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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Today's Absinthe Won't Drive You Mad




PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Human beings have invented or discovered an abundance of substances that offer short-term pleasure, often in exchange for long-term grief - substances like alcohol, cocaine, heroin. Few have yielded such a spate of grief as absinthe, the drink favored by bohemians a century ago in Paris and other cosmopolitan locales in Europe and the United States.


Absinthe drove men mad. Degas portrayed its stupefying effect artfully in his painting "L'Absinthe." Picasso and Manet worked the same theme. Some believed this drink, formulated in the 18th century by Henri Louis Pernod, stimulated artistic creativity. Talky Oscar Wilde prattled on about visions. Baudelaire drank it for inspiration. So did Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Van Gogh. Others regard tales of its inspirational qualities as pish posh.


Looking back, the pish-posh school of thought seems to hold more credit, if only because of the millions upon millions of others who drank absinthe during its heyday and went on to create absolutely nothing.


The French had been making and selling absinthe for nearly a century before they banned it in 1915, by which time they were consuming 10 million gallons a year. Other countries had moved more quickly: Belgium banned the drink in 1905, Switzerland in 1910. A little later, the United States went along. This followed years of physicians' observations of absinthe's long-range effects, including convulsions, hallucinations, insanity and other reactions that made the drink's prohibition understandable.


After absinthe's earlier prohibition, substitutes emerged: Pernod, anis, ouzo. Newsweek reports that there's one on the market in the United States called Absente. All taste similar to absinthe but lack the stuff that made the original so dangerous: thujone. Thujone, contained in wormwood, upon which the drink is based, was absinthe's sinister secret.


Production of absinthe began again in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 kicked out the Communists. The current product, according to Daniel Hill, whose family produces absinthe in the town of Jindrichuv Hradec, in southern Bohemia, has a "negligible" amount of thujone. "It wouldn't be absinthe without it," he says.


The best news, says diplomat Marcel Sauer at the Czech Embassy in Washington, is this: "You don't go mad anymore."


Absinthe has always had a certain appeal, even for nondrinkers. Anything so hotly denounced by the righteous-and-correct, and so lavishly praised by the creative-if-bent, has to pique the most dormant sense of curiosity. Disputes over dangerous substances seem to be part of what we're all about.


In Prague, with my own curiosity piqued, I purchased a bottle of the substance - the color of some gasolines - in a shop near a tram stop just below the Hradcany Castle. Hill's Absinth. It cost 300 crowns, about $9. The same bottle in London costs $70. The Hills aren't doing badly, it seems.


For several days the bottle remained untouched on the table in the hotel room. It looked so pedestrian, such an ordinary thing to have such a history, so many fey associations. It is, after all, just something to drink. So what was one to do but to try it, a dash in a glass. Bottoms up!


My mouth caught fire. Then a bitterness came through, a bitterness beyond measure, an unpromising bitterness, a taste from another world, utterly ignorant of the sweet. After that unpleasantness the strong taste of anise announced itself. It was a good, almost a rescuing, taste. But it lasted only briefly, to be replaced by a treacly sensation, like sweet licorice.


The second dose was prepared the way absinthe aficionados take it (as I had read), in a glass with cold water and sugar. This made the drink entirely more palatable, even pleasant. A luminous green sipping liqueur.


No visions arrived, not one hallucination. Nor did I experience a compulsion to draw, paint or write poetry. I did begin to feel a little elevated, which led to a conclusion about the possible reason for absinthe's popularity so many years ago, and not only among the artsy, but among low-paid European workers in the period before the Great War, the street cleaners, chimney sweeps of Paris and Madrid, even New Orleans and Greenwich Village.


First, absinthe is strong, really strong: about 140 proof. If you want a fast ride to oblivion, an escape from the here and now, absinthe will do it. Second, it was cheap back then, which was what drew so many poor people, especially artists, to it.


Daniel Hill and his uncle, Vladimir Hill, operate out of Canada, where they distribute Hill's Absinth - spelled without the final "e" - to any country that will buy it. Those countries include Germany, Austria, Russia and Britain.


Britain never did ban absinthe, maybe because it was never as popular there as it was on the Continent. The Brits had their own substances to worry about, such as laudanum, an opium derivative all the rage during Victorian times. Absinthe is still legal, which may be why London has become the locus of absinthe's revival. The stuff they're drinking these days in fashionable SoHo bars and clubs comes from Hill's distillery.