Absinthe as 1940's contraband

Sepulchritude Forum: The Absinthe Forum Thru December 2001: Absinthe as 1940's contraband
By Artemis on Friday, November 09, 2001 - 01:31 pm: Edit

Geoff's inquiry is not without merit. I think the "information" in that book is without merit.

Absinthe's history following the ban is being made right here, in Paris, in London, in New Orleans, in Thailand, and in the kitchens of intrepid Hausgemachters around the world. That history puts whatever happened in the 40s well "into the shade" to borrow the phrase of one of our Germanic brethren.

By Perruche_Verte on Friday, November 09, 2001 - 01:04 pm: Edit

Especially the Spanish. Serpis, according to Federico, was being made in the 60s. Serpis 65 is supposedly an effort at reproducing the formula from this period. Was this concurrent with production of Pernod at Tarragona?

And what about the other brands, most of which claim to have similar long pedigrees, e.g. Mari Mayans?

By Verawench on Friday, November 09, 2001 - 10:47 am: Edit

Methinks Geoff's laid foundations for some interesting research (Ellroy aside): absinthe AFTER the ban.

It's bound to be a scarce history, but I'd be very interested to know, for example, when the first commercial Czech and Spanish absinthe brands began bottling and why.

By Wormwood on Friday, November 09, 2001 - 06:30 am: Edit

In my favorite episode of cops they are busting some guy for growing dope at his house.

There is a table with bongs, pipes and a stack of books (not just Hightimes and porn) on it. The cop flips through the stack and pull out a copy of "Joy of Homebrewing" by Charlie Papazian. He coments someday he's going to get a batch wrong and a lot of people are going to die or go blind.

This cop did not understand that some brewing (beer) is legal and safe. There is no way a you can "get a batch wrong" and make anything but crappy tasting beer. I am sure he would not know the differance between hops and wormwood drying in a burlap sack in your basement.

Absinthe is not on the radar screen the average cop does not even know what it is. Cops (not the BTAF) have been ignoring alcoholic beverages since prohibition was repealed.

As far a the unmarked bottles, most homebrewers have many of them. If if they contain absinthe you could still not be charge with a crime unless they could prove it was illegaly distilled by you. If I claim that I thought it was wormwood soaked in vodka (like herbal medicine) its not illegal.

I wish the mob had been in charge of importing, popularizing and distributing absinthe. Look what they have done for the products they sell. In the 1940's almost nobody could gamble, had heroin, weed or cocaine, their popularity in the US was at an all time low. Now they are multi-billoin dollar industries that can not be stopped. I wish good absinthe was available on every street corner, but the mob is not involved so it isn't.

By Artemis on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 02:27 pm: Edit

Geoff said: "Finally, I can understand that your family and NOLA French friends might not have had access to absinthe back then, but, don't forget, we're talking about drug dealers and underworld connections."

Ellroy (author of LA Confidential) said: "I don't know anybody in the underworld. I make this stuff up. I don't know any criminals."

www.worldmind.com/Cannon/Culture/Interviews/ellroy.html

Elsewhere I've found "LA Confidential" described as "alternative history".

Nuff said.

By Thegreenimp on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 01:28 pm: Edit

Herbsaint appeared just after repeal of Prohibition, and the original version was 120 proof, like classic Absinthe. (I have a 1934 still sealed mini bottle & and Ted has a similiar mini on hand).....Are they the real thing?
Somewhere along the the line it was reformulated to what is available now.
I think somewhere about the start of WW II may be a likely point of change.
How long the the original version was made remains to be seen......I wonder if Legendre has any historical material.
Jay

By Timk on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 12:14 pm: Edit

maybe the demand just dried up, information on what happend wrt absinthe post ban in America isnt exactly readily avaliable.

By Artemis on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 11:08 am: Edit

I think this has been hashed out well beyond its merit, but probably the strongest point I made is:

If absinthe was a thing in the 40s in LA, where is it now? We're supposed to believe that a total ban on absinthe in France 30 years earlier, plus WWI, plus prohibition, did not dry up the absinthe supply nor the interest in absinthe in the U.S., such that it was still an item in the 1940s; BUT *something* that happened SINCE the 1940s made it vanish? If it was there in the 40s, it would have been there in the 50s and 60s; in fact there would be no logical reason for it to have disappeared post-1940, unless the cops of that novel accomplished what the forementioned cataclysmic events could not.

I stand by my original opinion - it's obvious fiction. I don't have to proove fiction to be untrue; let somebody come forward and proove it's true. Common sense is more than enough in this case.

By _Blackjack on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 06:06 am: Edit

Went back and checked, and gin WASN'T banned in England, tho they did heavily regulate and tax it moreso than other drinks, leading to riots.

It was banned in France by Louis XVI, just as cognac and armagnac had been banned in England by William of Orange (who had brought his fondness for genever with him from Holland), but that was mostly political and economic.

Which could also be said for the absinthe ban...

By _Blackjack on Thursday, November 08, 2001 - 01:20 am: Edit


Quote:

I have a question though, has any other alcoholic beverage been singled out to be banned other than Absinthe?



Gin was banned in England during the late 1700's, since it was viewed as the drink of the lower classes and the source of crime and corruption. Beer, on the other hand, was the drink of the rising middle-class and was viewed as healthful.

It's rather interesting that, at least in the US, beer is the drink of the lower classes and gin is viewed as high-class and snooty...

I seem to recall it was banned in France around that time, too, in order to protect the brandy trade.

By Geoffk on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 10:53 pm: Edit

Artemis,

To me dismissing something as "obviously fiction" that "doesn't pass the common sense test" without any evidence either way (and without having read the original source) is pretty much "dismissing it out of hand". As for the other points:

"Wormwood" would certainly be a less elegant and seductive name for the liquor than "absinthe". This term is used only by cops in the book, who tend to be practical, hardnosed and not overeducated.
For them, it might have been preferable. Besides, "sinsemilla" and "marijuana" are elegant seductive names. Yet lots of people refer to it as "grass" or "weed" or even "pot". What does elegance have to do with anything here?

I have no idea why absinthe would have died out as a contraband/drug item (if indeed it ever was one). However, it's common for less powerful drugs to be replaced over time by more powerful and/or profitable ones. It could be that the risk and minimal "effects" of absinthe made it unattractive compared to newer barbituates, amphetamines etc. It's all speculation of course, but this is not an insurmountable problem.

Finally, I can understand that your family and NOLA French friends might not have had access to absinthe back then, but, don't forget, we're talking about drug dealers and underworld connections. Maybe they simply didn't deal with this class of people. If they did, and absinthe really wasn't sold, then THAT would be some positive evidence...

-- Geoff K.

By Miss_Thing on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 08:22 am: Edit

By the way, the Chrysanthemum is a wicked, *wicked* drink.

By Miss_Thing on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 08:19 am: Edit

cocktail recipes

Well if this is any kind of example Heiko, (this is from the mid 1930's) they did differentiate between Absinthe and anisette. Though perhaps over time the term was used interchangably.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if there *has* been a small group of Absinthe lovers throughout the 50's and 60's and up til the present day. True it would have been much harder to find out about before the Internet but if genuine Pernod Absinthe was still being produced in Spain up until the 60s (scuse me if my memory of what I've read is wrong) then surely at the very least some intrepid Spanish folk would bring their favourite bevvy to far flung shores occaisionally. Surely????

By Artemis on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 07:15 am: Edit

Geoff's point about not judging a book by its cover (or even without its cover) is well taken, but I'm only going by what he posted here.

"I'm disappointed that so many people would simply dismiss it out of hand though."

That's not correct. Nobody has dismissed it "out of hand". People knowledgable about absinthe have dismissed it based upon their knowledge, which is, until I see some FACTS (not fiction) from a reliable source to back up this writer, a better source of information than that novel.

"Why would a writer make up a slang term for a drink he doesn't know well or care about?"

Why did someone make up Harry Potter? Why NOT?
He made it up to sell books. He may well have assumed nobody would suss out his creative act because his readers would know less about absinthe than he. He was wrong.

To me, the idea of "wormwood" as a slang term for absinthe is ludicrous. Yes, in France, it's the same word. But "absinthe" is such an ultra-cool word, why would Hollywood types, who probably would be drinking it mostly to be chic, call it by a name much less elegant?

As to recipe books, I have seen some that call for absinthe. Sometimes they go to the trouble of telling the reader he will have to use an absinthe substitute, sometimes not. In any case, the availability of the word "absinthe" on a page is not the same thing as the availability of absinthe.

What amazes me is not that few are willing to give this writer the benefit of the doubt, but that any are willing to go to such extreme (ir)rationalization to indicate he may have been correct.

I was born a stone's throw from New Orleans when Truman was president. I lived there until 1972. In a place which was essentially a time capsule from the former century. Among French-speaking people with a French cultural heritage, many of whom had been born before absinthe was banned. If absinthe had been present ANYWHERE in the U.S. at that time, it would have been there. But I never saw it, never heard it mentioned. Nobody gave a rat's ass about it. Which tells me that if ANYBODY was drinking it in LA in the 1940s, it was a small cache of pre-ban commercial absinthe or Swiss bootleg. I find it impossible to believe it was common, was an object of commerce in the illegal liquor trade during prohibition, or was the subject of raids by the cops after 1913, if even then.

And I might add that if absinthe were available in LA in the 1940's, why was it not available in the 50's, in the 60's, even today? Did the intrepid coppers who know absinthe when they smell it wipe it out?

By Heiko on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 04:14 am: Edit

Missthing,
maybe people just kept referring to anisettes as "absinthe". An anecdote my mom came up with when I told her about my absinthe-hobby: my grandma had dropped a bottle of 'absinthe', as she had called it, and the whole basement smelt of anise for years. That must have been in the 50ies. I can't imagine she was having any mafia-relations or that she was keeping old vintage bottles.

I mean, people still call beer "beer", even if it's bud light... ;-)

By Geoffk on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 02:14 am: Edit

Miss Thing,

Thanks for the comments! I can easily see some blonde Hollywood starlet, on high heeled mules in a feather trimmed pegnior, sipping on her lucious and illegal absinthe cocktail as she plans her evening's entertainment. Of course, I have a good imagination...

One drink that was banned fairly recently in the US was "Buffalo Grass" vodka (made in Poland and Russia). It's tasty, with a pleasant, hay-like flavoring, but apparantly it contains an ingredient which makes one's lungs or muscles excessively pliable and is considered harmful by the FDA. It's still aailable in Japan, and I had a couple of bottles with no apparent ill-effects. Still, I don't drink it too often now.

Thanks!

-- Geoff K.

By Luger on Wednesday, November 07, 2001 - 01:17 am: Edit

"has any other alcoholic beverage been singled out to be banned other than Absinthe?
"

Well 1757-60 distilling of Whisky was forbidden in Scotland!

1579 also.

As one can imagine the ban was not very sucessful :-)
Actually the history of Whisky is very entertaining! London making rules, and the Highlands don't give a damn.
Excisemen lived a very short life in the highlands,,,,



In Sweden there used to be a ban of any alcohol with more that 60% ETOH.

IIRC Vodka was banned some year in Russia by some Czar!!! Anyone got more info about this?


In these cases it was the alcohol that was the evil, and not any particular drink.


Cheers: Luger

By Miss_Thing on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 11:49 pm: Edit

If I may contribute the little knowledge I have gained from my own research, Absinthe was a common cocktail ingedient in the 1930's and presumably into the 40's and I have found many cocktail recipes published during that period which mention Absinthe. This was actually the original impetus for my interest in Absinthe, and also my first posts on this board. So to my mind it is not at all unreasonable to assume that Absinthe was still available in the 1940's and may even have had more mystique in the US due to its illegal status when other booze was made legal again (just as it, errm, seems to have nowadays...) I'm sure the networks which supplied contraband booze during the 20's and 30's were still operating in the 40's, perhaps even with a necessary shift towards such illegal beverages as Absinthe and other illegal substances? Makes alot of sense to me. Sorry I can only provide speculation as to availability, but there definitely is written evidence in the form of cocktail recipe books that Absinthe was known at that time.

I have a question though, has any other alcoholic beverage been singled out to be banned other than Absinthe? (excluding mass bans of all alcohol of course) I can't think of any!

By Geoffk on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 10:04 pm: Edit

> Geoff, the problem is that absinthe was never
> a "drug of abuse" in LA.
> NOLA, maybe, but not LA.
> How would the cops know about it?

It's certainly not a common abused drug now, but 50-60 years ago? Who knows? Maybe it was. I find it interesting and romantic to think so anyway. And yes, NOLA is certainly the American heartland for absinthe, but the decadence of LA seems to match up so nicely with absinthe's image, that it's easy to think it might have found a temporary home there. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to confirm it either way with any kind of factual (or counterfactual) details or references.

If a drug is *commonly* abused, cops will certainly know it. Right now, most of them probably wouldn't recognize absinthe if they saw it, but again, 60 years ago maybe it was different.

-- Geoff K.

By Dr_Ordinaire on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 06:47 pm: Edit

Geoff, the problem is that absinthe was never a "drug of abuse" in LA.

NOLA, maybe, but not LA.

How would the cops know about it?

Right now, there are hundred of obscure illegal substances, including many plants that may or may not be illegal, depending on whether you KNOW or not what they may or may not be used for.

Yeah, I also had to go and check my Orwell to understand the previous phrase...

By Geoffk on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 05:48 pm: Edit

> It does not beg the question. It answers the
> question. What the writer wrote doesn't pass
> the common sense test. It's obviously fiction.
> To predicate a discussion of absinthe in the
> 1940s on what is nothing more than fantasy
> seems fruitless to me.

Well, I'm sorry. It's obvious to me that a lot of care and research went into this book. Prehaps if you read it, you would agree. I don't think the possibility of absinthe as an item of 1940's underworld trade is simply beyond the realm of possibility, like robots or spaceships. I therefore assume that it was researched and has some historical basis, like all of the other color elements in the story. Now admittedly, I haven't been able to find any other references to this, which is why I was asking. But to simply dismiss all of a writer's accurate historical novel as a fantasy (unread no less) is not fair. For example, if you were interested in the English Navy during the Napoleanic wars, reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series would be a great way to learn many of the details of life on board and naval strategy. You'd probably learn and retain more than if you just read a military history book covering some of the same material.

I really felt like I was a part of 1940's LA when I read this book, and the absinthe references didn't seem anachronistic or odd. They were just of particular interest to me because I like it myself. The slangy reference to it as "wormwood" seems like something people or cops might have plausibly called it (after all, that's what "absinthe" means). Why would a writer make up a slang term for a drink he doesn't know well or care about? As for a cop identifying it--the whole point is that this is a common, everyday item of underworld trade. If a cop finds bundles of white powder, he knows it's probably cocaine or heroin. if he finds a green herb, he knows it's probably marijuana. And if he found bottles of white or green liquor, he would know immediately that it's absinthe, because that's what drug/vice dealers sold.

In any case, I did some checking on the web and wasn't able to find anything useful. I suppose the writer himself might answer an inquiry, but it's not worth bothering him over. If no one here knows anything useful, I'm willing to leave it as an interesting footnote and move along. I'm disappointed that so many people would simply dismiss it out of hand though.

-- Geoff K.

By Thegreenimp on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 05:14 pm: Edit

There was a funny Absinthe scene in the 1940 W.C. Fields movie "The Bank Dick"......If the early Herbsaint (120 proof version) is the real thing...(Perhaps Ted could say yes or no) then it was available past the 1912 ban, and possibly into the 1940's.
It may be likely that it was, and just not enforced until the FDA came along later.
I imagine that most people outside of NOLA, and perhaps NY, & SF, were were not aware that Absinthe even existed during the 1940's.
It was possibly just an exotic sounding drink for a few mystery writers to use for atmosphere.
Jay

By Timk on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 08:01 am: Edit

"Not even Shakespeare was free of error."
neither was Shakspere, Shackspeare, or Shakespear

By Artemis on Tuesday, November 06, 2001 - 07:14 am: Edit

"All of this totally begs the question that I was asking initially which is: was absinthe a significant contraband item in the 1940's?"

It does not beg the question. It answers the question. What the writer wrote doesn't pass the common sense test. It's obviously fiction. To predicate a discussion of absinthe in the 1940s on what is nothing more than fantasy seems fruitless to me.

"It's clear in the book that "wormwood" is used as a slangy term for the drink absinthe"

That alone puts the lie to it as far as I'm concerned. It seems even less likely than cops confiscating the herb.

"If he goes on a raid and there are a lot of bottles of unmarked liquor (green??) that smell like wormwood, he'll figure it out."

Yeah, right. Like on the episode of "Cops" where they "figured out" that the beer chiller they found in a guy's house was the serpentine for a still. Everybody knows how smart cops are. And they know what wormwood smells like, too. Come on Geoff, you're getting further and further into fantasy land trying to back up this writer because most of the time (says you) he was accurate. I'm not familiar with him, but I say he screwed up. Not even Shakespeare was free of error.

But if there WAS absinthe around in LA or at the Algonquin, I'd say it was Pernod. Yes, it was illegal, but bottles still turn up today, so why not?

By Mr_Carfax on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 09:44 pm: Edit

True...sorry, antipodean here, so the general US alcohol prohibition wasn't front of mind at the time of looking for this info...that poses interesting questions as to who might have been making it though ...as far as bootleg liquor goes I would not have expected absinthe to be "high" in the market demand during general prohibition and potentially more effort than other forms of illicit booze production?

By _Blackjack on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 09:21 pm: Edit

Well, during the 20's it would have HAD to have been bootleg, or at least smuggled, since all booze was illegal in the US from 1920-1933.

By Mr_Carfax on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 07:56 pm: Edit

Ok, moving into the 1920's-1930's, for 10 years there were lunchtime salon gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel, NYC, composed of poets, writers, editors and other literature figures of the day (ie Dorothy Parker)- I have found one reference (reliability unknown) at Britannica.com to absinthe being available at these luncheons...as this is post-absinthe prohibition one can only assume it is bootleg (if absinthe was actually consumed at these gatherings at all..)

By Mr_Carfax on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 07:20 pm: Edit

I've been searching for a reference for absinthe in 1940's America with little luck.

What I came across instead, which I was unaware of, was that Cole Porter wrote a few songs about absinthe "Absinthe" and "The Absinthe Drip" for a small play called The Kaleidoscope, and another called 'Le Reve d'Absinthe", it appears all dating from his University days around 1911-1913.

By Geoffk on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 06:05 pm: Edit

I will cheerfully concede that a 1940's detective might have had difficulty distinguishing genuine illegal absinthe from sham/imitation illegal absinthe, assuming that such a product was even made. I assume that in this case the customers would demand the "real" product, since presumably they are paying for something other than regular, legal liquor.

All of this totally begs the question that I was asking initially which is: was absinthe a significant contraband item in the 1940's? I so, when did it stop being such and what were some of the details of the trade in it?

By _Blackjack on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 03:22 pm: Edit


Quote:

If he goes on a raid and there are a lot of bottles of unmarked liquor (green??) that smell like wormwood, he'll figure it out.



Well, considering that the experienced members of the forum have not been able to distinguish with certainty whthere certain drinks contained wormwood or not by taste and smell (Versinthe being the most obvious example), I somehow doubt a cop could do it.

By Geoffk on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 03:02 pm: Edit

It's clear in the book that "wormwood" is used as a slangy term for the drink absinthe--it's not the raw herb. How would a 1940's cop recognize (the drink) absinthe? The same way he recognizes marijuana or any other illegal item that he's used to seeing. If he goes on a raid and there are a lot of bottles of unmarked liquor (green??) that smell like wormwood, he'll figure it out.

As for it being fiction, that goes to the heart of my question. Ellroy was very careful in all of the details of his 1940's world. It seems to be very accurate and believable in all respects. My question was: did he somehow make a mistake on this one point, or is this accurate too, but largely unknown here?

-- Geoff K.

By Artemis on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 06:54 am: Edit

It's important to remember he's not an LA vice cop, he's a *character* in a work of *fiction*.

Why would the cops be confiscating wormwood, (a noxious weed as far as USDA is concerned) that has always been perfectly legal, and grows in most of the U.S.?

How would a 1940s cop recognize absinthe if he saw it, unless it had a commercial label on it?

By Geoffk on Monday, November 05, 2001 - 06:24 am: Edit

Some of you may have seen the movie "LA Confidential" with Kim Basinger. If you haven't, you should, it's a great noir movie. It was taken from a book of the same name by James Ellroy (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0446674249/qid=1004969847/sr=2-3/ref=sr_2_11_3/103-2471881-0535855). This is a fantastic novel and the movie, good as it is, captures only a fraction of the complexity of it. I definitely recommend it.

What leads me to this topic is that in the book, the main character, an LA vice cop, several times mentions "absinthe" or "wormwood" as items which are used illicitly or captured in raids, along with marijuana and porn. I had no idea that absinthe was ever really that popular here, let alone that it was a significant contraband/underworld item (at least in the 1940's).

Does anyone have any real information about the use of absinthe in this period? Where would this have been made and how? Has any contraband absinthe of this type survived? Is this for real?

Any info appreciated!

-- Geoff K.

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