Monthly Archives: January 2007

Decadent Czechs


Absinthe has long been associated with the so-called decadent movement. English decadents like Ernest Dowson (who once remarked “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder“) are part and parcel of the green drink’s unique history. At the time when Dowson and Wilde were downing absinthe in London and Paris, something all together strange was sprouting in Prague: a Czech version of decadence with a shocking difference.

In Morbid Colours: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Czech Lands, 1880 to 1914” is an important exhibition at Prague’s Obecni Dum (Municipal House). It ends on the 18th February so there is still time if you have the chance to visit Prague (the current snowfall makes the trip even more worthwhile, if you would like to see the city dressed in white).

The exhibition is divided into four sections, dealing with self image, relationships and… errr… satanic hallucinations and death. Welcome to Prague!

Visitors should be aware that many of the images are explicit in their depiction of “relationships” and some are a little disturbing. I smelt the influence of the decadent absinthe drinker Verlaine like a breath of alcohol throughout the exhibition – but I was wrong! It wasn’t about France, I realised, this was the Bohemian way. Czech decadence, rather like Czech absinthe, had a uniquely modern twist.

“The discussion on decadence that occurred in our country in the 1890’s, particularly in the literary field, led to an important stratification of the Czech cultural intelligence, to the founding of certain fundamental attitudes, the definition of which decided the basic composition of modern Czech culture.” (i)

This was “not from French decadence authorities such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine” (i), this was definitely a Czech matter.

At the time, the Czech Republic was a hot bed of self confidence and razor-like examination of the artistic status quo. The true spirit of Rimbaud flowered here; there was no significant threat from the bourgeoisie establishment to ring-fence the debate and so it reached quite dizzy heights. Were the intellectuals downing absinthe in the same fashion as their watery French brothers? Probably not.


If you are in Prague, you should not miss this great exhibition. Afterwards, if you are in need of a drink, there’s a cool bar downstairs called The American Bar (ii). Maybe a cool absinthe is in order? Maybe you’ll need it! The Municipal House itself is a work of art; as John Russell aptly points out in The New York Times, it is all about “the colors that came with Czech Art Nouveau — moody mauves, for instance, and evanescent greens and grays that flirt with one another”. Be sure to bring a camera and join the throng admiring this wonderful building.



(ii) American Bar, Municipal House (Obecni dum) 5 Republic Square (Namesti republiky 5), Prague 1

Czech Word or Phrase of the day: Zelena muza means the green muse.

Absinthe Poetry:


Absinthia Taetra by Ernest Dowson

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.


Welcome to Czech Absinthe – or is that Absinth?

Strong Absinthe

Absinthe from the Czech Republic is locally termed absinth and is renowned by party goers for that extra-powerful thujone kick.

What is thujone? Actually, thujone is a constituent of the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) which – along with other herbs – causes the green colour of this famous drink. Czech thujone-rich absinth has developed a cult following all of its own and even a unique method of drinking. The so-called “Czech method” involves the following steps:

1. Place absinthe spoon over a glass containing water

2. Place sugar cube on spoon

3. Pour absinthe

4. Set fire to the absinthe-soaked cube and let the caramelised sugar drip into glass

This method was first observed by Western visitors to Prague in the early 1990s; the method has an uncertain provenance. (More on the Czech method and its origins will appear in a later post.) It may have been an eccentric Icelandic pop star who started this in the 90s, or it may date to another period altogether.

However, it would be fair to mention that this method has caused some upset amongst the self-proclaimed “online absinthe community” which decries the practice as “non-authentic”. The only real way to drink absinthe is the 19th century way, by adding chilled water, according to them. Isn’t this the 21st century? The Czechs are an independent lot these days and they’ll do as they please. It has actually been suggested that the Czech method was devised by the laissez faire, post-Communist Czechs as a means of intensifying the effect of the wormwood thujone by burning off some of the alcohol. Czech absinthe is already the market leader as far as thujone is concerned, so this theory may be true.

Controversy aside, the world of Czech absinthe is a fascinating one. Wander through the streets of the beautiful capital Prague and you will find absinth, and even absinthe, in many shop windows. Shops also sell absinthe paraphernalia like spoons, glasses and absinthe fountains. It is easy to buy absinthe in Prague! A recent newcomer to the scene is Toulouse Lautrec Absinthe, a brand made by the Czech distiller Cami and named after the famous belle epoque artist. Tolouse Lautrec is similar in style to the absinthes enjoyed at the turn of the 19th century. So for those that like to live in the past, the Czechs have that too. The feisty thujone-rich brews of modern Bohemia are my favourite and so I’ll be pouring a glass to celebrate the end of another week.

Czech word or phrase of the day: Na zdravi means cheers!

Absinthe quote :“Absinthe has a wonderful color, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” Oscar Wilde