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MISUNDERSTOOD MUSE


by Alex Goluszko

This article originally appeared in: The Sentimentalist

The mere word - "absinthe" - rings with untold magic ... One is ready to see it all: crowded cafes of Montmartre; Haussman's sprawling boulevards; Eiffel's industrial skeleton looming in the distance, beyond the green fog. The visions commence; decadent ecstasies overwhelm; the world swirls and melts like a starry midnight sky as rendered by Van Gogh. Verdant pleasures! Opalescent mesmerism! Absinthe! Absence! Oblivion!

Hardly. The aperitif shrouded behind the pale veil of absinthe mythology is far more misunderstood than poisonous. Let us disassemble a few green fairy tales.

From its fledgling days as a medicinal concoction, to the most trendy beverage of the Belle Epoque, to the Green Hydra condemned by early 20th century propaganda and finally to the meager imitations of today, absinthe seems perpetually tangled in a damning paradox: the very same disrepute which caused it to be outlawed is responsible for its enduring appeal.

Initially created in Switzerland at the dusk of the 18th century, prototype absinthe combined wormwood, melissa, angelica, hyssop and other herbs into a palatable alcoholic concoction. The "cure-all" ingredients had served as medicine for various ailments for ages, though the chief herb, artemisia absinthium, was particularly known for its digestive and parasite-dispelling properties. Absinthe soon made its way into the ranks of the French Army, where it served as a common health tonic until the soldiers grew fond of the unique, fragrant and very high-proof beverage.

The army's love of the emerald aperitif had spread by mid-century to the trendy crowds of Parisian cafes and high society snobs who craved this new and unusual treat. The absinthe market grew like wild fire to include both such founding distilleries as Pernod Fils and third-rate brands unafraid to use harsh and harmful solvents and dyes to obtain the desirable green hue.

By the end of the nineteenth century, absinthe sales in France alone had reached millions of gallons a year; its consumption did not discriminate between classes, though as might be expected, the crude, cheap brands reached only the malnutritioned poor.

The Green Fairy met its doom at the hands of various religious and temperance movements who saw absinthe's immense popularity as a social and economic threat. Happy to leap onto the wagon of absinthe's downhill slide in popular opinion, competitive liquors and the French wine industry joined to see to its foe condemned by church, mob, and state. Much like the backlash in England against "corrupting" gin, the continent was swept with anti-absinthe propaganda. While absinthe remains the only specific liquor named in anti-alcohol laws, wider bans on the consumption of drink would follow all over Europe and beyond, going as far as to unfortunately amend the United States constitution.

Yet this was, afterall, the age of scientific progress and no such campaign could be mounted on mere outcries of vice spawning from the drink's massive popularity. Absinthe drinking was linked to epilepsy, fits of madness and violence, and death. Criminal cases where the green demon was allegedly involved were quoted in the press and before courts by the dozen.

Little of the evidence presented as basis for the banning of absinthe has withstood the test of time. Modern research, though still limited, has unearthed the flaws in the century old science of toxicology. Was wormwood and its potentially poisonous compound truly responsible for the symptoms of absinthism? The suspicion prevails.

The symptoms described in the early days of absinthe research, seen in the light of modern knowledge, align quite suspiciously with those of alcohol poisoning and advanced alcoholism. Throw in malnutrition of the lower classes as well as the toxic adulterants used in lesser quality brands of absinthe and epilepsy, madness and violence become entirely possible.

To pay our dues to science: The compound found in wormwood and fingered so long ago as absinthe's chemical faux pas is thujone. Administered in large enough doses, it is known to cause epileptic fits in laboratory animals, amidst a host of other symptoms. Now, anyone eager to experience the fate of the unfortunate rat or guinea pig is welcome to consume the thousands upon thousands of glasses required to ingest the lethal amount of wormwood. Sound like a bad idea? There is always sage and tarragon, those common household herbs, wherein thujone can also be found. Recent thujone studies are scarce but competent, and have done their share to undermine the conclusions of their scientific predecessors.

Relentless temperance campaigns along with the trauma of World War I put too great a gap between the new era and the absinthe-sipping generation whose folly spiraled the world into such depths of despair. Absinthe's green flame flickered on faintly in Spain and the Czech Republic, where it had remained in favor with the law. Herbal liquers without wormwood, or pastis, remained relatively popular in France. The Fairy's time of glory had passed - though never into oblivion.

Furtively, absinthe's charisma lingered , cloaked in misconception. Perhaps most frequently quoted in this new lore are the aperitif's supposed hallucinogenic qualities. Such notions may very well have sprung from our straightforward perception of the highly innovative art of the Belle Epoque, such as that of Vicent van Gogh, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Toulouse Lautrec and countless others. Considering the era's unprecedented artistic bloom, one is inclined to assign "blame" for such brilliance to drug-induced visions. Fingered again as the sole perpetrator, absinthe rises above such obvious dementia-inducing candidates as recreational morphine and heroin cough drops.

Yet the absintheurs of today - those who've sipped on vintage and contemporary brews alike - discern none of the "effects" perpetuated in myth. Other than the obvious influence of high proof alcohol, the Green Fairy's spell lies in a sense of lucidity, which tends to render the ethanol intoxication less burdensome - even then, this peculiar wakefulness is fleeting and even completely unnoticed by some.

Absinthe's dangerous mystique today accounts both for its illegality and its marketability. Eager to propagate the old untruths and antiquated research, modern retailers will call both on the aperitif's wild bohemian past and supposed lethal magic to sell bottles of inferior product. Czech brands in particular boast of thujone content and use of original French and Swiss recipes, all the while resorting to lesser quality ingredients and inaccurate methods of production. The results are pathetically undrinkable.

While anti-absinthe laws have slackened over the century (most members of the European Union now allow the sale of absinthe, with limits on thujone content), absinthe's stigma lingers amidst the perpetual recycling of misinformation by journalists, historians and producers alike. More than ever, the confusion begs to be conquered: absinthe has reemerged from obscurity, into a sought-after "fad". Paraphernalia such as spoons, glasses, fountains and bottles, antique or not, fetch outrageous prices. "Moulin Rouge" offers the Fairy a prominent role as supporting cast. Martha Steward showcases her absinthe collectables in an interview with "Vanity Fair".

Absinthe fell victim to distorted moral views and to sociologically skewed science and has suffered in notoriety ever since. But if time and insight have at last united to dispel the opaque haze of myth, we have but one lingering question to answer: if not as lethally seductive as once thought, how was a common aperitif able to cast such a spell over millions?

The elaborate preparation engaged the psyche's need for the mysterious and the ritualistic. Cold water was dribbled over a perforated spoon upon which a sugar cube had been laid to sweeten the bitter and fragrant concoction; the sugared liquid slithered down drop by drop into the glass where an ounce of crystal emerald liquid, as if by some enchantment, louched gradually into pale green opalescence. Herein, rather than in addiction or hallucination, lay the magic which engaged and ultimately enslaved the absinthe connoisseur.

Taste followed as the aperitif's second seduction. The finer brands, rich and fragrant with herbs and wine spirits, had none of the harshness of medicinal tonics or hard liquors, and balanced the bitterness of wormwood with supporting herbal essences into a sensual delight.

Having once glimpsed absinthe in its guise of infamy, some remain curiously reluctant to let go of its reputation for fear of undoing its timeless appeal. Now, standing once more on the edge of popularity and acceptance, the prodigal potion has only this ignorance before her. The ocean of misconception keeps the green goddess out of favor and out of reach.

FIN

Alex Goluszko is an art historian, author and the proprietess of
BeautyandRuin.com
&
The Emerald Quest

a collection of stories of absinthe history, research and discovery,
as told by well-traveled forumites

Her thanks go to: Ted Breaux, Jack Collins, Justin Sledge of Belle Epoque Importers,
Kallisti of the Sepulchritude Forum.