A drink with a poetic licence
Wednesday 06 May 1998
It was the subject of paintings by Manet, Degas and Picasso. Toulouse Lautrec enjoyed it so much he carried a hollowed out walking stick sculpture by Picasso and innumerable anecdotes by Hemingway and Poe. It also drove Baudelaire to an early grave, hastened the death of Wilde and intoxicated Van Gogh to such a degree that he tried to attack Gaugin with a razor but ended up lopping off his own ear instead.
Absinthe, emerald green, 70 per cent proof and tasting of liquorice, was the top tipple of aesthetes and intellectuals for over a hundred years. Brought from Switzerland to France by Henri Louis Pernod in 1797, the drink was soon flowing freely on fashionable Parisian boulevards, rising in popularity, alongside cocaine fortified wines.
Whilst high times were being had with absinthe and cocaine in France, British Romantic artists and intellectuals were busy waxing lyrical about laudanum. Absinthe seems to only have become popular in Britain in the mid 19th century when it was served as an aperitif at dinner and cocktail parties.
One of absinthe's biggest English fans was the poet Ernest Dowson whose Absinthia Taetra has been dubbed "confessions of an English absinthe drinker". In a jovial letter to a friend Dowson wrote "The absinthe which I have consumed between nine and seven of the morning on Friday seems to have conquered my neuralgia though at some cost to my general health yesterday. The curious bewilderment of one's mind after much absinthe! Ones ineffectual endeavours to compass a busy crossing! The unreality of London to me! How wonderful it is!"
Had Dowson not lived such a short life (he died in 1900 aged 33) he would doubtless have been dismayed at the later prohibition of absinthe. Owing to studies which revealed that 50 per cent of the 10,000 patients in French mental hospitals were there owing to absinthe caused insanity, and further studies which linked the spread of tuberculosis and epilepsy to the popularity of the drink it was banned in France just a year after the U S banned cocaine from medicines and after some resistance the drink gradually became little more than a historical curiosity (although there is evidence to suggest that it continued to be distilled illegally in France, Switzerland and Spain).
Popping up briefly in Playboy and High Times magazines in the early seventies when it was described respectively as the "the best and safest aphrodisiac ever invented by the minds of men" and "the drink that can grow hairs on your brain" it looked like - as cocaine had - absinthe might rise again. It never did, quite possibly for the simple reason that a million pounds worth of cocaine can be smuggled in a suitcase, while a million pounds worth of absinthe would fill up a large tanker.
Now however, thanks to Czech distiller Radomil Hill, absinthe looks set to be revived in Britain. Having made the drink in Prague for the last ten years - although the Czech Chamber of Commerce deny all knowledge - Hill's absinthe has now come to the attention of The Idler magazine, who, in partnership with the former Jesus and Mary Chain guitarist, John Moore are currently waiting for legal clearance to import the drink into Britain.
The Idler has been busy garnering interest in the drink amongst the proprietors of London's hipper drinking establishments such as The Met Bar and The Pharmacy along with their own plans to set up an absinthe drinking club and mail order service through their pages.
However, even if legal, the importation could prove prohibitively expensive. If importation were allowed, Moore calculates that the duty tax alone per bottle could be as much as pounds 15 because of the convoluted journey the drink would have to make from the Czech Republic.
Moore sees this as a selling point, the price conferring exclusivity. "It won't be causing any Leah Betts style disasters because it's too expensive for young kids," he says. "Responsible people won't have any problems with it."
Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler explains the drink's allure: "Absinthe presents an exciting prospect to those familiar with other stimulants who are desperate for a new kick. There's a fin de siecle mystique around absinthe; its legendary and just right for the closing years of the millennium. There's a ritual around the drinking of it which adds mystery and excitement. It's got a real sodden glamour to it."
The comparative rarity of absinthe has meant very few scientific studies have been undertaken. The last study done in 1975 revealed that it's active ingredient, thujone, is very similar to the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in cannabis and research has shown that the psychological effects of cannabis smoking and absinthe drinking are, as might be expected, very similar.
These findings are borne out by the experience of Moore who has been quaffing absinthe for half a decade: "It makes the world slow down, it's effects are a bit like smoking cannabis whilst drinking".
Whilst The ldler and Moore wait with bated breath (or is it delirium tremens) for the all-clear to import absinthe it's difficult to see how a government that can get anxious over alcoholic orange juice and which blames the innocuous sitcom Men Behaving Badly for degeneracy amongst middle class men is going to take to a dark green, 70 per cent proof, mind rotting, hallucination inducing drink being quaffed by degenerate hacks and hedonists in seedy recreations of Victorian England's opium dens. (Although come to think of it, Wildean figures spouting epigrams and bon-mots over a glass or two of the green fairy would go down well with American tourists eager to experience Cool Britannia at it's dandyish best). What's more, even those reviving the drink seem unclear of the possible side effects that they have experienced: "its said that it can make you go mad, but it hasn't happened to me," Moore says. "At least I don't think so".
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