By Phil Baker
Grove Press, 288 pp., $14 (paper)
You can sum up absinthe -- that green devil of a drink known to the ancients as a medicine, to the 15th century as an insecticide, and to Hollywood 20-somethings as a stab at low living -- by doing what Phil Baker does in The Book of Absinthe, which is to open with a murderous madman and close with a taste test that compares one brand of absinthe to antidandruff shampoo.
In the case of that madman, one day a 31-year-old Swiss peasant took a rifle and shot his pregnant wife in the head, then he shot his 4-year-old daughter, then he shot his 2-year-old daughter, then he shot himself, but he survived. This was in 1905, it was in all the papers, and overlook the fact that on the day previous to the shootings, this same Swiss did indeed swallow two absinthes before work but he followed them with a cräme de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine at lunch, a glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of coffee with brandy in it, a liter of wine at home, then another coffee with something called marc in it. Public reaction to the killings? It was the Green Witch that really done it! In 1906, Switzerland banned absinthe.
In that taste test of Baker's, he samples nine bottles in absinthe's two dominant styles: the East European and the French (or, as it's sometimes called, the Spanish). After pooh-poohing a make called Päre Kermann's Absinthe (French but in the "Bohemian" [Czech] style, 60% alcohol; confused?), Baker looks at the label and finds "not the true wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium), but the appropriately named mugwort." Plus, it's not "aniseedy." Plus, it fails to "louche." Conclusion: "For aftershave drinkers only." Rating: zero. In the make known as Mari Mayans (Spanish, 70% alcohol), however, Baker finally spots the real deal: "It is a somewhat electronic pale green and louches with an opalescent vengeance; you half expect the resulting radioactive-looking substance to glow in the dark. Very good indeed ... ." Plus, it's very "aniseedy." Plus, it's "pleasantly smooth." Rating: five out of five.
But what's with this "louche" business? It's French for "unclear, shady" (the connotation: suspicious). Add water to absinthe, the classic kind, and it turns pearly white, plus that water cuts the killer alcohol content.
So it's absinthe that's earned a sterling reputation for putting people into early graves or out of their minds alcoholically and psychopharmacologically (thanks to the active ingredient, thujone, in the wormwood, which acts on the autonomic nervous system). Just think of that English poet you've never heard of, Ernest Dowson, "the definitive member of the 'tragic generation' of the 1890s" (according to Baker) and "a protoplasm in the embryo of a troglodyte" (according to Dowson himself, before he was "homeless, toothless, intermittently insane" and dead at the age of 32). It was the absinthe that done him in! And he wasn't alone. Recall that continental contingent that included Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Jarry (when he wasn't downing ether), Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh (when he wasn't downing turpentine), plus a damaged U.S. crew that included Edgar Allan Poe and that fun couple for the ages, Harry and Caresse Crosby.
No wonder upstarts Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor, and onetime Jesus and Mary Chain guitarist/drummer John Moore have made the Wormwood Wonder their fin-de-(20th)-siäcle poison of choice. Its doom-and-gloom pedigree is impeccable; its status as the "career drink of intellectuals and artistic wannabes," unimpeachable. In the words of Tom Hodg-kinson, editor of the "groovy London slacker mag" The Idler: "[I]f you think you start talking bollocks after a few beers, wait until you hear the unutterable nonsense you come out with after two or three absinthe cocktails. ... [A]bsinthe produces high quality bullshit of the artistic variety, while lesser drinks will only cause a lower class of rubbish to be spouted." Sold. Product endorsement of this caliber: priceless.
But this particular product can be situated historically, linguistically, and chemically too, which is what Baker does here, and a lively investigation it is into one of the strongest alcoholic drinks ever. From absinthe's modern invention in the 1790s, to its adoption by French colonial troops in the 1830s, to its popularity among the French bourgeoisie in the 1840s, among poets, painters, and bona fide bohemians in the 1890s, and among hipsters in the 1990s, you'll learn a hell of a lot here from the Britisher Baker. You'll learn that the Greek word for wormwood, apsinthion, means "undrinkable." You'll learn that the Russian word for wormwood is chernobyl.