Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Absinthe Part 2

From the SF source-book:

Absinthe is a 140-proof green liqueur made from herbs like fennel, anise, and the exceptionally bitter leaves of Artemisia absinthium. That last ingredient, also known as wormwood, gives the drink its name - and its sinister reputation.

A chemist, Breaux, has made understanding the drink his life's work. He has pored over hundred-year-old texts, few of them in English. The more he's learned, the more he's felt compelled to use his knowledge of chemistry to crack the absinthe code.

Using the GCMS (gas chromatograph, mass spectrometer) apparatus, he's able to break the liqueur down into its component molecules.

One of the ingredients is thujone, a compound in wormwood that is toxic if it's ingested, capable of causing violent seizures and kidney failure. Breaux hands me a bottle of pure liquid thujone. "Take a whiff," he says with an evil grin. I recoil at the odor - it's like menthol laced with napalm. This is the noxious chemical compound responsible for absinthe's bad reputation.

(Absinthe was first distilled in 1792 in Switzerland, where it was marketed as a medicinal elixir, a cure for stomach ailments. High concentrations of chlorophyll gave it a rich olive color. )

Absinthe came to be associated with artists and Moulin Rouge bohemians. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, and Picasso were devotees. Toulouse-Lautrec carried some in a hollowed-out cane. Oscar Wilde wrote, "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?"

Soon absinthe was the social lubricant of choice for a broad swath of Europeans - artists and otherwise. In 1874, the French sipped 700,000 liters of the stuff; by the turn of the century, consumption had shot up to 36 million liters, driven in part by a phylloxera infestation that had devastated the wine-grape harvest.

By 1905, the fear of thujone in the liquer caused it to be called the green menace and political backlash and anecdotes stirred the press. Such as when Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife and two daughters after downing two glasses. It was banned by WWI.

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