Arthur Rimbaud called absinthe the “sagebrush of the glaciers” because a key ingredient, the bitter-tasting herb Artemisia absinthium or wormwood, is plentiful in the icy Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. That is where the legendary aromatic drink that came to symbolise decadence was invented in the late 18th Century. It’s hard to overstate absinthe’s cultural impact – or imagine a contemporary equivalent.
The spirit was a muse extraordinaire from 1859, when Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker shocked the annual Salon de Paris, to 1914, when Pablo Picasso created his painted bronze sculpture, The Glass of Absinthe. During the Belle Époque, the Green Fairy – nicknamed after its distinctive colour – was the drink of choice for so many writers and artists in Paris that five o’clock was known as the Green Hour, a happy hour when cafes filled with drinkers sitting with glasses of the verdant liquor. Absinthe solidified or destroyed friendships, and created visions and dream-like states that filtered into artistic work. It shaped Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Dozens of artists took as their subjects absinthe drinkers and the ritual paraphernalia: a glass, slotted spoon, sugar cubes – sugar softened the bitter bite of cheaper brands – and fountains dripping cold water to dilute the liquor.
Absinthe was, at its conception, not unlike other medicinal herbal preparations (vermouth, the German word for wormwood, among them). Its licorice flavor derived from fennel and anise. But this was an aperitif capable of creating blackouts, pass-outs, hallucinations and bizarre behaviour. Contemporary analysis indicates that the chemical thujone in wormwood was present in such minute quantities in properly distilled absinthe as to cause little psychoactive effect. It’s more likely that the damage was done by severe alcohol poisoning from drinking twelve to twenty shots a day. Still, the mystique remains.
Muse in a bottle
Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Emile Zola, Alfred Jarry and Oscar Wilde were among scores of writers who were notorious absinthe drinkers. Jarry insisted on drinking his absinthe straight; Baudelaire also used laudanum and opium; Rimbaud combined it with hashish. They wrote of its addictive appeal and effect on the creative process, and set their work in an absinthe-saturated milieu.
In the poem Poison, from his 1857 volume The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire ranked absinthe ahead of wine and opium: “None of which equals the poison welling up in your eyes that show me my poor soul reversed, my dreams throng to drink at those green distorting pools."
Rimbaud, who “saw poetry as alchemical, a way of changing reality” Edmund White notes in his biography of the poet, saw absinthe as an artistic tool. Rimbaud’s manifesto was unambiguous: he declared that a poet “makes himself a seer through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.” Absinthe, with its hallucinogenic effects, could achieve just that.
Guy de Maupassant imbibed, as did characters in many of his short stories. His A Queer Night in Paris features a provincial notary who wangles an invitation to a party in the studio of an acclaimed painter. He drinks so much absinthe he tries to waltz with his chair and then falls to the ground. From that moment he forgets everything, and wakes up naked in a strange bed.
Contemporaries cited absinthe as shortening the lives of Baudelaire, Jarry and poets Verlaine and Alfred de Musset, among others. It may even have precipitated Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Blamed for causing psychosis, even murder, by 1915 absinthe was banned in France, Switzerland, the US and most of Europe.
The Green Fairy faded as a cultural influence for most of the 20th Century, to be replaced by cocktails, martinis and, in the 1960s, a panoply of mind-altering drugs. There were occasional echoes of its power, though mostly nostalgic.
Ernest Hemingway sipped the Green Fairy in Spain in the 1920s as a journalist, and later during the Spanish Civil War. His character Jake Barnes consoles himself with absinthe after Lady Brett runs off with the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan brings along a canteen of the stuff. In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway explains he stopped bullfighting because he couldn’t do it happily “except after drinking three or four absinthes, which, while they inflamed my courage, slightly distorted my reflexes."
Hemingway even invented a Death in the Afternoon cocktail for a 1935 celebrity drinks book: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."
In the late 20th Century, absinthe became a decadent reference point among a new generation of writers based in latter-day Bohemian outposts like San Francisco and New Orleans.
"The absinthe cauterized my throat with its flavor, part pepper, part licorice, part rot,” wrote precocious New Orleans horror writer Poppy Z Brite in a 1989 story, His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood. The narrator and his boyfriend, jaded grave robbers, have found more than fifty bottles of the now-outlawed liquor, sealed up in a New Orleans family tomb. By the end, the narrator is fantasising about his first bitter kiss of the spirit from beyond the grave.
Still seeing green
Today’s absinthe is a “tongue-numbing drink” that “sharpens the senses,” says Lance Winters, master distiller and proprietor at St George Spirits, which offered the first legal absinthe in the US in late 2007.
“To my mind, absinthe imparts an air of the mystic, a touch of the supernatural – qualities I like in a drink now and again,” says Rosie Schaap, drinks columnist for The New York Times. She recommends “deploying the stuff with a light hand.” Her contemporary absinthe cocktails include the Fascinator – two parts gin, one part dry vermouth, two dashes of absinthe and one mint leaf.
In today’s literary circles, absinthe is more an amusement than a muse – showing up as a hipster cocktail at themed book-launch parties. Now widely available, in versions from the recently-made to the $10,000 a bottle vintage Pernod Fils, the drink seems just another popular culture reference, showing up in a Mad Men episode, as a Marilyn Manson-endorsed signature brand, Mansinthe, and inspiring innumerable drinks recipes, many of which use absinthe as a rinse, not a serious ingredient. You can even buy absinthe dilution apps for your smartphone.
Like the splash added to a cocktail, a literary reference to absinthe today adds a whiff of atmosphere, a reminder of the provocative and form-fracturing writers of the Belle Époque – and that a spirit can indeed inspire.