Category Archives: absinth history

Lada, Hašek and Kontušovka

Josef Lada, “Sváteční hospoda“, 1932

Christmas has come early! An exhibition of the works of Josef Lada (15 November-3 February, Municipal House, Prague) With “a visual perspective ..praised by Picasso” this great Czech artist is a real treat. Josef is probably best known as the illustrator of Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Czech absinth drinkers might be interested in this note:

Charmed by Lipnice, then a community of 800 people, perched idyllically up on a hill with its 14th century castle slumped and crumbling above the gently winding Sázava River, Hašek entered merrily into village life. He enjoyed nothing more than treks through the surrounding farmland, woods and villages, or annoying the local women by dragging their menfolk to the pub, where he would stand to read completed sections of text to his audience, dictating new sections to a more sober writer. Sometimes he would simply play cards, albeit for sums of money way beyond his means. He drank copiously at the bar, chasing the locally produced beer, Lipnicée Lezák, with rum, slivovice and kontušovka; an aniseed based liquor, similar to absinthe. At the end of the evening, the wild writer had only a couple of flights of stairs to negotiate before bed.

 

🙂

Kontušovka

Absinthe Recipe

Kupka “Great Nude” 1909

Josef Archleb (1843 – 1913) founded a famous liquor distillery in Dobruška (a small town in the Hradec Králové Region of the Czech Republic) in 1865. He was the patron of several artists, including Frantisek Kupka, the pioneer of the early abstract art movement and orphic cubism. The painting above is Kupka’s Planes by Colours or Great Nude, circa 1909. Below you will find the Dobruška absinthe recipe.

1. Base

Grande Wormwood : 6 750 g
Pure alcohol 96% : 50 000 ccm
Water : 35 000 ccm

2. Distillate

Anise seed : 9 600 g
Star anise : 400 g
Cinammon :135 g
Grande Wormwood : 1 070 g
Hyssop : 3 210 g
Mace : 67 g
Pure alcohol 96% : 3 000 ccm
Water : 10 000 ccm

Then it is distilled

3. To make absinthe

Base as per point 1 : 60 000 ccm
This much of distillate as 2 : 4 000 ccm
Pure alcohol 96% : 30 000 ccm
Water : 8 000 ccm
Sugar syrup : 2 000 ccm

To be coloured for a light green colour.

Josef Archleb

The Complete Distiller by Ambrose Cooper (1757)

 

Wormwood Water

Wormwood Water

There are similar references in Culpeper’s ‘The Complete Herbal’, 1653 as Spiritus et Aqua Absynthii & most importantly Spiritus et Aqua Absynthii magis composita.

Spiritus et Aqua Absynthii magis composita
Or spirit and water of Wormwood, the greater composition

College : Take of common and Roman Wormwood, of each a pound; Sage, Mints, Bawm, of each two handfuls; the Roots of Galanga, Ginger, Calamus, Aromaticus, Elecampane, of each three drachms; Liquorice, an ounce, Raisins of the Sun stoned, three ounces, Annis seeds, and sweet Fennel seeds, of each three drachms; Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmegs, of each two drachms; Cardamoms, Cubebs, of each one drachm: let the things be cut that are to be cut, and the things be bruised that are to be bruised, all of them infused in twenty four pints of Spanish wine, for twenty four hours, then, distilled in an Alembick, adding two ounces of white sugar to every pint of distilled water.

According to researchers at the University of Wolverhampton discussing another section:

“Culpeper, in a rather involved sentence, seems to suggest that two varieties of WORMWOOD were most commonly used; that is, SEA WORMWOOD for children and ‘people of ripe age’, and ‘common wormwood’ for those that are ’strong’, by which he probably meant the plant now usually called Artemesia absinthe [Culpeper (1653, new ed. n.d.)].

Culpeper also says: “Common Wormwood I shall not describe, for every boy that can eat an egg knows it” So the question is : what was this “common wormwood” that Culpeper mentions?

Would it be fair to say this recipe contains the Holy Trinity, which is used by some to define modern day absinthe:  artemisia absinthium, fennel and anise? Is this then evidence of absinthe – only the French word for wormwood anyway – existing as part of a much older tradition?

Is the dubious history of the Henroid sisters, and the bogus Dr Ordinaire, merely a 19th Century marketing stunt? In any case neither the Henroid sisters, nor the phantom Doctor, invented absinthe – at best it was copied.

Prague Night with Absinth 1943

Hitler at Prague Castle

Adolf Hitler at Prague Castle

Here’s a delightful lost quote about absinth drinking from the evil days of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia.

Poručil jsem si dvojitou sklenku absintu, který právě je v módě. Je to takový zelený dryák. Jako rozpuštěné ještěrky. A vypil jsem to do dna. Potom mi bylo dobre.

I ordered a double glass of absinthe which is in fashion right now.  It’s a kind of green “dryák”. Like dissolved lizards.  I drunk it all. Then I felt good.

Pražské nokturno – Page 310
by František Kubka ( 1943)

Like dissolved lizards 🙂 Note: “dryák” means something like a cure for all diseases, or something bearing a medicinal quality. The word is ancient and relates to a curative potion sold in the Middle Ages and made from 54 types of herbs.

One cannot help wondering where that fashionable absinth – enjoyed by drinkers in Praha circa 1943 – came from.  Any ideas?

The Absinthe Drinkers – Pijáci absintu – by Josef Čapek

Absinthe Drinkers

 

Josef Čapek (1887 -1945) is a name that every Czech knows for his beautiful illustrations. Like Josef Lada he presents a charming naive beauty to his most famous playful illustrations. The above lithograph – The Absinthe Drinkers- is obviously Cubist and dates to the period of the First Republic. Josef Čapek invented the term “robot” – see http://capek.misto.cz/english/robot.html

The photograph below shows Josef in the centre with his brother Karel and Olga Scheinpflugova. Karel, who is considered to be one of the most important Czech writers of the 20th Century, was a Czech nationalist and a critic of fascism. Karel died in December 1938, before the Gestapo could get to him. Josef was arrested after the Nazi criminals came to Prague and his life ended, along with so many others, at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Capek

For more information on Karel and Josef Čapek please visit http://capek.misto.cz

Czech Absinth Sculpture

Girl with Absinth 1924

Bedřich Stefan: Girl with Absinth, 1924

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 😉