwood content is negligible. Others have a home-brewed quality that does not inspire one's confidence, much less one's imagination. Spain, Portugal, tiny Andorra, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria all produce versions of the stuff. But do you really want to drink them? In France and Switzerland, where absinthe was born, and the best ought to be made, it was banned in 1915 and 1910 respectively, and it still cannot be sold or served within the law.
Of course, a whiff of the illicit elicits added pleasure for Parisians, who rarely let legal or political consistency stand in the way of commerce. And the British have always made a specialty of discovering the greatest pleasures France has to offer, then promoting them in the rest of the world. So it was with the "clarets" of Bordeaux. So it is with absinthe today. Since last summer, a French pastis company has been making absinthe for export under the appropriate label "La Fée." (The firm prefers to remain nameless lest it be swamped with domestic French orders that cannot legally be filled.)
The four Englishmen who've made it their mission to revivify absinthe are anything but anonymous. They're straight out of the London club scene. John Moore, part of the ultrasmooth rock group Black Box Recorder ("The Facts of Life"), has been importing various brands to Cool Britannia since 1995. In 1998, Moore joined with George Rowley, of Bohemia Beer House, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, creative director of the intriguingly named magazine, The Idler, and Tom Hodgkinson, editor of that publication, to found a company called Green Bohemia importing a Czech variant called Hill's Absinth. They claim it did very well. But, for anyone passionate about the romance of absinthe (with an e), Hill's was pretty thin gruel.
To concoct La Fée, the Green Bohemia boys created a new company, Green Utopia Ltd., and turned to that sprightly author, Marie-Claude Delahaye, for assistance with the recipe. A cellular biologist by profession, she discovered her calling for absinthe lore when she began collecting the trowel-shaped spoons in the early 1980s. In 1994, Delahaye opened her little Absinthe Museum in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, to display the elaborately crafted paraphernalia she had collected. One of her spoons was used in the absinthe-sipping seduction scene from the Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula. Another is from the collection of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Delahaye hung the museum's walls with Belle Epoque posters that trace the history of absinthe's rise and fall: the aperitif was developed in the Alps in the late eighteenth century, but first gained a popular following among French soldiers who used it to purify their drinking water during the African conquests of the 1840s. The officers' corps brought absinthe back to the boulevards of Paris. In Delahaye's museum, we see that over the next four decades, representations of the green spirit grew ever more voluptuous, with faces like Gibson Girls, but fewer clothes, and much more wanton eyes. By the 1860s, absinthe was the elixir of the elite. Yet, it was also one of the first great industrial intoxicants; very easy to make, in very great quantities, and after French winemakers were devastated by the phylloxera epidemic that killed the vineyards in the 1880s, down-market absinthes of dubious composition became the favorite mind-bender of the masses. By 1900, absinthe was clearly the national drink of France -- and Public Enemy No. 1 for the European temperance movement. Anti-absinthe campaigners blamed the drink for insanity, murder and epilepsy. French generals began to blame it for the pervasive moral decay and for their particular failure to beat the beer-drinking Prussians in the field. Delahaye displays these anti-absinthe caricatures and screeds alongside her collection of nubile absinthe pinups. And she has set up a bar, of course, with all the proper absinthe-drinking accoutrements, including a zinc counter and the classic tabletop ice water fountains to provide the perfect sugar-crumbling drip. All that is missing is absinthe itself.
For that, Delahaye says, you still have to go to Britain. "La Fée is only legal to export," she emphasizes. Disappointed, I ask if this French resurrection of absinthe is really a plot to poison British youth. She shrugged one of those conspiratorial French shrugs, and smiled mischievously. "Oh, no," she says. "Not at all."
Delahaye, with her medical and scientific background, is not one to dismiss the potentially noxious side effects of the green fairy. But, like most of the people who've studied the question in recent years, she's concluded that the most dangerous component of absinthe is the alcohol. Some of the herbal oils may also be carcinogenic or contribute to epileptic-type fits, she says, "but to consume enough to have an effect, you'd die long before of alcoholism." Nor does Delahaye believe there's much hope of hallucinatory experiences, even if alpha-thujone does share some molecular properties with THC, the active ingredient of marijuana. In fact, the alpha-thujone level in absinthe is regulated by the European Union, which permits 10 milligrams a liter, or almost three times La Fée's content of 3.4. "So," sighs Delahaye, "we have this absinthe that's made in France -- and to European standards -- but it can't actually be sold in France."
Now, this is a real shame. Absinthe is a drink that has geographical specificity, just as Orvieto's limpid wines need an Umbrian sunset for their full effect, or the great rums need Caribbean sands and ceiling fans. Absinthe, in Europe, seems to require the mirror-walled cafés of Paris or rustic French inns full of color-mad painters to achieve its full effect. (In America, you'd want to evoke the spirit of Baudelaire's idol, Edgar Allan Poe, in the old, Gothic South: perhaps in the redolent alleys of New Orleans; or on a plantation among the mottled shadows of a red sun glowing through the twisted branches of the live oaks at l'heure verte.) In sum, a certain threshold of decadence is required to make absinthe as truly delicious as it wants to be. And Auvers-sur-Oise, where hundreds of painters worked in the nineteenth century, would be a perfect place.
At the Auberge Ravoux, where van Gogh ended his life in 1890, owner Dominique-Charles Janssens understands well the special allure of absinthe. He serves a passable ersatz version in his restaurant, complete with the proper glasses and spoons. But for the full effect, one needs the real thing.
The ideal absinthe experience, I think, would be to welcome the arrival of the green hour at the zinc of Mme. Delahaye's establishment, temple that it is to la fée verte. Then, I'd wander the streets where Corot and Daubigny, Gauguin and van Gogh painted, and look out over the golden cornfields where the crows flew against an impossibly blue sky in the last week of van Gogh's life. And all the romance and intensity that was art, that was absinthe, in the summer of 1890 would come back to me. The sun would cast long shadows with that wonderfully clear light that brought the painters to Auvers, a place at once rural and civilized.
I'd stroll past the Gothic church, and farther down the wooden steps and cobblestones until I reached the Auberge Ravoux itself. I might take a fine meal in its restaurant, and drink a little more of the artist's poison, losing myself in an imagined past and a dreamed-of future. If you have seen Toulouse-Lautrec's pastel sketch of van Gogh drinking absinthe, it is easy to see him sitting here beside you. If you have seen van Gogh's own painting of a carafe and glass full of green opalescence, you feel it could be the same liquid on the table this evening. And then, after dinner, you might actually visit the bare gray room where van Gogh died, driven to despair not by absinthe, but by a world that utterly failed to understand his art. There is really nothing to see there, as Janssens himself will say, "but there is so much to feel"; so much, indeed, that the absinthe on one's lips would have a sacramental taste.
And maybe I did drink my first absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise. Maybe I obtained a bottle from some English friends, and shared it with some of my French ones. Or maybe I took a bottle of La Fée to the United States, to a house among the live oaks and hanging moss of the South Carolina coast and spent evenings savoring its pleasures in the company of Low Country writers, poets and artists. Maybe I did all those things. But I couldn't really let on. Too many laws might have to be enforced, or changed, if that were so. And maybe it's better not to say in any case. Having savored many a glass of absinthe in the recent past, I've come to think that for one's experience of the drink to be truly great and wonderful, it needs, like the Emerald City, the lingering effect of mystery.
Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and the author of Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son.