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Absinthe - A Deadly Potion

Absinthe, once a major medical hazard, is an emerald-green liqueur flavored with extracts of the wormwood plant, licorice and other aromatic flavorings in a alcohol base. It had, we are told, an engaging flavor and a very high alcohol content.

Absinthe was manufactured, commercialized and popularized in France in the late 1700s by Henri-Louis Pernod (and soon thereafter by others). It became an extremely popular and addictive drink. Among the famous figures who made absinthe a symbol of decadence were the writer Oscar Wilde, the poet Charles Baudelaire, and the artists Edouard Manet (who did a brilliant series of portraits of Baudelaire), Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso.

The first important medical research on absinthe was initiated in 1864 by a psychiatrist, Valentin Jacques Joseph Magnan, who exposed a veritable Noah's arkful of animals to wormwood oil (the essence of absinthe) and alcohol (the base of absinthe).

Dr. Magnan placed cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs under an individual glass case next to a saucer of either wormwood oil or alcohol. The animals that breathed the alcohol fumes -- no surprise -- became drunk while those that inhaled the vapors of wormwood first became excited and then had epileptic seizures. Dr. Magnan concluded in his report to the English medical journal The Lancet that the wormwood in absinthe was especially dangerous.

Prolonged drinking of absinthe causes convulsions, blindness, hallucinations, and mental deterioration. Because of these and other untoward effects, true absinthe has been banned in France and many other countries including the U.S. and Canada.

However, the taste of absinthe is still available. Absinthe has inspired the development of numerous substitutes including ouzo in Greece and pastis in France. Pastis, made simply by mixing pure alcohol with anise, has long been considered "the mother's milk of Provence."

Much has been written about absinthe. To recommend but one book, we would suggest the well written and illustrated paperback, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, by Barnaby Conrad III (published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1988, ISBN 0-87701-468-8)

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Reviewed on 6/3/2002

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