After 70 years, the toast of Bohemia returns to Britain

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THE ALPHABET BAR in Soho, London, was yesterday witness to the first official tasting of absinthe in Britain since the 1920s. Once the inspirational liquor of the artistic and literary masses of the 19th century, the glowing green herbal-aniseed liquid is poised for a revival as the drink of the fin de millenaire.

Toulouse Lautrec drank absinthe from a hollow walking stick, Manet and Degas both painted absinthe drinkers in advanced states of intoxication. Other drinkers included Picasso, Zola, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Absinthe last laced the brains of Europe's Bohemian masses just after the First World War until it was banned by the authorities across Europe for causing insanity. At the turn of the century, 50 per cent of the inhabitants of French asylums were there because of the effects of absinthe.

The authorities had a point. At 70 per cent alcohol, (140 degrees proof), absinthe would serve as an excellent oven-cleaner, with the additional advantage of containing taugone, a narcotic similar to cannabis. Taken with sugar, a splash of water and ice, absinthe tastes slightly minty, has a powerful kick and is liable to make you mistake your fellow drinkers for your best friends.

Originally made from wormwood - a herbal remedy derived from bark - and pure alcohol and herbs, after the ban absinthe soon sank into obscurity, being served only in the artistic quarters of Prague and Barcelona.

Green Bohemia, a company formed by four young Londoners, has started importing the liquid from the Czech Republic, where it is distilled, and supplying it, in limited quantities, at pounds 40 a bottle to London's most fashionable bars.

The Groucho Club, the Met Bar, Detroit and Alphabet will be serving the drink in cocktails over the Christmas season. If the reaction of the beau monde in the Alphabet was anything to go by, it will go down very well indeed.

"I'm very impressed," said Tony Robinson, 66, who last tried absinthe in a bar in Paris in the 1960s. "It's full of character, like an artists' palette."

Louise Kawecki was a fount of knowledge about absinthe and its effects on Van Gogh. "He had a fight with Gauguin and cut off his ear," she said, and took another sip.