Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

By Reed, Julia | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder


Reed, Julia, Newsweek


Byline: Julia Reed

For the past three years it has been legal, once again, to sell absinthe in America. So far I have seen no noteworthy spike in violent crime, creativity, or especially wanton debauchery, all of which were purported results of regular absinthe drinking in its heyday, starting in the 1860s. On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where absinthe consumption rivaled that of France, an early-20th-century visitor reported seeing the bodies of absinthe-crazed young men rolling off the tin roofs near the Old Absinthe House. In France an absinthe drinker named Jean Lanfray killed his entire family, a highly publicized incident known as the "absinthe murders" and said to have been the chief reason France banned the spirit in 1915, three years after the Americans did.

As it happened, Lanfray was also a wine-swilling drunk, and the ban can be more accurately attributed to pressure from vintners concerned about the effect of absinthe's burgeoning popularity on their business (36 million liters of the stuff was consumed in 1910 alone). French pride came into play as well; generals happily blamed early losses during World War I on absinthe drinking among the troops.

The bad-boy writers and artists who claimed that absinthe enhanced their creativity--and who met less than auspicious ends--could not have helped matters much. Oscar Wilde described the sensation of tulips suddenly growing through the floor of a Paris watering hole and brushing against his shins; Rimbaud called absinthe his "beautiful madness." Ernest Hemingway invented a cocktail made with a shot of absinthe topped with chilled champagne. He called it "death in the afternoon"--and we all know what happened to him. The very act of adding water to an ounce of absinthe, the traditional way to serve it, is synonymous with morally questionable behavior. In the ritual called La Louche, chilled ice water from an absinthe fountain (a cylindrical glass container with spouts) or a topette (a small decanter) is poured into an absinthe glass over a slotted spoon containing a lump of sugar. …

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