The Search for Real Absinthe

Like Tinkerbell, the Green Fairy lives only if we believe in her.

The ad in High Times for King of Spirits Absinth promises "Authentic Czech Absinthe." But according to La Fée Verte (feeverte.net), there's no such thing. The Web site, named after the "Green Fairy" that personifies the notorious wormwood-infused liqueur, concedes that a Czech brand, Hill's, "started the absinthe renaissance" in the late 1990s. But the producers "apparently knew nothing about absinthe other than its name and reputation." The result was "a very poor product indeed, bearing no resemblance to real absinthe, and tasting more like high-proof mouthwash than anything else."

As for King of Spirits, "It tastes like a bad home brew. Which isn't surprising considering they dumped a handful of wormwood and other herbs right into the bottle....What were they thinking?"

Probably they were thinking that they were not selling a drink so much as a vibe. The slogan that introduced Hill's to British pub crawlers in 1998 says it all: "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1899."

As the British journalist Jad Adams shows in his fascinating, richly detailed book Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle (University of Wisconsin Press), the lore surrounding absinthe is far more important than its taste, which is similar to those of other anise-flavored drinks, or its special psychoactive effects, which remain a matter of dispute. In the emerald green liquid devotees see visions of poets and painters in Parisian cafés who stirred together genius and madness along with absinthe and water. And while La Fée Verte is right that some contemporary brands are closer than others to the original Swiss recipe, there has always been wide variation in formulas and production techniques--one reason the hazards and benefits of 19th-century absinthe are hard to pin down.

The question of absinthe authenticity is also complicated by the fact that even in its heyday, absinthe was often a deliberately chosen prop. For calculatedly unconventional figures such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Oscar Wilde, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, absinthe was a symbol as well as an intoxicant. By imitating the habits of such well-known nonconformists, second- and third-rate talents hoped to look the part of the cutting-edge artist.

Wilde, who claimed to have experienced an absinthe-induced hallucination of flowers sprouting from a café floor, on other occasions described a more subtle shift in perception and confessed he liked the idea of absinthe more than the drink itself. With a few possible exceptions, including synesthetic passages in Rimbaud's poetry and Vincent van Gogh's use of color, Adams puts little stock in the idea that absinthe-tinged perceptions helped inspire the work of artists who drank the stuff. It is not even clear that absinthe, which can have an alcohol content as high as 75 percent, has ever contained enough thujone, the psychoactive ingredient in wormwood, to have an effect noticeably different from that of any other strong alcoholic beverage.

Drinkers of today's absinthe who expect a unique mind-altering experience usually are disappointed. Yet recent tests indicate that absinthe contains at least as much thujone today as it did during La Belle époque: Turn-of-the-century Pernod Fils absinthe had six milligrams of thujone per liter, substantially less than the 10 milligrams permitted by current European Union rules in countries where absinthe is legal. (For wormwood concoctions classified as bitters, up to 35 milligrams are allowed.) Despite this evidence, Adams argues that the 19th-century habit of mixing sugar into absinthe indicates it contained larger amounts of bitter wormwood than is common today.

King of Spirits Absinth boasts "100mg of psychoactive thujone," the sort of claim that is mocked on La Fée Verte, which dismisses the "glorious descriptions of absinthe highs in 19th century literature" as "so much flowery hot air." Although "thujone is assumed by modern-day druggies to lend some sort of buzz," says the site, "it does not." Or maybe it does. "Some people claim to experience 'secondary effects' from absinthe," La Fée Verte concedes, including "a markedly clear-headed drunkenness." Adams notes that recent animal research suggests "thujone excites the brain" by blocking receptors for a chemical that inhibits neural activity.

If absinthe's positive effects are still debatable, it's clear there was little basis for the extravagant warnings about insanity, seizures, and genetic damage that led many countries to ban the drink in the early 20th century. Although thujone is toxic in high enough doses (what isn't?), Adams concludes that the amount absorbed by the typical absinthe drinker would not have caused any significant harm. The same cannot necessarily be said of the contaminants and additives in some versions of the drink.

Like many liqueurs, absinthe, first produced commercially in 1798, was originally a tonic, building on millennia of wormwood's use as a medicine. Like marijuana in the 1960s, absinthe became an emblem of avant-garde creativity. Like marijuana in the 1930s, it was said to drive people mad. Adams reports that "it became popular to order absinthe under the nickname 'un train direct' or 'une correspondance,' from the phrase 'train direct à Charenton' or 'correspondance à Charenton': a fast route to the madhouse.'"

Now as then, absinthe's appeal is based largely on its notoriety. And just as pot would lose its countercultural cachet if it were sold by Philip Morris, absinthe is not the same when it is no longer prohibited. This year, a century after a Swiss vineyard worker triggered absinthe bans across Europe by murdering his wife and children while under the influence of the Green Fairy (along with copious amounts of wine and brandy), absinthe containing up to 35 milligrams of thujone per liter became legal again in Switzerland, where the drink was invented. Some connoisseurs are dismayed to see absinthe go legit. "I want to preserve the myth that comes with keeping absinthe forbidden," one told The New York Times last fall. "The myth is the thrill of breaking the law and not getting caught."

Fortunately for those who savor the drink's illicitness, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers true absinthe "adulterated" because of the wormwood. Production, sale, and importation are banned, but mere possession is not, and customs agents typically ignore a bottle or two in your suitcase. It's a legal situation that seems designed to keep absinthe cool.

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