Arts & Entertainment

Dowd On Drinks: Return of the Green Fairy

One of the quirkier debates in the world of spirits is whether absinthe is legal in the U.S.

The legendary European liqueur has long been banned if it contains more than 10 percent of the chemical known as thujone.

Some had believed that most of the "lethal" absinthes did conform to the under-10 percent ceiling but testing the claim was difficult. So, for all practical purposes, absinthe was banned for generations.

Now that better testing is possible, however, absinthe is again showing up. The latest round of stories and questions prompted me to go to the archives for a column I wrote more than three years ago. It is reprinted here, in part.

As his charcoal stick danced across the cloth napkin, capturing the slants and curves of the nightclub dancers and their lusty followers, the little man in the bowler hat began working faster and faster.

His vivid portraits of freewheeling cafe life leapt off the impromptu canvas, at once bold and graceful, revealing and enigmatic, acting as a guide for his later versions done in colorful oils.

A body of work fueled by a creative fire, of course, but perhaps just as much by frequent sips of the pale green liquid ever present on his table.

Such is the legend of the tragic 19th century artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, portrayed as a brilliant artist but a tortured alcoholic in several "Moulin Rouge" films and many biographies.

While the work of Lautrec (1864-1901) lives on, his drink of choice — absinthe — receded into dim memory after it was banned throughout much of Europe and the United States around the time of World War I.

Absinthe, an herb-infused alcohol that began as a medicine, had been blamed for bad judgment, poor health, even outright madness. Nevertheless, it was the drink beloved of 19th century Parisian cafe society, enjoyed by such writers and artists as Baudelaire, Picasso, Degas and Manet.

In those times the cocktail hour was referred to as l'heure verte — the Green Hour — in honor of absinthe.

There are those who theorize that the anti-absinthe forces were funded by the wine industry, which was losing ground in the marketplace to la Fee Verte, the Green Fairy, as the drink was known.

Any link, no matter how tenuous, between evildoers and absinthe was loudly proclaimed until enough of the public grew fearful of its continued availability to demand a ban.

For years the liqueur was made mostly in Spain, the Czech Republic and France. But, it began making a more international comeback several years ago when English entrepreneurs discovered no legal ban remained in effect prohibiting its sale or consumption.

Absinthe is made by steeping dried herbs in ethyl alcohol, then distilling the liquor.

The main herbs are nothing unusual — anise and star anise, peppermint, wormwood, fennel, perhaps a few others, depending upon which recipe one prefers. Wormwood, used medicinally since Biblical times, is the catalyst for a chemical change during the process that, combined with the very high alcohol content (usually in excess of 150 proof, or 75 percent), gives the drink its potency through release of thujone.

Whether excessive consumption of absinthe produces murderous rages, melancholy ruminations or just a mild dysphoria remains up for debate. One of its most ardent admirers, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was ambivalent about it. As he wrote on two separate occasions:

"A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?"

And:

"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."

             

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