The Truth About Absinthe Drink

The article presents history and insights into absinthe, a liquor rich in culture and danger, to which Europe is currently re-opening its doors.

There is a growing interest on the Internet about absinthe, an interest akin to the flair for Starwars, the Mars footages or even Napster downloads. Absinthe is simply an extraordinarily strong liquor very popular in Europe (especially Paris) in the 1800s which was subsequently banned towards the early 1900s due to its harmful content. So why the hype?

The growing Internet craze for the intoxicating drink derives mostly from the liquor's rich history, which drives on-line pundits to create not only a cult around the drink, but to even concoct home-made recipes of absinthe with often dangerous consequences.

One writer writes: "All you would-be home absinthe-makers should be aware that the New England Journal of Medicine reported that some extremely ill-advised individual ended up in the hospital and nearly died because he drank essential oil of wormwood, a pure form of the toxic ingredient in absinthe..."

Adding to the growing frenzy for absinthe is the fact that Britain re-opened its doors to the import and consumption of the drink in 1998, when most of Europe has banned it for close to a century. Even Canada had a change of heart on absinthe recently, although the composition or ingredients of the drink has been grossly modified as to make it totally alien to its connoisseur's palate.

The craze for the drink becomes even more understandable when one realizes that many of its avid drinkers in history were famous artists-- Edouard Manet, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway (and that's naming just a few). So much so that people who come to know about the drink eventually associate it with increasing one's creative prowess, or even eccentricity. In fact, there has been this insidious rumor rancouring across the past two centuries, that consuming huge quantities of absinthe leads to sightings of green little fairies which to creative pundits, can take the place of an all-inspiring muse.

Just some classical artworks inspired by absinthe: Edouard Manet's 1859 The Absinthe Drinker; Edgar Degas' 1876 L'Absinthe; Vincent Van Gogh's 1887 Still Life with Absinthe; Pablo Picasso's 1901 The Absinthe Drinker and 1914 Absinthe Glass.

Barring the legend surrounding the drink, what is absinthe, really? Vicki Richman, in writing about the drink in relation to New Orleans history notes: "Absinthe is an anise-flavored liqueur distilled with obil of wormwood, a leafy herb, and also containing flavorful herbs like hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm and angelica. Wormwood is Artemisia absinthum, an herb that grows wild in Europe and has been cultivated in the United States as well. Much of its legendary effect is due to its extremely high alcohol content, ranging from 50% to 75% (usually around 60%). The active ingredient in wormwood, responsible for the additional effects, is thujone, which is chemically a neurotoxin."

You don't just sit down and drink absinthe, bottoms up. You serve it with a cube of sugar placed on an "absinthe spoon," and the liquor was drizzled over the sugar into the glass of water. The sugar helped take the bitter bite off the absinthe, which also turned the liquor milky white.

Matthew Baggott, author of the Absinthe FAQ on the Internet quotes a passage in Lanier (1995) which succintly captures the culture behind the drink:

"[In Paris] the noon hour is a little fête, when people try to forget that they are working for their living. Master and man go off their different ways... All thoughts of business are put aside for a good hour and a half, or two hours even ... from 11 to 1 or noon. They do not go immediately to eating. They sit outside upon the sidewalk, even in the winter time, look at passers-by and sip their drink. The drink is absinthe. They drink it very slowly; by slow degrees they feel their poor, tired backbones strengthen and their brains grow clearer, and they feel a touch of happiness. It is so pleasant to sit looking at the street and all the pretty ladies passing by. At great cafes, upon frequented boulevards the price is only 10 cents. In the quarters of the working men, you may have absinthe for three cents."

The drink came to be known as "La Fée Verte" or The Green Fairy, by virtue of its often dazzling green color (depending on the brand). The color ideally comes from the chlorophyll content of the herbs. For quick profit, some manufacturers in the latter half of the 1800s would, however, adulterate the composition by adding toxic chemicals to produce both the green color and the louche (or clouding).

Therein lies the chief reason why the drink was eventually banned in most of Europe by the early 1900s. While it was debateable that the wormwood content in original absinthe was the culprit for the mental cases, convulsions, epilepsy, comatoses and even suicidal deaths among the creative circles in Europe at that time (Van Gogh is an example), governments nonetheless banned the The Green Fairy as a precautionary measure.

Baggot in his FAQ on the Net sheds contemporary light on thujone, the main content which differentiates absinthe from other drinks, a chemical which comes from the herbs wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica). Herein are some of Baggots' findings: "There is good evidence that both thujone and wormwood have psychoactive properties. Some have suggested that this effect is due to thujone binding at the cannabinoid receptor, at which the active components in marijuana act... This seems unlikely. Furthermore, it is not even clear that thujone is present in sufficient quantities to play a role in absinthe intoxication. However, it is possible that thujone accumulates in the body and plays a role in the psychoactivity and toxicity of chronic absinthe use."

Vicki Richman reports that absinthe is still available in Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Britain, "where it is now quite the trendy thing amongst patrons of bars and coffeehouses."

During her Spring 1996 trip to Eastern Europe, Richman, as told to Chuck Taggart, recalls sampling " The Green fairy for the first time in the form of locally-made Hill's 'Absinth' at the Globe Coffeehouse and Bookstore in Prague. I was admittedly curious, and in the interests of taking a dip into New Orleans history, I ordered some. It was emerald-green, and was served neat -- not in the old traditional manner, with an absinthe spoon and sugar cube. I don't think tradition would have helped. It was ... rather vile, actually. It had a powerful kick, due to its high alcohol content, and my travelling companion opined that it smelled to him rather like turpentine. Unfortunately, its flavor resembled turpentine as well..."

Naturally after absinthe's banning in the late 1800s, imitations, using anise and other legal herbs in place of wormwood, appeared. Reports Richman: "The most well-known is Pernod, which is similar to absinthe but without the wormwood. But the similarity is only in color and taste; Pernod is without the mind-numbing characteristics of thujone-containing absinthe. In New Orleans, the preferred absinthe substitute is Herbsaint, a locally-made anise liquor which is used in cocktails as well as in cooking. It's an absolutely lovely-tasting pastis drink, at 90 proof, and has a flavor that I believe to be superior to Pernod."

It's interesting to know how absinthe is made. Simon and Schuster's Guide to Herbs and Spices reveals Henri-Louis Pernod's recipe. He used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, and lemonbalm along with lesser amounts of angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and veronica. He mascerated these ingredients together with wormwood plants. He then left the mixture to sit, adding water then distilling the mixture. Dried herbs, and more wormwood were added to the distillate, which was then diluted with alcohol to give a concentration of about 75% alcohol by volume. Other absinthe manufacturers, though, used slightly different ingredients such as nutmeg and calamus.

An 1855 recipe found in Pontarlier, France (Scientific American) gives the following instructions for making absinthe: "Macerate 2.5 kilograms of dried wormwood, 5 kilograms of anise and 5 kilograms of fennel in 95 liters of 85 percent ethanol by volume. Let the mixture steep for at least 12 hours in the pot of a double boiler. Add 45 liters of water and apply heat; collect 95 liters of distillate. To 40 liters of the distillate, add 1 kilogram of Roman wormwood, 1 kilogram of hyssop and 500 grams of lemon balm, all of which have been dried and finely divided. Extract at a moderate temperature, then siphon off the liquor, filter, and reunite it with the remaining 55 liters of distillate. Dilute with water to produce approximately 100 liters of absinthe with a final alcohol concentration of 74 percent by volume."

If the late 1800s was a scenario of scary pathologies in the creative circles of Europe, what's currently happening on the Internet is even scarier. Richman warns: "Although I believe that a glass or two here and there is fine if you can get it, the problem with all this nascent absinthe interest is not in drinking the real stuff that's made by reputable distillers, but in drinking the stuff people make in their bathtubs, or by steeping dried wormwood in vodka or Pernod (which surely must taste absolutely horrible; it needs to be distilled, people) or by quaffing pure wormwood oil."

Similarly, Baggot rings the alarm bell: "I do not recommend or condone absinthe use. Absinthe users of the past sometimes suffered serious toxic effects. Wormwood extract, an ingredient in absinthe, can cause life-threatening problems, including convulsions, kidney failure, and rhabdomyolysis. In other words, it can kill you."

So the word is out. Absinthe doesn't really make the heart grow fonder. It can not only cause absinthism (i.e., the symptoms of excessive absinthe intake) or abseenteism (i.e., not coming to work). It can also cause you to be as dead as Van Gogh, if taken regularly or in huge quantities from dubious suppliers intent on making a fast buck faster than any green fairy.

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