In the course of doing reading and research (both for this site and my own pleasure), I often come across weird its of symmetry in the most unexpected of ways.
Two weeks ago, I was reading this book on Absinthe, where the author goes into some detail about French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud, for those of you not acquainted with French symbolist poets, has been a major influence upon the art scene, having been attributed as the influence upon Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William S. Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, John Lennon and many, many others. Leonardo DiCaprio even portrayed him in the movie Total Eclipse. His work can easily be seen as the fore-bearer of spoken word poetry, so he’s a big deal for those people interested in this sort of stuff.
That a French poet from the 1870′s was mentioned in a book about Absinthe is not that big of a deal, akin to rock stars of the 1960′s and 70′s being mentioned in a book about marijuana. It is true that Rimbaud acted obnoxiously during that period of time, but not excessively more than any other member of the Symbolist/Decandent/Bohemian movements (although his act of shouting ‘merde’ at the end of every line of poetry read at a poetry reading is something I’ve longed to do).
Anyway…A French poet drinks absinthe and acts like knucklehead. This is hardly noteworthy.
At least it was until I find him again in a book I am reading that has a chapter about coffee in Ethiopia. It is here that Rimbaud shows up again.
And now I am on the beaches of Brittany. Let cities light their lamps in the evening. My daytime is done ; I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs ; lost climates will turn my skin to leather. To swim, to pulverize grass, to hunt, above all to smoke ; to drink strong drinks, as strong as molten ore, – as did those dear ancestors around their fires.
I will come back with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and angry eyes : in this mask, they will think I belong to a strong race. I will have gold : I will be brutal and indolent. Women nurse these ferocious invalids come back from the tropics. I will become involved in politics. Saved.
So Rimbaud heads to what is present day Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) and becomes a merchant in Harrar, where he deals in coffee. This is not a simple task, being a European man in an area of the world that turned out to be strongly anti-colonialist. As Stewart Lee Allen wrote about Rimbuad:
…Rimbaud’s risking his life for the bean (in fact, it killed him) is perhaps not so unreasonable. It’s worth noting, however, that the poet/merchant did not seem to hold Harrar’s coffee in high regard. “Horrible” is how he describes it in one letter; “awful stuff” and “disgusting”. Oh well. Perhaps all of those years of absinthe had dulled his taste buds. The fact that the locals were fond of selling him beans laced with goat shit probably didn’t help matters.
In actuality, it wasn’t simply coffee that killed Rimbaud, and he didn’t deal strictly in coffee. There is evidence that he was a bit of a gun dealer, and rumor has it that he also dealt in slave trafficking. He died, not from the coffee trade, but likely from an advanced state of cancer.
At any rate, I thought it odd that this poet would show up in two dissimilar books that I had read back to back. Like I previously mentioned, symmetry can be odd at times.
Ain’t life grand at times?
I’ll refrain from talking about the legalities and such until a later date. For now, I simply want to explore.
For the tasting, I prepared the absinthe in the traditional Fin de siÃ¨cle fashion best described here in this .pdf file created by the wormwood society. My descriptions of the Absinthe will be post louche.
Eyes: Opaque and yellowish in look with a slight hint of green. If one didn’t know better one might say that it looks like a glass of over made lemonade.
Nose: This Absinthe makes itself quite known to all around, but not offensively so. The Anise aroma dominates.
Taste: Remember that this has been sweetened by sugar, so the taste to me comes off like the licorice in the old Good n’ Plenty Candies, but not as strong. In fact, there’s a nice citrusy undercurrent to the absinthe that compliments it quite well. Ir finishes quite nicely and it balances the alcohol very well.
However, Tara tasted it and said it tasted like a sweetened version of NyQuil, sans codeine and watered down a tad. So your mileage may vary.
Overall: Overall I enjoyed it quite a bit. I had one glass, as I prefer not to overindulge in my drinks. I was a little tipsy (as it is 130 proof alcohol, watered down), but not out of control. It is a very nice drink and one I would be pleased to partake of again.
“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, which is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde
There is probably no alcoholic beverage so misunderstood, yet so mythologized, as Absinthe. After all Absinthe is, at its core, simply a wormwood based liquor with a high proof of alcohol. Why all the hubub? Certainly the baggage that the drink carries is as impressive as it is misguided, but the real questions to me are:
- Where did Absinthe come from?
- Why does Absinthe have the reputation that it does?
The two questions are inextricably tied together.
Wormwood infused drinks were hardly a new invention when either Dr. Pierre Oridinaire or the Henroid Sister introduced Absinthe in Couvet Switzerland in 1792. Folks during the Renaissance drank wormwood wine. Samuel Pepys is documented to have imbibed wormwood beer. Pliny the elder noted that Chariot race winners were given drinks laced with wormwood in order to remind the winners that every victory has its bitter side. So when Absinthe was introduced, it wasn’t like wormwood was an unknown entity.
After the Absinthe took off, especially since being mass produced by Pernod, it was given to French troops in North Africa to help stave off malaria. When the soldiers came home, they looked up the drink in the various salons and cafes that they frequented. From there it jumped to the middle class who further popularized the drink.
1870 say the start of 30 years of blight on the wine industry of France. The vineyards were devastated by a bug known as Phylloxera attacked the vinyards and devastated the popular industry. Wine became both scarce. When a high demand product becomes scarce, it becomes very expensive. What better to take the place of wine than absinthe? The golden age of Absinthe can be considered to occur between 1870 and 1900.
Initially, ettiquette required that a person was to have only one drink of Absinthe a day. To have more than one was seen as a bit of a faux pas. But when absinthe jumped from the middle class to the working class, women, and then the Bohemians, all claims to absinthe ettiquette were ignored and then forgotten. When the Aesthetic/Decadence movement adopted the drink as the liquor of choice, public opinion against the drink began to change. As many of the writers associated with the Aesthetic/Decadence movement were influenced by the Gothic period of the early 19th century, many present day “goths” have also adopted the drink and helped revive absinthe’s popularity. But that is a topic for a different post.
Both the Bohemians and the Aestheticists were the counter-culture of the day. Many of the names surrounding these movements (such as Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlain, Edvard Munch, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire) partook, not just of Absinthe, but of many unregulated substances, including opium, cocaine and ether. Some not only imbibed these substances, but outright abused them.
As with any counter-culture, there is societal pushback. One only need to consider the mainstream perception of “hippies” as well as their opinions on marijuana to see the correlation.
When the wine industry came back from their pox,, they clearly saw Absinthe as a threat to their industry. The winemakers partnered with the temperance movement to prove that absinthe was responisble for turning good people bad, even to the point of insanity. Their arguments were helped along by the public downfalls of noted absinthe drinkers Wilde (absinthe causes homosexuality!) and Verlain (absinthe causes homosexuality and violence!).
When an alcoholic by the name of Jean Lanfray killed his wife and children and it was discovered that he had drunk absinthe on the day of the murder (ignoring the fact that he had also drunk creme de menthe, seven glasses of wine, cognac, brandy and another liter of wine during the same day), absinthe’s days where numbered. It was soon banned throughout a fair amount of Europe.
This ban only added to the mythology of absinthe, creating the illusion that it turned men into murderous criminals.
Absinthe has the reputation it does because of its ties to the counter culture movement of the late 19th century and it’s subsequent ban. It has a reputation that has been built upon by artists and movie makers as a drink that has something “a little more”. The reality is that absinthe is simply another alcoholic beverage. It’s unique, to be sure, but so are a multitude of other liquors. For me, now the question is “will absinthe every grow beyond its reputation”?
Tara and I spent Christmas Eve and a bit of Christmas day gallavanting throughout Vancouver. That’d be Vancouver, British Columbia, not Vancouver, Washington, for those of you keen on keeping track of things such as this.
One of the things we were keen on purchasing was a bottle of Amaretto Cream Liqueur, a tasty, overly sweet concoction easily found in the Liquor Stores in Vancouver, but not so much here in the state of Washington. While in the store, we were assisted by a harried, but helpful clerk. After procuring said Amaretto Cream, she asked if there was anything else she could help with. That’s when the idea hit me.
Absinthe. Canada sells Absinthe.
Tara and I made a request, and the clerk happily took us to the main office to look at the special collection. There were two options a cheap version and a not so cheap version.
The above scenario represents the quintessential opportunity for companies to take advantage of those who are ignorant of products. Here we have a couple who are only marginally acquainted with a product, and a clerk with even less. The couple has money to spend, but little knowledge. The couple did what the majority of people would do in similar circumstances.
They purchased the more expensive bottle, working under the assumption that more money equates to a more authentic experience.
What Tara and I ended up with was a bottle of Hill’s Absinth. Yes, that’s Absinth, without an ‘e’. With a thujone concentration of 1.5 parts per million, it’s not an absinthe in the traditional sense. In fact, some argue that Hill’s Absinth isn’t Absinthe at all.
After heading back to the hotel, we looked up Hill’s on the internet, and came upon bad review after bad review of the product. As the Wormwood Society writes, “Czech ‘Absinth’ (without the “e” at the end) gets a lot of bad press from absinthe enthusiasts; primarily, that’s because it’s not really absinthe, but a poor approximation. Most of it is fake.”
Well crap. Lesson learned.
Tara and I have decided to hold on to the bottle. After we move into our new abode, we’ll pick up a well-researched bottle of Absinthe and report on it here.
Meanwhile, we’re determining how to not let this happen in the future, whether it be Absinth, Absinthe, or other product where ignorance is seen as a valued commodity amongst producers.
Hmmmm…Chocolate and Absinthe? A site based in Italy is currently offering just such a thing. Its ingredients include:
paste of cacao, sugar, butter of cacao, instilled of wormwood, essences and extracted of grass and aromatic plants, extracted of vanilla in berries
I’m contemplating a purchase, but wonder if it will make it through US customs.
Thanks Boingboing for the reference.