Was pre-ban absinthe bitter?

Bitter and Twisted

Certainly not! According to the Wormwood Society’s patronising dictat the following is the case:

It is not as bitter as its reputation suggests, and never has been, as can be attested by those who have tasted pre-ban absinthe. The extermely bitter idea is a modern one, most likely springing from modern attempts to make absinthe without knowing how it was suppossed to taste: raw, undistilled wormwood is the second most bitter botanical known.

According to another equally censorious source (Oxygenee Ltd):

The legend that the French sat at café tables by the thousands sugaring their absinthe to kill its nasty bitterness is due entirely to ignorance propounded by people who’ve never tasted absinthe, and assumed it must be bitter because there’s wormwood in it.

Those pre ban bottles of absinthe have certainly proved useful to the lucky few in deciding exactly what absinthe tasted like – and it’s very good of them to share their knowledge – albeit in a rather brusque manner. Extermely good 🙂

But wait – the spelling might not be the only error in Mr. Gwydion Stone‘s article – if we look at other American sources we see a completely different story:

Absinthe, according to the Century Dictionary, is ‘the common name of a highly aromatic liqueur of an opaline-green color and bitter taste,‘ and is prepared by ‘steeping in alcohol or strong spirit bitter herbs,’ the chief of them being wormwood. It was not denied that it is bitter, that it is used as a beverage, and is not a proprietary preparation. It appeared that the wormwood ‘has a medicianl effect upon the human system as a tonic,’ and that the article contains anisette, a cordial. On the other hand, Boonekamp bitters is a proprietary preparation, recommended to the public as such, and, as prepared according to a private formula, as a remedy for certain specific maladies. The label is duly registered at the patent office. There was evidence tending to show that it contains rhubarb, orange peel, turmeric, and an essential oil, probably oil of anise;

Source: U.S. Supreme Court ERHARDT v. STEINHARDT, 153 U.S. 177 (1894)

Then we have the words of one real absinthe drinker from the Belle Epoque, who descibes the “acrid odor of absinthe” (Paul Verlaine) and his companion says thus:

See the savage Bitters
Rolling down from high mountains!
Wise pilgrims, let us reach
The green-pillared Absinthe…

Arthur Rimabud.

Was pre-ban absinthe bitter? did pre-ban absinthe contain high levels of thujone? Testing bottles of absinthe from the Belle Epoque – which have undergone the process known as feuille morte (dead leaf) – isn’t going to answer the question. Contemporary reports from the era seem a more sensible source than the thunderous condescension of the modern absinthe clique.

Did pre-ban absinthe cause hallucinations as the medics of the age claimed. Let’s ask a very distinguished Englishman in France, Mr Charles Dickens!

Moustachiod men lean over my shoulder and shake pencils at their opposite neighbours fiercely. Seedy men sit silent in corners; prosperous speculators pay with shining gold. Shreiks of vingt-cinq, trente, quatre-vingt-cinq are bandied about like insults. It is the old under Capel Court Inferno with a few moustaches, some plate-glass, and a ribbon or two of the Legion of Honour; as I finish my absinthe in the din, I seem to see a Golden Calf on the marble, plate covered counter, very rampant indeed.

Household World: A Weekly Journal by Charles Dickens (circa 1850)

No Green Fairy – but a Golden Calf instead😉

14 responses to “Was pre-ban absinthe bitter?

  1. “…thunderous condescension of the modern absinthe clique.”

    No comment on the veracity of this statement, but it sure does roll off the tongue like butter.

    My experience with absinthe other than HG is very limited, but I did have occasion to sip some some pre-ban that was pulled from a wall in Barcelona, or was it Marseilles? j’pas. A friend had been gifted a few drammies from Betina Wittels. Sorry, I can’t tell you the brand. It was in a Gerber babyfood jar. The hue was golden, not unlike a finely crafted Sicilian oil pressed from first rate drupes. The aroma, after decades, was distinctly herbal and floral, (rather than anisey) and rather fresh. It louched more like a gin (yes, even gin louches, Virginia) at sunset. It bore a great resemblance to Dale Pendell’s recipe in Pharmak/Poeia. (Sp?) and did have a hint of bitterness.

    I realize that not knowing the brand of that olde absinthe is probably a crime (totally unprofessional) but I am merely, after all, a first-rate hack, nothing more.

  2. Thank you for another amusing example of your faith-based approach to historical research.

  3. More quoting out of context. How predictable.

    “It is not as bitter as its reputation suggests…”

    I never said absinthe wasn’t at all bitter. Coffee is bitter, tea is bitter. But not as bitter as undistilled wormwood. Not as bitter as some of the fake Czech crap that gets passed off as real absinthe by unscrupulous marketers.

    Are you really citing the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a dictionary as a source on accurate absinthe information? You are scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t you? Certainly if there is evidence for your claims, you can come up with something.

    As for hallucinations, I see none mentioned in your Dickens citation. I see the figurative impressions of a creative writer. Someone having a hallucination doesn’t say “I seem to see…” they say “Holy shit! A golden calf just appeared out of nowhere—right there!! No,really!! Don’t you see it??? AAAhhhh!!! Giant ants are eating my face!!! Oh my God, make it stop!!” The hallucinations reported from “absinthism” were merely alcoholic hallucinosis suffered by hospitalized alcoholics deprived of their liquor. They were having the DTs. For crying out loud, do some research.

    Your arguments are fatuous and without merit. In fact, they aren’t arguments at all but ravings—the desperate last defiant gasp of a crackpot and racketeer who is watching his precious, cleverly crafted, and lucrative illusion go up in sugar-fueled flames at the inexorable and penetrating light of truth. People are more well-informed now than they were in 1998, eh? The problem is that you don’t actually know enough about the topic to do any better. But that’s probably enough for your particular audience: your customers.

    “Testing bottles of absinthe from the Belle Epoque – which have undergone the process known as feuille morte (dead leaf) – isn’t going to answer the question.”

    Um, that just describes the color. It’s not a process, other than the chlorophyll breaking down, that is. Speaking of things breaking down and leaving traces behind, since you’re so knowledgeable about what is or isn’t going to answer the question, perhaps you can tell me what the degradation products of thujone are, and why they (according to your assertion) cannot be found in pre-ban absinthe in quantities that would support your claims?

    Then, you can tell me why modern absinthe made to the same protocols as pre-ban absinthe isn’t high in thujone either?

    I have never seen you offer the slightest shred of actual evidence of any of your claims, only silly rhetoric and innuendo. You haven’t shown any particular knowledge of absinthe or its making, only what you can find with Google.

    In short, you are an anonymous annoying twit. And that’s why I haven’t chosen to engage you before now. It’s simply not worth my time.

    You’re an embarrassment to your family and heritage.

  4. Good morning dear Gywdion

    You are the author of a very nasty little article called “What’s Wrong With Czech Absinthe”

    ”Czech absinths have been widely compared to mouthwash and window cleaner”
    “Like fabled Atlantis, every piece of evidence of Czech absinth from before 1990 seemingly sank into the sea”

    The Atlantis effect perhaps being due to grim historical realities that have escaped your comprehension. It is clear that you know absolutely nothing about this country. I wonder have you ever visited the Bohemian lands? There’s a “new” habit of dropping absinthe into beer which you could sneer at.

    More calmly in that tabloid article you claim:

    (i) In spite of marketing claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that absinth(e) of any kind was made in Czechia prior to 1990.

    Didn’t you read about Oliva? or what Mr. Hill’s family have said?

    (ii) Is this a political or cultural bias? Definitely not.

    Yet you accuse me of being a “racketeer who is watching his precious, cleverly crafted, and lucrative illusion go up in sugar-fueled flames”

    Raketeer? This is totally without foundation and a rather extraordinary claim. I do not know what you mean –and so perhaps you could be more specific?

    I do hope that it is not playing on the disturbing racial stereotype of Eastern Europe as populated with mafioso. Is that what you mean? I wonder…

    I do not even sell absinthe or anything else for that matter! If you wish to know much of the marketing that vexes you so is conducted by your own countrymen!

    You ask me “why modern absinthe made to the same protocols as pre-ban absinthe isn’t high in thujone either?”

    Are those protocols specific as regards the harvesting of artemisia absinthium? We know that many modern hausgemacht distillers using the same recipes have produced thujone high absinthe when attention is given to the harvesting and other botanical aspects.

    I find you very amusing, Gwydion! you are clearly a person who chooses to stand out in a most amusing way from the rest – you have the applause and peals of merry laughter from a grateful audience.

    PS: Dicken’s would probably not have used a phrase like “Holy Shit”😉 You should have given more thought to the metaphor of the golden calf to make a more worthwhile criticism.I don’t like words like “crap” and “shit” on this blog – but I’ll make an exception this time just for you. Please bear this in mind if you ever choose to visit us again. Thanks!

  5. “Good morning dear Gywdion” Speaking of spelling errors…

    I don’t recall that we were on a real-name basis, so until such time as you deign to grace us with your real name, I’ll thank you to address me by my online name.

    “You are the author of a very nasty little article called “What’s Wrong With Czech Absinthe”

    There’s nothing nasty about it, it’s just that you appear to find the truth uncomfortable. In fact, I have in recent weeks made some changes to remove some of the more ascerbic bits, in the spirit of fairness.

    “Czech absinths have been widely compared to mouthwash and window cleaner” “Like fabled Atlantis, every piece of evidence of Czech absinth from before 1990 seemingly sank into the sea”

    This is true, every word of it. I even built in an eight-year margin in Hill’s favor. Actually, that’s probably a typo—it used to say “the 1990s”.

    “The Atlantis effect perhaps being due to grim historical realities that have escaped your comprehension. “

    And perhaps not, but this has been covered elsewhere by others. It has nothing to do with the communists, it has to do with the truth: no such thing as Czech “absinth(e)” before 1998, except for a slim possibility of Hill’s being introduced in the months before the communists took power in 1948.

    “More calmly in that tabloid article you claim:
    (i) ‘In spite of marketing claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that absinth(e) of any kind was made in Czechia prior to 1990.’

    Didn’t you read about Oliva? or what Mr. Hill’s family have said?”

    Yes, of course I did. I don’t believe it and I stand by my assertion. It’s a fabrication until proven otherwise with evidence, not sentimental rhetoric. And tabloid? You have this habit of projecting your own motives and methods onto others. Many of us have repeatedly cited historical evidence. You have produced nothing but hearsay and unsupported claims.

    “(ii) Is this a political or cultural bias? Definitely not.
    Yet you accuse me of being a “racketeer who is watching his precious, cleverly crafted, and lucrative illusion go up in sugar-fueled flames””

    Yeah, pretty much. I don’t see the connection here. There are racketeers (“one who runs a racket”) everywhere. How is this a political or cultural bias?

    “Raketeer? [sic] This is totally without foundation and a rather extraordinary claim.

    Then you should feel right at home with it, as it bears such similarity to your own claims.

    ” I do not know what you mean –and so perhaps you could be more specific?”

    I don’t know how I could be more specific. Perhaps a tad less dramatic, but not more specific. Anyway, you seem to have been clumsy enough to have lain open your own motives in the accusations you hurl at others. This site and your similar online activity is nothing more than a thinly-disguised attempt to try to salvage the false image of fake Czech absinth.

    Unfortunately, you don’t make as good an argument as you’d like to think, and anyone reading this who has the slightest capacity for critical thinking will see you as an aluminum-foil-beanie-wearing-paranoid crackpot.

    “I do hope that it is not playing on the disturbing racial stereotype of Eastern Europe as populated with mafioso. Is that what you mean? I wonder…”

    Probably not, as I was unaware of that stereotype (it is clear that I know absolutely nothing about that country, remember?) until someone else—someone anonymous, I might add—started circulating the rumor a few weeks ago. I’m inclined to think it was a deliberate attempt to spook your critics. No, I don’t think “mafiosos” would need to resort to silly online campaigns, I would think they’d just take care of business and not attract a lot of attention.

    I do hope you weren’t foolishly entertaining the notion of a not-so-international libel suit for my comments about an anonymous online persona.

    I was also unaware that Eastern Europeans constituted a separate race. I do know that they are primarily caucasians, such as myself, so I don’t see where race has anything to do with it.

    “I do not even sell absinthe or anything else for that matter! If you wish to know much of the marketing that vexes you so is conducted by your own countrymen!”

    I’m aware of the American gentleman and his enterprises—but maybe you raise a good point: we should start working with the Czech manufacturers to help market their products more honestly and fairly. Maybe we could help them lean on their misleading marketers a little—but then, the marketing works, so why should they? I mean, it’s hard to pass up a 1500% profit!

    You think my position is anti-Czech. It’s not. My position is anti-fake-absinthe-riding-on-the-coattails-of-an-entirely-dissimilar-unrelated-historic-phenomenon. I think of it as a form of cultural plagiarism. But of course, this is merely my educated opinion.

    “You ask me “why modern absinthe made to the same protocols as pre-ban absinthe isn’t high in thujone either?”
    Are those protocols specific as regards the harvesting of artemisia absinthium?”

    Yes, in fact, they are; with regard to harvest time in particular. And if you knew anything about them, you’d know that. But that’s beside the point: we have examples of the most popular premium absinthes, known to be the standards of the time. They are not high in thujone. Again, you failed to address the question: why do these absinthes not have high levels of thujone or its degradation products? Where did all the thujone go? Don’t bother answering with an uniformed hypothesis. I want a cogent scientific explanation.

    “We know that many modern hausgemacht distillers using the same recipes have produced thujone high absinthe when attention is given to the harvesting and other botanical aspects.”

    I know no such thing, as I’m sure, neither do you, unless you’d care to cite some evidence. How “many” HGers have had their product analyzed? In any case, even if it were true, there isn’t the slightest indication that there was ever any impetus to increase the levels of thujone in absinthe by any means.

    “I find you very amusing, Gwydion! you are clearly a person who chooses to stand out in a most amusing way from the rest – you have the applause and peals of merry laughter from a grateful audience.”

    Unfortunately for you, I’m not really susceptible to that sort of puerile attempt to undermine my self esteem. Your one biggest flaw throughout your campaign is this: you fail to grasp that there are those of us who know what we’re talking about, not just bluffing our way through it like you are.

    I don’t find you amusing, I find you sad and frustrated. If, as you claim, you have nothing to do with the business itself, you are a misguided individual who is squandering his energy and passion on an illusory windmill.

    “PS: Dicken’s would probably not have used a phrase like “Holy Shit” You should have given more thought to the metaphor of the golden calf to make a more worthwhile criticism.”

    I’m disinterested in sparring for the sake of it. I bypassed the very obvious metaphor to address the matter at hand: a poor choice of “evidence” for absinthic hallucinations.

    “I don’t like words like “crap” and “shit” on this blog – but I’ll make an exception this time just for you. Please bear this in mind if you ever choose to visit us again. Thanks!”

    Noted. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent visitor. I’ve addressed your points sufficiently and you don’t seem able to come up with anything new or compelling. Right now I think your complete inability to respond in a rational fashion to any of the points which have been raised against your claims is the biggest factor working against you. Well, that and the fact that you’re wrong.

    Particularly since you are unwilling to step into the light from behind your mask of anonymity, I really have no interest in participating in this charade any further.

  6. “an aluminum-foil-beanie-wearing-paranoid crackpot”

    LOL I wear an aluminium foil coated Homberg actually, with a huge peacock feather for luck.

    Thanks for your reply. I’ll answer some of your other points in due course, but I am off to the National Archive for a spot of obsessive-compulsive reading.

  7. Speaking of tabloids, I find it interesting that a dictionary definition and a few lines of poetry are considered equal to or better than actual tasting and study of the product. It’s almost like someone has already made up their opinion and is scraping the barrel to find any support possible.

    I continue to read the blog to be amused at what will appear next (and in many cases what wont appear).

    If this blog was more serious I might ask the writer/s where/how they heard about the opinions they are so strongly clinging too and what makes them solid to begin with?

  8. I should add, don’t get me wrong, actual research is interesting, and so is just ‘throwing thoughts out there’ but this isn’t the first time posts have taken the “sticking it to the snobby man” attitude with almost no research and/or slanted quoting. After awhile, how can anyone consider the blog credible for more than entertainment?

  9. For Hiram or Stone he says “I even built in an eight-year margin in Hill’s favor” about the writing on Wormood Sociey web page about Czech absint. Please can Wormowod Society answer the question:

    do you make the proposal that Hill family are liars about the history of Hill’s factory?

    what is Wormwood Society? it is a orgainisation in America which sells something or not

  10. I have been reading this blog with much interest for some months now. I feel the debate has got a touch out of hand over the past few days.

    I have never contributed anything here before, for I I find it quite useless to litter the internet with my personal opinions. But I feel I should this time; sometimes you just have to speak out.

    Hiram: you are guilty as charged of using _selected_ historical evidence to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Yours is an organisation tightly allied with Ted Breaux’s — do not deny it. The “no thujone” is an argument you have been promoting in order to get absinthe legalised in the States. Should that ever happen–which it won’t, because the FDA have more serious matters to concern themselves with–you will jump on the band wagon and promote thujone/tripping/the lot. You are greedy for money; your lot tend to be.

    I am not amused. Let the guy be. He publishes (unlike so many people on the internet) something of value. I enjoy reading it, and learning more of the Czech culture.

    Ari the lapdog: hmmm…. How the hell did you get roped into all this?? Don’t you have anything else to do at the age of 20+?? Christ, get out a little… party… drink something… Have fun. Have sex. Whatever. It’s fun, you know.

  11. Haha, that post amused me. Although I wish you had remembered/said something clever.
    (Who are you again?)

    I got roped into this because of all the money I make off it, I don’t party with or drink absinthe, I don’t like anise or absinth (as opposed to MCD and the producers of L’or (for those who read interviews🙂 )).

  12. Ari-

    Like you, I don’t especially like anise either. The Arabs drink it (arak), and I drink it with them whenever I visit the Lebanon or a Lebanese restaurant (absolutely love the food). As far as absinthe is concerned, I drink the good stuff (when I do, which is not that often).

    But to suggest that — or rather to categorise — absinthe in terms of where it might come from and how _that_ reflects on its quality is misguided at best.

    Been to France, drunk “absinthe”…… need I say more? Everybody has jumped on the band wagon nowadays. The French, the Swiss, the Germans, the Poles… even the Slovenians now! many of the products they sell have nothing in common with absinthe.

    And this is what bothers me. Your “war” against the Czechs. There are good absinthes, and there are bad absinthes. There are good whiskys, and there are bad ones. There are good vodkas, and there are bad vodkas.

    Mind you, I don’t feel I need to argue my case on the internet.

    And yes, Ari, I think you should go and have some fun. There was a time I was 20 as well… and you know what? I f***ing wasted it. And I’ll never get that time back. I regret that now, I really do. (And I am ABSOLUTELY NOT sneering or anything. I have no reason to. I mean well.)

    I’ve got a phone number if you want to talk.

    Best wishes,
    Sebastian

  13. Haha.
    And here I thought I needed to go to San Fran to get hit on by guys. 😀
    I don’t have a war against the czech, never have (but don’t let the truth get in the way of a good conspiracy), but against companies using false claims. Some of them are in the Czech Republic, some aren’t.

    Ok, last bit of this conversation, for those that didn’t get the joke, I like anise (it would be MCD who doesn’t like anise but has ended up a judge at a festival for an anise flavored drink.) It’s the also the producers at L’or that don’t actually drink/like their own product.

  14. ” Yours is an organisation tightly allied with Ted Breaux’s — do not deny it.”
    I absolutely deny it. Ted Breaux is a registered member of my forum and a very infrequent visitor and that is the extent of any association. If you had any knowledge of the history of absinthe online, you’d know that I have been one of his less gentle critics in the past.

    Why you would stick to the assertion that our position on thujone is based on mercenary motives is a mystery—the science is in your face and yet you keep denying it.

    “what is Wormwood Society? it is a orgainisation in America which sells something or not”

    The Wormwood Society is a US-based private non-profit organization dedicated to absinthe education. It has no affiliation with any absinthe manufacturer or distributor. I have served as the sole administrator since its beginning and have never made a profit from it; I am a volunteer, as are my forum moderators. I have occasionally sold absinthe spoons, glasses and fountains to help defray the small cost of running the site. These sales were usually of short duration and not terribly successful, precisely because of my (probably foolish and naïve) opposition to over-commercialization and aggressive marketing—anyone in the absinthe community who knows my reputation will vouch for this. I have butted heads with Oxygenée, Ted Breaux and Pierrevert of Liqueurs de France over this very issue. Still, I am in complete agreement with them on the thujone/czechsinth issue.

    Not until the last year have I personally been interested in producing a brand of absinthe, and when that time comes, I will enlist an advisory board to ensure that no conflict of interest interferes with the administration of the organization.

    “Hiram: you are guilty as charged of using _selected_ historical evidence to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.”
    That’s a pretty arrogant statement. Who is my judge? I do not answer to anonymous accusers.

    I’m still waiting for any historical evidence from the other side of the argument. And I do mean evidence, not poetic musings or uninformed opinions.

    do you make the proposal that Hill family are liars about the history of Hill’s factory?

    Did I? Where do you see that? All I’ve ever said is that no evidence to support their claim has been presented. NONE.

    The critics of the notion of a Czech “style” of absinthe and any historic absinthe culture independent of the Franco-Swiss one are not the ones who must come up with proof. We are not the ones making completely unsupported claims and history and science abound with support of our position.

    Should any incontrovertible evidence be uncovered to prove us mistaken, I will immediately make the appropriate amendments to our web site and issue a sincere public apology and retraction announcement.

    As I said earlier until something tangible comes from your side, I’m not really interested in following this “debate.”

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