[img_assist|nid=211|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=91|height=100]I’ve been doing a little work on pastis recently (see Financial Times piece on 9.8.08) and that has taken me back up the absinthe trail. The two have a parent-child relationship, though the family is dysfunctional. While rummaging around in Absinthea, I came across a piece I wrote for The Evening Standard back in 2002 after I had interviewed Phil Baker, author of the engagingly literary The Dedalus Book of Absinthe (which is still in print: see Amazon &c.) Here it is:
If there is one drink I recommend you don’t treat your true love to on Thursday, then it’s absinthe. [This piece appeared two days before Valentine’s Day, on Tuesday 12th February 2002.] The defining ingredient, artemisia absinthum or wormwood, first grew “in the winding track of the serpent as she departed from Paradise.” In the Book of Revelations, a falling, bitter star which poisons ‘the third part of the waters’ and kills those who drink that part is called Wormwood. The Russian word for wormwood is chernobyl . When the Erotic Review held a party at which absinthe was served, those clearing up afterwards had to deal not with discarded undergarments and suggestive billets-doux but with piles of vomit.
I am indebted for these facts to Dr Phil Baker, whose engaging, curious and gruesomely hilarious book Absinthe was published at the end of 2001. The author has obviously taken his own message to heart. When I met him in the Library Bar of the Lanesborough Hotel, he agreed to pose for the photographer clutching absinthe – but drank only water. Not that he is a stranger to alcoholic excess. “I suppose I’ve always drunk quite heavily,” he told me, confessing to having woken up before now on the pavement of Tottenham Court Road and even, one cold and damp morning, in a graveyard. Those were the years during which he took 12 years to write his PhD (on Samuel Beckett) and sought solace in strong lager. Now, as an author with one book published and three more on the way, he has cut back to a mere bottle or so of generally South American wine per night, yet still admits that in some ways the book is “coded autobiography. The book crystallised mixed feelings I had about my drinking. It made me realise drinking is quite bad news.”
I’ll say. Until I read Baker’s book, I had no idea quite how squalid were the lives of some of absinthe’s most celebrated victims: the melancholy Ernest Dowson (who expired in Catford aged 32), pompous Oscar Wilde, the hideous Verlaine and yobbish Rimbaud, Villiers de l’Isle Adam (a poet who attempted at one point to claim the Greek throne via the pages of The Times) and the dwarfish, gun-toting playwright Alfred Jarry. Baker, a reader of evident voraciousness, tells their tragic stories amusingly. He does feel some remorse about this. “There’s about three people dead per page, yet the book has a Tom and Jerry quality: it picks itself up and carries on. These people died miserably, one at a time, and that was the only life they had. I hope the book is a cautionary tract.”
The key question, of course, which faces modern absinthe drinkers is the following. Was it merely the fact that absinthe was originally extremely alcoholic (60 or 70 per cent alcohol by volume) and relatively cheap which caused all the damage, or was it its wormwood content (and particularly wormwood’s active ingredient, thujone)? Did Dowson, Adam and Jarry die as alcoholics, or of a specific condition known as absinthism? Baker made a systematic attempt to get to the bottom of the issue as he wrote the book. “I did make an effort to drink absinthe every night for a while, to see if I felt any different.” And? “Yes, I did feel different. I got hit by a car. Not,” he added as I began to laugh, “because I was drunk, but I found I was getting more and more spaced out. I couldn’t remember things. It was very much the same state as people get into by smoking a lot of dope.”
“Absinthism,” he concludes, “was a real condition, although most people were simply alcoholics.” Usefully, on page 197 of the book, he lists the amount of thujone contained by leading brands of absinthe (it varies from a miniscule 1.8 parts per million for Hill’s, the most widely available brand, up to 100 ppm for a semi-legendary Czech brand called Logan 100). Baker’s own preferred brands are the Spanish Mari Mayans and the French La Fée, both of which contain the permitted EU maximum of 10 ppm thujone. Thujone, Baker says, makes you twitchy, a sensation he doesn’t enjoy – though oddly enough many do. And there are worse ways than absinthe to drink yourself towards twitchiness. In the 1940s and 1950s, a cocktail called Mickey Slim was popular in America, I learned from Baker’s book, for its jittery effects. It was a combination of gin and DDT.
There’s a good wikipedia entry on thujone, by the way, for anyone who wants to pursue that line of enquiry further. My understanding is that you would have expired from alcohol poisoning long before the thujone level derived from the wormwood could affect you, so theoretically I don’t agree with Phil that ‘absinthism’ exists. (But he’s tried a course of nightly doses, which I haven’t.) If thujone was so toxic, I suspect we wouldn’t use sage in our recipes with such abandon. That Czech absinthe should now have come into line with EU thujone levels following accession.