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Absinthe's Second Coming

The forbidden elixir of La Belle Epoque returns
Christopher Dickey
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

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.

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