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Absinthe Minded
In London, Bar-Hoppers Are Once Again Going Mad Over the Fabled Green Liqueur

By Tara Mack
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 21, 1999; Page E01

Christopher Davy cranes his neck through the crowd in the Alphabet bar in London to watch the bartender mix his drink. The bartender pours a capful of electric green liquid into a port glass, fills a long-handled spoon with sugar and dips it into the liquid. Then, his foot tapping to the beat of the drum and bass music, he sets the sugar alight. After the sugar burns for a few seconds, he twirls the spoon in the glass with a squirt of water so the liquid turns from neon green to a cloudy emerald. Finally, he hands the glass to his eager customer so that Davy can have his first taste of absinthe.

In bars dotted around the city, young Londoners are tasting, with eyebrows furrowed, the liqueur that has not been widely available here for more than 80 years. Absinthe, once called the Green Fairy, was a favorite of Parisian bohemians near the turn of the century--Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Manet. It was a symbol of hedonism and decadence--the emerald liqueur that stoked the imagination and might drive the drinker mad.

One of its key ingredients, essence of wormwood, was reputed to be hallucinogenic. And in the early 20th century, after reports of addiction, epileptic attacks and delirium, absinthe was banned in the United States and most western European countries. But a new British company, Green Bohemia, recently discovered that absinthe had never been prohibited in the United Kindgom, and has begun importing it from the Czech Republic. It sells absinthe at its Internet site and through several bars and clubs in London and other major British cities.

According to Green Bohemia's Web site, this is not the absinthe of yore. Theirs, they say, "is a cleaner version of the absinthe produced and consumed in 19th century France. . . . We had it fully tested for [European Community] Food and Drink regulations. . . . We carried out over 30 tests, and . . . passed each one."

The Alphabet, crammed amid other pubs and shops on a narrow Soho street, was one of Green Bohemia's first customers--and now absinthe is the most popular new drink the bar has ever had, according to the owners. Inside, the low-ceilinged bar is packed with a suited, after-work crowd. Davy, 30, decided to visit after he read in the paper that absinthe was becoming available again. "I have no idea what it's like. I have no idea what it does," he said as he waited for the bartender. "I know it's dangerous, but I've got to try it."

The possibility of danger is only part of the mystique. Several of those trying it said they were lured by its association with fin de siecle artists. The slow ritual involved in mixing it calls to mind languorous afternoons in Paris cafes.

"Absinthe has a wonderful color, green," said Oscar Wilde. "A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?" Absinthe was as popular as Scotch is today, a drink whose universal appeal cut across class lines, said Barnaby Conrad, author of "Absinthe: History in a Bottle." But it is primarily remembered as a favorite beverage of 19th-century artists and intellectuals. It was not only consumed by artists, it was often the subject of their art: Manet, Picasso and Degas all painted pictures of it.

But doctors warned that it was a health hazard, the cause of hallucinations, blindness and insanity. Vincent van Gogh supposedly was drinking it when he cut off his ear.

Absinthe never caught on in Britain, where the reign of Victorian morality blocked its spread. But now, at the precipice not only of a new century but a millennium, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, one of the directors of Green Bohemia, said he feels the market for absinthe is ripe.

Although customers at the Alphabet have mixed opinions about its taste, they seem to agree that it is warming, sweet and very smooth for a drink of its alcoholic content.

And they aren't too worried about harmful effects. "If you drink enough of anything you'll hallucinate," says Sarpong Adjaye, 29. "I often get drunk and think that a girl really likes me. You could call that a hallucination."

That is the message Green Bohemia is trying to promote--that, consumed in moderation, absinthe is perfectly safe. And according to David Musto, a professor of the history of medicine at Yale, there is little concrete evidence to disprove that. Studies on absinthe performed at the turn of the century don't meet modern scientific standards, he said. And since it was banned, little research has been conducted. Still, he is doubtful of its safety.

"If it is as bad as it was said to be in the 19th century, it will be some time before we see the results of it," Musto said. "This could be the unfortunate resurrection of a substance that for a long time had disappeared."

Daniel Bryant, 30, and Jonathan Wilkinson, 29, are willing to do their part to contribute the research. As they sit at the bar, gingerly sipping their drinks, both express disappointment in their first taste. But Bryant is prepared to keep drinking until the effects kick in.

"I think in the name of science we might have to have a couple," he says.

In addition to the Alphabet (61 Beak St., London W1) absinthe is available in London at, among other places, the Pharmacy Restaurant and Bar, 150 Notting Hill Gate; the Fridge, 1 Town Hall Parade, Brixton; and Detroit, 35 Earlham St.

Tara Mack is a freelance writer in London who tasted absinthe and lived to tell the story.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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