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Absinthe: History In A Bottle
by Barnaby Conrad III

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Absinthe: History in a Bottle, by Barnaby Conrad III, has been fermenting in my head since I first purchased the book perhaps ten years ago. Certain books trap you with their physical presence, freeze you in time. I still remember the crisp autumn day in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, the shy Mennonite shoppers (who stand out by their very imperative to remain plain), the odd store that sold gifts and hand-made note cards, the odd volume I’d seen nowhere else. I knew of absinthe then as some sort of powerful herbal concoction with plenty of alcohol. I vaguely associated it with the Paris of the impressionists. After devouring Conrad’s opulent illustrated book, absinthe became a multi-faceted brick in my cultural consciousness. Profoundly addictive in every respect (both literal and metaphorical), no other beverage or addictive substance entrapped as brilliant a chunk of 19th century life. Conrad in turn, from a safe distance, profoundly captures absinthe.

Absinthe has been banned in both Europe and the US since the early 20th century. Anti-absinthe sentiment in Europe aligned with temperance agitation in the US. The Americans went overboard in vilifying all drink while European governments ganged up on absinthe. The herb, not the alcohol, was the villain in their book. The yellow licorice-tasting liqueurs Pernod and Ricard are today’s grandchildren of absinthe, but for absinthe devotees, the continued availability of a universe of other alcoholic beverages could be at best cold consolation. “The Green Fairy” would accept no proxy.

The perennial shrub wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is the key ingredient in absinthe, though one should never forget that the beverage had an extraordinarily high alcohol content—up to 70 percent—factored against perhaps 35 drops of absinthe essence per quart. Conrad suggests that while it is the essence that addicts, it was perhaps the concomitant alcohol that killed. What is fascinating about absinthe is not how it affected drinkers, but who those drinkers were: arguably the most interesting artists and writers of the 19th and early 20th century. We see, for example, a pastel portrait by Toulouse-Lautrec of a dazed absinthe drinker hunched over a table in a Paris café. Hardly the man in the street, this was Vincent Van Gogh. Manet painted absinthe drinkers, as did Degas, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh himself. Poets and writers—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde—chipped away at their bodies and minds with the drink. After the ban, black market absinthe seduced expatriate Americans like Ernest Hemingway, who served up the drink and its lore in several of his novels. Hemingway kept an illegal stash of absinthe in his Key West retreat well into the 1930s.

The absinthe stupor, the lost pointless gaze, consistent in both the photographs and the art prints, leaves no doubt that it was the absinthe, not the drinker, who was in charge. The empty look of 19th century opium or 20th century heroin addicts can hardly compete. There seems something sublimely interesting about absinthe. It makes you wish you could at least sample a glass…or two. In Paris of course.

With its photographs and prints, many in color, Absinthe is a great browser, but it also reflects a flair for multi-disciplinary research: art, politics, science, history, society. The full history of the scapegoat campaign against absinthe makes fascinating reading. We get the science as well, even down to diagrams of the molecular structure of the chemicals that gave absinthe its pervasive power. Absinthe had its rituals; devoted drinkers carried special spoons designed to filter the bitter brew through piles or cubes of sugar. Absinthe advertising posters were an art-form in themselves. We even get an American angle; un-surprisingly, New Orleans was the center of our own absinthe culture. There is nothing ordinary about anything having to do with absinthe. Do a web-search, and you’ll find a phalanx of current absinthe sites. The “Green Fairy” will never leave us. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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