Friday, 8 June 2012


L’absinthe Edgar Degas 1876

It seems that as human beings, many of us, are engaged on a quest to find other realities. Hashish, extacy, magic mushrooms, vague 21st century, designer drugs that I don’t have a clue about. Back in the 60’s Ken Kesey expounded the virtues of LSD; “Turn on, Tune in and Drop out”, was the cry from Dr Timothy Leary speaking to a new generation. The user of “acid” experiences enlightenment, religious experience, mystical experience. Aldous Huxley’s drug of choice was mescaline. Mescaline is a dark brown powder, ground from buttons of the Mexican cactus peyote. With Mescaline and Acid there is a sense of oneness with everything in the universe. States of mind are achieved, in which new perceptions can arise, unhindered by everyday mental filters and processes.

The Victorians had their drugs of choice too, in particular, absinthe. It has the colour of a vibrant green; it was named by those who used absinthe as la fee verte. The green fairy.

Degas' groundbreaking L'Absinthe (1876) features two forlorn-looking café patrons staring out beyond their milky-green drinks. Although the people pictured were merely actors, this painting later roused intense comment for its unprecedented gritty realism.

Absinthe is alluring because of its beautiful and ever-changing green colour and its air of danger and seduction.

Absinthe. Albert Maignan

Albert Maignan. The Green Fairy is at work, liberating the mind of a poet. The dramatic pose of the poet and the misty-green appearance of the painting symbolise the effects of absinthe.

“Absinthe is historically described as a distilled, highly alcoholic beverage. It is an anise-flavoured spirit derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium  "grand wormwood”, together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green colour but may also be colourless.” WIKI

“There is an essential ritual in preparing and drinking absinthe. It involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or “dose” of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche (“loosh”) into an opaque opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe. Historically, true absintheurs take great care in adding the water, letting it fall drop by single drop onto the sugar cube, and then watching each individual drip cut a milky swathe through the peridot-green absinthe below. 

Seeing the drink gradually change colour is part of its ritualistic attraction.

“The “ritual” is important – it’s part of the fascination of absinthe. No other drink is traditionally consumed with such a carefully calibrated kind of ceremony. It’s part of what lends absinthe its drug-like allure (for instance, one talks about the dose of absinthe in the glass, a term you’d never use with whisky or brandy). From all historical evidence, it seems that absinthe was almost always drunk like this – even the poorest working man, in the roughest bar or café, would prepare his absinthe slowly and carefully. It was seldom drunk neat (except by the kind of desperate end-stage alcoholics who might also be drinking ether or cologne); the water was always added slowly not just sloshed in; ice was never added to the glass.

“Place a sugar cube on the spoon. Drip a few drops of water on to the sugar cube, just enough to saturate it thoroughly. Then do nothing, just watch the sugar cube for a few 
minutes. It will spontaneously slowly start to collapse and drip into the glass, eventually leaving only a few drops of sugared water on the spoon. Then add the rest of the water in a thin stream.”
From Absinthe Originals.

The Absinthe Drinker. Edouard Manet.

“Absinthe was invented in 1797 by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. The first absinthe distillery opened in Switzerland, then moved to France in 1805. By the 1850's it had become the favourite drink of the upper class. Originally wine based, a blight in 1870's on the vineyards forced manufacturers to base it with grain alcohol. Everyone could now afford it. The bohemian lifestyle embraced it.” WIKI

“Absinthe, was most popular in France. Most days started with a drink and ended with the "green hour" (l'heure verte) as one or two or more were taken for its aperitif properties. It is interesting to note that it also has aphrodisiac and narcotic properties. Authors and artists were proponents for using it to induce creativity.” WIKI

Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, sipped the green drink to liberate the "sacred thing" (his mind) as he daydreamed "voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of" and "every kind of magic". 

Those who take absinthe say that it produces drunkenness, but it is a weird kind of drunkenness, with a bizarre clarity of thought.

Portrait bleu de Angel Fernández de Soto, Picasso

“The French poet, Paul Marie Verlain, is said to have drank himself to death and damned his drink of choice, his beloved absinthe, from his death-bed. Through his times of poverty, in his later years, Verlaine succeeded in giving up all other habits, but absinthe. He took kisses of la fee verte  as he lay dying.

“Vincent Van Gogh’s love affair with absinthe is well documented. It has been suggested that his depression, combined with manic activity over the last two years of his life, were brought about by the additional effect of thujone poisoning from his consumption of absinthe.

Vincent, Toulousse Lautrec

“Oscar Wilde was also a devotee of absinthe. Wilde’s stage plays, poems, and short stories gained him celebrity status not only in his native Ireland but also in Continental Europe. From his post as foremost writer of his day, Wilde referred often to absinthe as a boost to the creative process. Oscar said of Absinthe;
“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

“The man who all but defined artistic decadence, Charles Baudelaire’s best known work includes a poem entitled “Get Drunk!” Baudelaire’s life was an extravagant one: he lived well beyond his means and drank far beyond the capacity of his body and pocketbook. For Baudelaire, trips to the poorhouse were followed up by trips to the café. He eventually died, young even by 19th Century standards, due to a combination of seizure and the ravages done to the writer’s body by his regular use of laudanum, opium, and absinthe. Baudelaire’s ethos was;
"One must be drunk always. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bows you to the earth, you must intoxicate yourself unceasingly. But with what? With wine, poetry, or with virtue, your choice. But intoxicate yourself."

For Baudelaire, Time was a shackle, and he often turned to absinthe for release. The green fairy provided the ‘intoxication’, the distraction he longed for.

“Guy de Maupassant was a French writer known for his efficient prose and a style that championed brevity above all. In de Maupassant’s “A Queer Night in Paris,” the writer describes the sensations associated with absinthe in the streets of Paris. De Maupassant tells of the confusion, brought about by the emerald green wine and the madness. Finally, the despair and depression, of slowly remembering his antics of the night before. The tale that he crafts so sparingly, is a microcosm of the world of the absinthe drinker.
"Decidedly, the air of Paris does not resemble any other air. It has in it something indescribably stimulating, exciting, intoxicating, which fills you with a strange longing to dance about and to do many other things. As soon as I arrive here, it seems to me, all of a sudden, that I have taken a bottle of champagne. What a life one can lead in this city in the midst of artists! Happy are the elect, the great men who make themselves a reputation in such a city! What an existence is theirs!"

Details of writers and artists, from

“Absinthe's popularity soared from 1880 on. Advertisements touted it as being healthful. It was exported to New Orleans and reached the same acclaim in the United States. It was one of the few drinks considered lady-like and women freely enjoyed it in the coffee houses where it was most commonly served. Victorian era men however, found women freely enjoying absinthe, distasteful.

“At the height of absinthe’s popularity on through to its eventual banishment, the drink was considered both a miracle tonic and a criminal scourge, depending on your perspective. While little of the alleged psychoactive or hallucinatory aspects of absinthe have been explained by science, what we do know is that the drink touched the lives and influenced the work of many an artist, writer, and intellectual.

“In 1905, Jean Lanfray, while very intoxicated, murdered his wife. He supposedly only had two glasses of absinthe but none the less, his trial became known as the "Absinthe Murder". Prohibition movements were underway. Absinthe was singled out as the maddening culprit. Absinthism was named as a disease. . By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in much of Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“The legacy of absinthe as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues to this day. Though its psychoactive effects and chemical makeup are contested, its cultural impact is not. Absinthe has played a notable role in the fine art movements of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, Cubism... and in the corresponding literary movements. The legendary drink has more recently appeared in movies, video, television, music, and contemporary literature. The modern absinthe revival has had a notable effect on its portrayal. It is often shown as an unnaturally glowing green liquid demonstrating the influence of contemporary marketing efforts.”

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenan, for suggesting this post and the images.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting (and educational!) post - I knew some of this stuff but by no means all of it. Much as I like the cultural connotations of absinthe, I don't greatly like aniseed-flavoured drinks! Though I still have some absinthe in my drinks cupboard... Personally I tend to go with red wine. Or strong coffee.

    A few years back I was in a bar in Prague - if I remember rightly it was called the Bar de Sade, mainly because it had prints from his books on the walls, and I was introduced to a way of drinking absinthe that involved using a cigarette lighter to caramelise the sugar until it dripped into the absinthe with a fizzing sound, and only after that was iced water added. I have no idea if that's an 'approved' or 'recognised' procedure, though!

    We wound up sitting next to a group of tourists and grossing them out by explaining that if you leave a credit card in your freezer for an hour or so and then run the edge of it over skin, the coldness and the small amount of condensation that forms on it when you take it out of the freezer makes it feel exactly like being cut with a knife. Not that that's particularly relevant to this post...