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Chasing the Green Fairy

Absinthe, and perhaps its accompanying madness, is on the rise again

By Seth Donlin

Never drink absinthe with a man from Prague.

While you may never have heard this particular maxim before, believe me, it's right up there with "Look both ways before crossing the street" and "Never get into a van with a stranger." It's the kind of information that can save your life or, at the very least, your dignity--take it from someone who's learned the hard way.

This may sound like rather bizarre advice as you sit safely at home or on the bus or enjoying a pint in a comfy pub, but the truth is that absinthe is in the midst of a world-wide resurgence, and, scary as it may seem, there are men from Prague who are at this very moment trying to figure out how to make you drink it.

Of course, drinking absinthe isn't really a problem. In fact, it's quite enjoyable. Mixed with cool water and a lump of sugar in the traditional French manner, absinthe has a pleasant licorice flavor reminiscent of Sambuca or Pernod and provides an interesting clear-headed high that in some ways mimics the physical sensations of a good painkiller.

The problem lies in the way the Czechs have come to drink absinthe. Forget the cool water. In Prague, they've done away with that sissy stuff and replaced it with the much manlier, much more evil, fire. Yes, instead of dissolving the lump of sugar in the traditional manner, Czechs simply dip it in the absinthe and then light it on fire.

Sitting suspended over the glass on its slotted spoon, alcohol fumes feeding the blaze, the sugar bubbles away, dropping caramelized bits into the absinthe below until the drinker drops what's left of the flaming cube into the glass, blows out the fire and tosses the now hot drink down his throat. This may sound cool, and will probably impress members of the opposite sex to no end, but it's not worth it. One or two shots like this, and you'll find yourself outside a nightclub desperately trying to claw your way into a sold-out emo show but not really understanding why.

Of course, all this may be right up your alley, in which case, disregard everything I just said. Hell, far be it from me to tell people how to enjoy the Green Fairy.

Absinthe, romantically known as the Green Fairy, though not distilled in the modern manner until the late 18th century, can trace its roots as far back as ancient Greece. The famed philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras recommended wormwood soaked in wine to aid labor in childbirth, while Hippocrates, the forefather of modern medicine, prescribed a similar concoction for jaundice, rheumatism, anemia and menstrual pains.

A half-century later, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recommended absinthe as an elixir of youth and cure for bad breath, at the same time noting that it had become customary for the champions of chariot races to consume a cup of wormwood leaves soaked in wine to remind them that even glory has its bitter side. By the time of England's Tudor Dynasty of the 1500s, a sort of absinthe called "purl" was being consumed by the country's working classes.

Despite its long and ancient pedigree, however, it wasn't until the end of the 18th century that modern absinthe was invented. Many believe that modern absinthe was first distilled by a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire in 1792. Dr. Ordinaire was living in Switzerland at the time, and it was during trips through the Swiss Val-de-Travers mountains that he supposedly "discovered" the wormwood plant, which he later developed into a drinkable recipe and marketed as a modern cure-all called Le Fée Verte--the Green Fairy. Upon his death, the recipe for absinthe was said to have been left to two French sisters named Henriod, who sold the recipe to Major Henri Dubied, father-in-law of the founder of the famous French distillery Pernod. Others dispute this history, however, contending that Ordinaire's tonic was made from chicory rather than wormwood.

Another story has the Henriod sisters as the actual inventors of modern absinthe, though this particular story seems to arise from confusion with another Henriod--this one named Henriette--who was associated with a wormwood-based product known as Mére Henriod. Critics of this history point out that the particular Henriod sisters in question were still young children in 1800 and therefore could not have been the inventors of modern absinthe.

Either way, one thing is for sure: by late 1797, Major Dubied and his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod had established a partnership, and began distilling absinthe. In 1805, Pernod established his own distillery in Pontarlier, France, and enjoyed modest success until 1830 when the French invaded Algeria and the absinthe industry really took off.

It was in Algeria that the French first began drinking absinthe in large quantities. Absinthe was issued to the army as a preventative for malaria and other diseases, and when the soldiers returned home, they brought the Green Fairy with them. Soon absinthe was all the rage in Paris, where the hours of 5pm to 7pm were soon known as the "green hour," a time when people would meet in a cafe and share a glass or two of absinthe with their friends. In fact, by 1866, the practice had become so popular that some people described the Parisian night as actually smelling of absinthe.

It was during this period that Europe's artists brought absinthe to the world. The most famous and popular artists and writers of the day were well known to have received their inspirations while drinking it. Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Picasso and Baudelaire all increased the popularity of absinthe through the works they created. The myth surrounding the creative properties of this drink was so strong it continued to influence future generations of artists such as the American ex-pats of the Lost Generation.

As popular as the Green Fairy had become, however, its days were numbered.

In 1905, a farmer in French-speaking Switzerland named Jean Lanfrey went on an all-day drinking binge that eventually culminated in the murder of his family. Lanfrey, drunk on absinthe, brandy and wine, shot his pregnant wife and their two young children, and then tried to kill himself. People familiar with Lanfrey claimed that this degree of violence was entirely unlike the farmer, though he was prone to occasional violent outbursts, and blame was eventually fixed on the two glasses of absinthe that he had consumed during his daylong bender.

The Lanfrey episode, combined with a working theory that absinthe's artistic properties were also the stuff of madness (van Gogh allegedly cut his ear off while tippling the stuff), boded badly for the Green Fairy. Within 10 years, absinthe was outlawed in much of Europe. It became illegal in France in 1915, and most of the world, including the United States, followed suit by 1923.

Now, however, absinthe is making a comeback. No longer illegal throughout Europe (in fact, it was never outlawed in Spain), there are a number of websites that will ship absinthe into the United States. This practice is only quasilegal; while it is illegal to export to or sell absinthe in the States, it is not illegal to buy or possess it. All of which means that it's perfectly safe to purchase a bottle or 12 from an online retailer such as Prague's Greenfairy.org.

Websites such as this one offer various brands of absinthe of various alcoholic strengths and with various levels of thujone, the THC-like compound that gives wormwood (and therefore absinthe) its kick. Typical absinthe is distilled at a whopping 70 percent to 75 percent alcohol by volume, making it nearly twice as strong as the average vodka, whiskey or rum, and contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 parts per million of thujone, though some have considerably more. Some brands, such as Absinthium 1792, are reputed to have thujone levels that can exceed 100 parts per million, depending on the batch. Greenfairy.org sells an absinthe under their own label they claim is even higher in thujone concentration.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum lie offerings like Fruko Schulz Liqueur, which weighs in at just 30 percent alcohol by volume and roughly 5 parts per million of thujone, making it perfect for the curious but timid. But since the main point of drinking absinthe is for the thujone high, you might as well just skip right to the big boys and see what this absinthe craze is all about.

Just be sure to keep one eye out for men from Prague. Call me paranoid, but they're out there. You'll see.

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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