When I think of absinthe, I think of Hemingway and his posthumous novel Garden of Eden, I think of the glittering Parisian theatres, the Moulin Rouge, the artists, the cafés and all the icons of the Belle Epoque.
Absinthe hit its peak during the years from 1880-1910. It was a quintessential part of Belle Epoque French society. The French consumed far more absinthe than any other country, and absinthe drinking was one of the special marks of Paris in the 1890s and early 1900’s. Absinthe was a symbol of inspiration and daring, and became indelibly associated with the bohemian artists and writers who were revolutionising art and literature. Many famous works of art were directly inspired by the drink, including some of Degas’ and Van Gogh greatest masterpieces, and the very first cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque.
The Medicinal Qualities of Absinthe
Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is thought to have invented absinthe in 1792. He produced the first commercial absinthe as a medicine meant to cure just about anything. It was recommended for the treatment of epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches and worms.
Dr. Ordinaire travelled the countryside with his medicine and sold it as a cure-all. The medicine included typical herbs for the region as well as herbs known for their medicinal properties. Local wormwood, roman wormwood, fennel and several other ingredients made up the first version of what was to become France’s most popular drink.
Why Absinthe Was Banned
Being a high-proof spirit and fairly cheap Absinthe was the perfect target for the anti-alcohol-league. They provided “scientific studies” that proved the drink to be a terrible poison. One of the most well known, and cited, scientists in this field was Dr. Magnan. His studies on the effects of wormwood were used to ban absinthe.
He found a component in absinthe which was previously “unknown,” the so called active ingredient of wormwood (thujone.)
Thujone is a terpene and related to menthol, which of course is known for its healing and restorative qualities. Thujone is a naturally occurring substance in wormwood and is also found in the bark of the Thuja, or white cedar and in other herbs besides wormwood—including tansy and the common sage used in cooking. Other liquors, including Chartreuse, another one of my favorites (hmmmm, could there be a correlation here?), and Benedictine, also contain small amounts of thujone.
Dr. Magnans studies “proved” that thujone was indeed a poison by giving a laboratory rat ordinary drinking alcohol and then later the same amount of concentrated thujone oil —which, of course, killed the animal. He “proved” that since absinthe contained thujone and thujone killed the rat, absinthe was a poison. However the actual levels of thujone found in absinthe, are well below the lethal dose for humans.
As most bans do, it just created a higher demand for the liquor, and a mystique that continues to this day.
What’s Not To Love
I have decided to declare Absinthe the “official” drink of creativity. Hemingway, Van Gogh, Degas, Wilde, Braque and Picasso can’t all be wrong. In fact, consider a quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde:
“After the first glass 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.”
Perhaps it’s this seeing things as they really are that forms the impetus for much of art and creativity. I know it does for me.
My Painting of Absinthe
My original watercolor called Absinthe is at auction this week at the bottom of this page. Absinthe is one of my favorite liqueurs and is perfect for coating the glass of a Sazerac.
Again to quote the eloquent Oscar Wilde, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world, what difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset.” The Absinthe Poster that inspired my watercolor is of one of the most iconic art nouveau images of all. The 1896 image for Absinthe Robette by Belgian posterist Henri Privat-Livemont has spawned a million reproductions. So, I thought I would try my hand at it.
All the monies will be given to the Creative Community scholarship fund for young artists.
Join in the fun and make a bid. It’s for a great cause, and you could have a “safe” taste of Absinthe for yourself.