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Absinthe: History in a Bottle Paperback – February 1, 1997

4.5 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 172 pages
  • Publisher: Chronicle Books; Reprint edition (February 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811816508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811816502
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 0.5 x 11.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,794 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Max W. Hauser on June 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Conrad's unique and fascinating book, reprinted with slightly different covers in the last year or so (evidently in response to new interest in absinthe), is actually a panorama of cultural cross-currents -- history, art, literature, etc. -- from a colorful place and time (France and nearby countries in late 19th and early 20th centuries) -- with absinthe as the thread that glues it all together. Conrad, by the way, followed this up with his entertaining, rather more light-hearted 1995 book on the history and culture of the Martini, well timed for that cocktail's vigorous comeback in recent years.
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.
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I have been a fan of this book ever since it first came out in 1988. No amazon.com then, so I was forced to order it at the local Walden books. I have since given it as a gift several times and all my friends love it,too. Not just a history of the "green fairy," but a sociological history of 19th century France. Every page in this glossily produced, gorgeous book has either an old photograph, advertisement for absinthe or reproduction of art from the artists who were fans of absinthe. Really an art book, it is for anyone interested in art and history.
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Remarkably similar in content and appearance to "L'absinthe : histoire de la fee verte" by Marie-Claude Delahaye, who runs the Absinthe Museum in Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris. She recalls providing Mr. Conrad with much of the artwork and other content, and was a bit miffed at her modest credit in the bibliography.
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.
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the english-language reference on absinthe and it's history...considering it was written over 10 years ago, it is just getting real notice...also, some errors and updating need to be done, but the best to be found in english...fun and easy to read, nice collection of photos...
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When I first saw this book, I wondered how any author could fill an entire book on just one subject: ABSINTHE. Well, the author of this book managed, somehow, to intertwine the history of Absinthe, along with Art from the Impressionistic period, and also the economic influences during the period in History in which ABSINTHE was legalized ....and then later on, in which Absinthe was pronounced illegal (ie: in most Countries, even today).

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.
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since absinthe is the new and trendy thing in the world of commercial creativity, there has been a total upheaval of interest in the chosen poison of some of our great artists of the nineteenth century. this book is an effective read - rather than pages and pages of text, it's filled with advertisements and art inspired by the alcohol. definitely a worthwhile read - if not for the history of a truly intriguing 'socially acceptable' drug, for the propoganda that resulted from the 'good or bad?' debate at the time.
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