Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Absinthe: History in a Bottle Paperback – February 1, 1997
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Customers who bought this item also bought
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
From Publishers Weekly
Few drinks conjure the cultural associations and charged atmospheres that absinthe does, even now, some 70 years after its ban in Europe and the U.S. Freelance writer Conrad sees absinthe "as a skeleton key to the fin de siecle's secrets." An engaging combination of art history, sociology, travelogue and artists' biography, this clever hybrid recounts both the praise heaped upon the alcoholic beverage and the tales of destroyed creativity and absinthe-related violence that led to its prohibition. Turn-of-the-century Paris comes alive, as does its expatriate society of the '20s. Oil paintings, etchings and artifacts with absinthe themes by Manet, Van Gogh, Lautrec and others adorn the pages, and quotes and anecdotes about the green liqueur by Wilde, Baudelaire and Hemingway fill the well-researched text. More sober chapters include "The Origins of Ancient and Modern Absinthe" and "Absinthe and Politics," which links certain temperance movements to anti-Semitism. Like its subject, this volume is addictive and enchanting.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Absinthe, as reviled in its time as crack cocaine is today, now seems the rather quaint forbidden fruit of a more innocent age. We think of fin-de-siècle poets guzzling it in stagy despair or old paintings of stoned-out Parisians who don't look as if they're having that much fun slouched over their liqueur glasses.
But absinthe-drinking certainly was a drug scene. A serious absintheur would add the water to the liqueur slowly, pouring it over a sugar cube in an elaborate slotted spoon with a ritualistic absorption that reminds us of a junkie shooting up.
Like its non-scandalous descendant, Pernod, absinthe turned milky when mixed with water, with an opalescent greenish tone. Emerald green came to have the same implication of druggy ecstasy in the art of the 1890s that paisleys and mandalas had in the psychedelic '60s.
There is a curious history here, and Barnaby Conrad III recounts a lot of it in this fascinating book first published in 1988 and recently reissued by Chronicle Books. One of the things he makes you wonder is how people ever got addicted to a drink made from wormwood (apsinthium), a proverbially bitter herb best known as an insect repellent and cure for worms. Wormwood was an ingredient in many of the hopefully medicinal liqueurs people had been concocting since the Middle Ages. (Another of them, vermouth, actually gets its name from wormwood.) The one named absinthe had been made since the 1760s but didn't become controversial until a hundred years later.
The absinthe cult began, as Conrad explains, in the 1840s, when the French government issued absinthe to soldiers stationed in Algeria as a fever preventive. Some of them took to drinking it, let us say, recreationally and brought the custom back to Paris with them.
In the end, it became the symbol of decadence at a time when decadence was taken very seriously. As a result of the clamor, it was illegal just about everywhere by World War I. It is the only alcoholic beverage ever singled out by law as uniquely dangerous.
Along the way, many writers and painters had been seduced by absinthe. Most of Conrad's book consists of juicy anecdotes about famous artistic absintheurs: Early Symbolists like Beaudelaire, Rimbaud and (to show that even Americans could be decadent) Poe. Alfred Jarry, a forerunner of Dadaism who dressed like a bicycle racer and spoke like a robot. A whole parade of painters, including Van Gogh, whom it certainly did no good. One of the best things about this book is the illustrations -- 100 in black and white and 60 in color (leaning toward the green, of course).
The fact that French public opinion turned against absinthe was the strongest argument of the people who campaigned to outlaw it in other countries, but Conrad tends to side with those who think absinthe was the victim of hysteria in France. Unlike wine, it was a drink of the Industrial Age. Reformers and other worriers associated it with the squalor of the new urban slums, it played the same role in France that gin did in 18th century England. They saw it as an all-consuming plague, though it never actually accounted for more than 3% of the alcohol consumed in France.
On the other hand, some people were certainly getting messed up on it. Conrad points out that absinthe was bottled at 144 proof. Serious devotees of "the green fairy" hated to dilute it with much water, and the high level of alcohol alone could account for much of the damage. But then he quotes several attempts by literary absintheurs such as Oscar Wilde to describe the stages of absinthe intoxication, which involved mood swings and hallucinations that were evidently unlike plain drunkenness.
The obvious suspect was a component of wormwood named thujone which can, in sufficient quantity, cause epileptic-type convulsions. (Conrad wastes a little time trying to connect thujone with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.) On the other hand, some 19th century scientists found that too much of anise, the main flavoring in absinthe, could be bad for you in itself.
In fact, most of the ingredients in absinthe and other medicinal liqueurs were harmful in excess. Conrad winds up with a maybe-this, maybe-that conclusion about what absinthism was all about.
At the end of the book, he describes finding an absinthe bootlegger in Switzerland and experiencing a grandiose absinthe intoxication. He says it made him feel he'd found the key to the mystery of life, but the next morning he couldn't remember what it was all about.
So it was an artificial paradise. It would be surprising to be told it wasn't. Anyway, we still have all those moody fin-de-siècle paintings and juicy anecdotes.
-- Los Angeles Times, May 1997
Browse award-winning titles. See more
If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support?
Top Customer Reviews
I first heard about absinthe from my parents, who were trained in fine arts (and were among bohemian circles in Berkeley, California, my home town, in the 1950s and 1960s). They mentioned the intense Impressionist painters and others who drank it. The defining ingredient is Artemisia absinthium, a common decorative and medicinal herb since ancient times and one of a group of similar plants known as wormwoods or mugworts. I've tasted modern commercial absinthes in the last 20 years from two countries, as well as an extract of the A. absinthium plant, which has a lingering, wretchedly bitter taste not soon forgotten. The anise and other sweet spices that flavor absinthe liquor are there to make it palatable. The stuff has a considerable mystique, due in part to the colorful figures who drank so much of it, as Conrad details with gusto. It is said to be psychoactive in its own right; maybe or maybe not, but it unquestionably has a lot of alcohol, and that was the psychoactivity I noticed when I tried it. Of course, I didn't take the 10 or 20 shots a day for ten years that Conrad's 19th-century bohemians did, so I can't say I've had the full experience. In any event the main principle, thujone, is also prominent in sage, and the wormwood plants are used in flavoring vermouths, according to Conrad and other sources. The true absinthe liquor was an early casualty of the Prohibition movement and remains illegal in many countries on (disputed) health grounds.
The following may interest readers curious about absinthe. While there is a minor industry in importing allegedly genuine absinthe into the US, at high prices, from countries where it can be legally manufactured, about the beginning of 2000 specialty importers began bringing into the US a fully legal French product called Versinthe (from the Liquoristerie de Provence, whose Web site includes English documentation). According to the manufacturer's literature and to one of the importers I spoke to directly, this product contains just the limit of A. absinthium permitted by law in France and the US, but also contains supplemental extracts of closely related mugworts of genus Artemisia, with similar chemical makeup but not covered by the very specific absinthe prohibition. In any event the flavor resembles those of classic absinthes much more than do any of the numerous substitutes such as Muse Vert. The product is sweetened, unlike classic absinthe where the ritual of pouring water over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon was part of the mystique.
Her book is a much more detailed history, but it's in French and hard to find, so this is a quality English guide to a legendary vice. If you get to Paris, though, go see the museum for more.
In fact, this book gives a wonderful explanation as to why ABSITHE finally became illegal in most parts of the World (...and I doubt that many books have explained this fact in such great datail ,thus far).
In a nutshell, this book is fascinating and the author really did his homework!
The book "Absinthe" is in full color, and many of the paintings in this book portray characters drinking (and enjoying) ABSINTHE. Photos are not skimpy. Reproductions of the Impressionistic paintings take up the full page (in many instances).
If I may add: I had no idea that so many famous painters (eg:Degas) had produced such wonderful paintings with this liquor (Absinthe) as part of the subject matter! In fact, many of the Absinthe paraphernalia shown in the reproduced paintings, had to be pointed out to me, as the reader, by the author. Without the author's keen insight, I would have surely missed the connection.
In conclusion, if you are an Art lover, and also, if you are interested in the subject of History, in general, I think that you would find this book not only fascinating but also enlightening.... on a subject so rarely discussed.