Long before frat boys started doing shots of Jägermeister to experience its reputed hallucinatory effects, the artistes of Paris were sipping absinthe in anticipation of a similar high. As viewers of Baz Luhrmann’s psychedelic musical Moulin Rouge might recall, absinthe is that luridly green liqueur (or herbal spirit) that contains artemisia absinthium, an herb more commonly known as “wormwood.”
The word “absinthe” is likely derived from the Greek “apsinthion,” which means “unenjoyable” and refers to wormwood’s bitter flavor. But the plant’s leaves have long been recommended for their medicinal applications. It’s said that Pythagoras believed drinking wine steeped with the leaves would help assuage the pangs of childbirth, while Hippocrates prescribed it for rheumatism and jaundice. Later, Pliny the Elder thought athletic heroes should consume a similar concoction to remind them of the “bitter side of glory.”
Modern absinthe debuted in the late 18th century, supposedly invented by a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire.
His decidedly extra-ordinary elixir fast became locally admired for its curative properties. Later, his recipe was inherited by the Pernod family, who profited from a remarkable rise in the drink’s popularity throughout the 19th century.
During the Belle Époque, the Moulin Rouge became central to Parisian absinthe culture. There, L’Heure Verte (The Green Hour) was celebrated by artists, poets, bohemians and intellectuals including Toulouse-Lautrec, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde and Vincent Van Gogh.
In fact, Van Gogh’s seemingly hallucinatory images (e.g., “Starry Night”) and disturbed behavior (he did, after all, cut off his ear and commit suicide) might have been influenced by his ingestion of thujone, a chemical component of wormwood that’s been linked to (ready for it?) brain lesions! The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that thujone “can cause excitation, convulsions that mimic epilepsy, and even permanent brain damage.”
Eventually, absinthe was banned throughout Europe and, on July 25, 1912, in the United States. But now La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy) is back! The U.S. ban was lifted in 2007, and many different absinthe formulations are once again commercially available — complete with wormwood and trace amounts of thujone.
The Party Source (95 Riviera Drive, Bellevue, 859-291-4007) is featuring an artful display of products, while the staff all sport “Absinthe” buttons.
And Lavomatic (1211 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-621-1999) is offering its own L’Heure Verte, complete with an ornate, spigoted glass urn from which the bitter absinthe can be diluted with cold water and a sugar cube to produce the classic clouding effect — and make it more palatable.
I tried the high-thujone, 120 proof Mata Hari Absinthe ($50) without the dilution/sugar ritual, and found it reminded me of the most delicious Good and Plenty I can imagine never tasting in my childhood. Not a flavor with which I’m particularly enamored, but now I can include myself in the same league with Toulouse Lautrec, Rimbaud, Wilde and Van Gogh ... in at least one sense.
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: firstname.lastname@example.org
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