Thursday, April 3, 2008

New Series: Absinthe, Anise and Wormwood

Our new Series takes you into the realm of the forbidden and the bohemian, the realm of the "green fairy that lives in the absinthe" and all the terrors and fascinations she produces in art and perfumery. Perfume Shrine has already tentatively shown a glimpse of its bittersweet, mind-altering magic through a music video by Nine Inch Nails a few days ago, which consolidated the idea of devoting a series to Absinthe and the herbs that aromatize it.
To do that, as usual, we take the long road to explore matters in depth.

Absinthe or "devil in a bottle" is a distilled, anise-flavored, high-proof spirit produced by distilling anise, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and various herbs (mainly florence fennel, as well as melissa, hyssop, petite wormwood or artemisia pontica, and angelica root). Its name derives from the Greek αψίνθιον, which is the name of wormwood, but is also interestingly tied etymologically to the Greek goddess of the hunt and the forests, Artemis.
In tracing the historical roots, one comes upon the medical use of wormwood in ancient Egypt (mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, circa 1550 BC).
Hyssop, a usual ingredient in absinthe, is also referenced in the Bible: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow". (Psalms 51:7) There is however the hypothesis that the hyssop mentioned, used in bunches for purificatory rites and ritual cleansing of lepers by the ancient Hebrews, is probably not hyssopus officinalis used in the spirit, but a similar plant, capparis spirosa.
There are references to wormwood/la'anah as well: Deuteronomy 29:18; Proverbs 5:4; Jeremiah 9:15; Jeremiah 23:15; Lamentations 3:15, Lamentations 3:19; Amos 5:7; Amos 6:12 as well as the mention of "apsinthos" in Revelation 8:11.

What the Hebrew la'anah may have been is obscure; it is clear it was a bitter substance and it is usually associated with "gall"; in the Septuagint it is variously translated, but never by apsinthos, "wormwood." Nevertheless all ancient tradition supports the English Versions of the Bible translation. The genus Artemisia (Natural Order Compositae), "wormwood," has five species of shrubs or herbs found in Palestine (Post), any one of which may furnish a bitter taste. The name is derived from the property of many species acting as anthelmintics, while other varieties are used in the manufacture of absinthe.
~E. W. G. Masterman, International Stnadard Bible Encyclopedia (Bibletools.org)

Wormwood extracts were definitely employed by the ancient Greeks, who also consumed a wormwood-flavored wine, called absinthites oinos. The latter can be tied to Dionysus, for whom people masqueraded in an ecstatic frenzy during the god's celebrations in early spring. Anise plays an important role in Greek culture even to this day, through the similar preparation for ouzo: an anisic spirit into which water or ice is added producing a cloudy effect and "opening up" the bouquet of herbs.

Absinthe spirit originated in Switzerland, by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet in the 1790s, but it mostly became popular in France. Major Dubied acquired the formula from the Henriot sisters and in 1797, with son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils. In 1805 a second distillery was built outside Switzerland, in Pontarlier, France, named Maison Pernod Fils. Absinthe's popularity largely ended with a ban in France in 1915, due to its neurotoxic properties that earned it the reputation of a psychoactive drug due to the chemical thujone, a strong heart stimulant present in small quantities in commercial absinthe. However no evidence exists that it is more harmful than ordinary liquer. Absinthe has known a resurgence in the 1990s, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale resulting in over 200 brands circulating, although it is still controversial in the USA.

Although the absinthe distillate can be bottled clear, to produce a Blanche or la Bleue absinthe, the traditional colour has always been green, due to the chlorophyll in the herbal constituents in secondary maceration. Bohemian-style (alternatively known as Czech-style or anise-free absinthe), or just absinth (with no final e) is really wormwood bitters, produced mainly in the Czech Republic and is artificially enriched with absinthin.

Absinthe's notable role in the fine art movements of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, Cubism and in the corresponding literary movements has been an inspiration for perfumers, helping them shape their creations and giving breath to la fée verte producing the 'lucid drunkenness' so coveted by artists. It is no accident that it had been the drink of choice for the "damned poets" and bohemians of the 19th century.
As a first tentative taste of the wormwood liquor attests, there is a journey to be had there!
But it is also intriguing to think that the name Chernobyl, the nuclear factory reactor which was responsible for the biggest nuclear accident in history, also means "wormwood", rounding out the biblical prophecy!

"And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
~Revelation 8:10-11

Ernest Dowson, the English poet famous for coining the phrase 'Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder' wrote his Absinthia Taetra on a trip to Paris. Here it is from La Fée absinthe site:

Absinthia Taetra

Green changed to white, emerald to opal; nothing was changed.
The man let the water trickle gently into his glass, and as the green clouded, a mist fell from his mind.
Then he drank opaline.

Memories and terrors beset him. The past tore after him like a panther and through the blackness of the present he saw the luminous tiger eyes of the things to be.
But he drank opaline.

And that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation, through which he stumbled, were forgotten. He saw blue vistas of undiscovered countries, high prospects and a quiet, caressing sea. The past shed its perfume over him, to-day held his hand as if it were a little child, and to-morrow shone like a white star: nothing was changed.
He drank opaline.

The man had known the obscure night of the soul, and lay even now in the valley of humiliation; and the tiger menace of the things to be was red in the skies. But for a little while he had forgotten.
Green changed to white, emerald to opal; nothing was changed.

In Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Draculathe hypnotic effect of absinthe preparation leading to seduction is set to a mesmerising score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. (you can get it here)

The ritual of serving the bitter green liquid is clearly half its charm. The spirit is poured into a glass over which a specially designed slotted spoon is placed. A sugar cube is then deposited on the spoon and ice-cold water is poured or dripped over the sugar, diluting it to preference. Adding sugar is essential as absinthe is extremely bitter and the essential oils so prized can't come out of suspension by themselves. The non-soluble in water components, mainly those from anise, fennel, and star anise, come out of solution with the water addition resulting in a milky opalescence called the louche (French for “shady”), common in other anisic drinks as well, such as ouzo.

Other films focus on the green spirit as well: Moulin Rouge's absinthe scene is inspired by painter and patron Toulouse Lautrec's own habit of absinthe drinking in the historical music-hall of Paris housed in an old windmill.La fée verte takes the shape of Kylie Minogue, talking with the voice of Ozzy Osbourne.
In From Hell Johnny Depp as Frederick Abberline in pursuit of Jack the Ripper succumbs to the charms of absinthe and laudanum (tinctura opii). But its reputation for being an aphrodisiac is what influenced the scriptwriter for Alfie to include it in a scene in which a sexually voracious older woman (Susan Sarandon) introduces the womaniser into both absinthe and a taste of his own drug.
Lust for Life,a film with Kirk Douglas, also features lots of absinthe consuming scenes, as allegedly the drink was at the root of the painter Van Gogh's madness. In Manon of the Spring glimpses of the practice set in the French countryside can also be seen.

But possibly the film which most accurately references absinthe and wormwood in relation to those who actually made it a trademark, the 19th century "damned poets", is Total Eclipse, the story of the torrid, tempestuous relationship between Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Perhaps an unsuccessful film, it holds its special interest for those who are interested in the minutiae of 19th century style and mores.

Adding:An interesting article on modern day absinthe in the US can be found via The New York Times.

To be continued on that note with an exploration of such themes in art and literature and the olfactory pictures they conjure.

Pic of Johnny Depp from film From Hell , as well as label of Dubied Père et Fils courtesy of the wormwoodsociety. Dracula clip uploaded by Richardcontact1962


  1. OK, E.
    It's OFFICIAL.
    Post the banns, girl-
    We're getting married...

    This HAS to be a favorite post, for more reasons than I can list.

    Consider yourself thoroughly kissed...

  2. stella polaris12:23

    Mmm, very interesting, and I really like your multidimensional approach to the stuff! Look very foreward to your entrys about the "absinthinated" perfumes. have only tried Absolument Absinthe (that also contains others stimulants!) myself, and that clung to my skin through at least one shower & and it was even better on my partner's skin.. :)

  3. Anonymous13:53

    a wonderful primer - i look forward to your next chapter.

    and on a completely shallow note, thank you for starting out my day with a shirtless johnny depp.

    - minette

  4. Dear I,

    let's elope!!
    We should definitely consider it! :-)

    I do hope you will enjoy the rest of the series as well ;-)

  5. Dear SP,

    thank you for your compliment.
    They're very interesting to contemplate in their greater scheme of things, no?
    Absolument Absinthe intrigued me as well ;-)

  6. Dear Minette,

    thank you! Hope I won't disappoint.
    And you're very welcome on mr.Depp: beauty is a very deep and meaningful subject, I always thought!

  7. Quite the post Helg! I admit I have never been attracted to the idea of absinthe because I know it is flavored with anise. Which is ironic considering the very first adult perfume I ever got was Lolita Lempicka which has a heavy dose of anise. The imagery that always comes to my mind when I think of absinthe is Kylie Minogue as the Green Fairy in Moulin Rouge and the fact that I watched on a particularly bad date (never been able to watch the movie since then.).

  8. Thank you dear Jen for your most kind words :-)
    Indeed it is ironic, as you say. Lolita has a very pronounced anisic accord, it's uncanny.
    I admit that there were only elements of Moulin Rouge I really enjoyed: the plot is rather contrived. I was planning of using a clip of it at some point. Sorry about the bad date, though!

  9. what an amazing post! i could go on and on about absinthe versus vermouth and other factors - i could also point a soul to a few places in NYC that still have a bottle of the original, but hidden behind the counter. ;) while i dislike the taste, i love the legends as you've so well outlined!

  10. Risa,

    thank you for all your wonderful praise. There are indeed several fascinating little facts about the differentiation of all those spirits (and I would hear you elaborate all day!) and the legends contribute to the mystique ;-)


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