Precious inspiration to oblivion

SUN JOURNAL

Absinthe: A curious writer wanders Prague in search of a taste of the forbidden.

April 18, 2000|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Human beings have invented or discovered an abundance of substances that offer short-term pleasure, often in exchange for long-term grief -- things like alcohol, cocaine, heroin. Few such products have yielded such a spate of griefs as absinthe, the drink favored by bohemians a century ago in Paris and other cosmopolitan locales in Europe and the United States.

Absinthe was dangerous: It drove men mad. Degas portrayed its stupefying effect artfully in his painting "L'Absinthe." Picasso and Manet worked the same theme. Some believed this drink, formulated in the 18th century by Henri Louis Pernod, stimulated artistic creativity. Talky Oscar Wilde prattled on about visions. Baudelaire drank it for inspiration. So did Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, van Gogh. Others regard tales of its inspirational qualities as pish-posh.

Looking back, the pish-posh school of thought seems to hold more credit, if only because of the millions upon millions of others who drank absinthe during its heyday and went on to create absolutely nothing.

The French had been making and selling absinthe for nearly a century before they banned it in 1915, by which time they were consuming 10 million gallons a year. Other countries had moved more quickly: Belgium in 1905, Switzerland in 1910. A little later the United States went along. This followed years of observation by physicians of absinthe's longer-range effects, including convulsions, hallucinations, insanity and other reactions. Thus, its prohibition was understandable.

So, should one be apprehensive at the news that absinthe is back? It is. They make it here in the Czech Republic. They started after the Communists were thrown out.

After absinthe's prohibition, substitutes emerged: Pernod, anis, ouzo. Newsweek reports that there's one on the market in the United States, called Absente. All taste similar to absinthe but lack the stuff that made the original so dangerous: thujone. Thujone, contained in wormwood (artemisia), upon which the drink is based, was absinthe's sinister secret.

The current Czech product, according to Daniel Hill, a member of the family that produces absinthe in the town of Jindrichuv Hradec, in southern Bohemia, has a "negligible" amount of thujone. "It wouldn't be absinthe without it," he says.

The best news, says diplomat Marcel Sauer at the Czech Embassy in Washington, is this: "You don't go mad anymore."

Daniel Hill and his uncle, Vladimir Hill, operate out of Canada, where they distribute Hill's Absinth -- spelled without the final "e" -- to any country that will buy it. Those countries include Germany, Austria, Russia and Great Britain.

Britain never did ban absinthe, maybe because it was never as popular there as it was on the Continent. The British had their own substances to worry about, such as laudanum, an opium derivative all the rage during Victorian times. Absinthe is still legal, which may be why London has become the locus of absinthe's revival. The stuff they're drinking these days in fashionable SoHo's bars and clubs comes from Hill's distillery.

"We're trying to get approval for it in Canada," says Daniel Hill. "I think there's a chance."

The Hills have very little expectation that absinthe will ever be sold in the United States, where thujone is banned.

Absinthe has always had a certain appeal to it, even to nondrinkers. Anything so hotly denounced by the righteous and correct, and so lavishly praised by the creative if bent, has to pique the most dormant sense of curiosity, especially among Americans. Disputes over dangerous substances seem to be part of what we're all about.

Earlier in the century, addictions to opium-laced, over-the-counter medicines were widespread. The prohibition of alcohol came and went to the staccato of tommy guns. The wrestling over the use of marijuana for medical purposes continues. Draconian state and federal drug laws obtain, and the question of legalizing narcotics as a way of dealing with the social problems they stimulate is hardly discussed. These fights never end; they create an atmosphere hardly receptive to something like absinthe. Even "safe" absinthe.

My curiosity about absinthe was stirred a little more deeply by the fact that, having arrived in this country where it is made, I had trouble finding it. My search was not systematic, but in each neighborhood visited in Prague and elsewhere in the Czech Republic, if I saw a likely place, I would inquire. Sometimes the people behind the counter would just shake their heads, and offer a look that said, "Are you kidding?"

Eventually, in a shop near a tram stop just below Hradcany Castle, a woman who looked as if she had been recklessly used by life nodded and produced a bottle of liquid the color of some gasolines. Hill's Absinth. It cost 300 crowns, about $9. The same bottle in London is $70. The Hills aren't doing badly, it seems.

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