Of Sacred Relics and Holy Wormwood – Absinthe Antiques by S.B. MacDonald

Absinthe AntiquesHistory, like art, is something that the uninitiated will more often than not have merely an appreciation, or even a passing empathy for. Those who explore the subject to any degree of depth, ideally because the subject speaks to some part of them, will be able to find bits and pieces of wisdom and beauty in the details. In the case of history, this applies to the written account of a certain period, the art of a certain age, the body count of a certain war or from the subsequent artifacts which survive throughout the years.

Absinthe, as even those who have had an indirect interaction with it would attest, has borne its unjust stigma with a certain amount of austere (and sometimes cynical) pride. The people who truly love absinthe love it reverently and the ones who are passionate about it treat it, its history and its sinister scars with a great deal of respect.

Scott MacDonald, whom I have the privilege of referring to as one of my favourite online acquaintances, is one of these people and his remarkable book, Absinthe Antiques – A Collection from la Belle Epoque, is testament to that respect for the subject. Thoroughly researched over a period of several years, the book draws its reader on a profound and almost Divine Comedy-esque journey through the world of absinthe’s glorious heyday. Not through historical accounts, so much, the journey comes through a systematic study of objects, implements and advertising which the author has collected from all across the world, allowing him to paint for us a unique portrait of the days when the absinthe trade was in its full glory.

Lavishly and lovingly photographed by Scott, the book doesn’t just serve as a catalogue of the artifacts. As you wander its pages, it evolves for the reader into a veritable art gallery.¬†Each chapter is bedecked with beautiful images, giving us an intimate look at the technique and design of all manner of glassware, spoons, topettes (something my collection is sorely lacking) and so on. Some of the detail Scott has captured in his photographs are so rich and evocative that you could almost feel the tooling on a la fuilles #3 spoon or the roughness of an etched dose line on an egg-style glass.

This is one of the most remarkable things about this book – that sense of evocation. The detail, the knowledge and the intimacy of the experience is so immersive that we are, ourselves, transported back in time. When we see the images of the advertizing posters of the day, the saucers with the price-per-glass painted thereon and the exquisite and almost luminescent greenish glow of a well-lit glass of absinthe, you can almost hear a chanson being sung in a bar by revellers, steeped in their own experience of the elixir that is one of Scott’s most revered passions.

If you are an absinthe drinker, and one who takes the drink seriously, you owe it to yourself to look into the history of absinthe in detail. That said, you will be sorely hard-pressed to find a more lucid, enjoyable and evocative window into that history than this book. I would actually go so far as to say that it is probably one of the most essential books on the subject. Vinnie personally keeps my copy safe at my absinthe table.

Vinnie approves of this book

To order a copy, go here.

A Little Diversion While We Wait….

In my pre-interview correspondence with one of my forthcoming interviewees, he took the liberty of sharing this charming little link. This is utterly beautiful and captures so much of the darker romance of the Green Faerie.

Enjoy. Interviews coming soon.

First Experiences

As this blog will be focused on absinthe, in review and in news, it might be a good idea to start off by relating some of my personal history with this undeservedly-notorious elixir.

I first heard of absinthe through various forms of gothic media, notably the cinematic adaptations of Dracula and Interview with the Vampire. I had little inkling what it was, specifically, and I filed it away as being synonymous with drinkable opiates and the like. My curiosity was a bit more piqued by an old acquaintance of mine, who worked in a record store here in Kitchener who mentioned to me that he and his friends were going to sit in a field, drink some absinthe and read gothic poetry.

"The Green Muse" by Albert Maignan

When I put the question to him about its effects, his response was a comparisson to a cannibis high. To this day, I have yet to confirm this description, as I have never experienced a cannibis high (and have no real desire to). The fact that thujone (the chemical that gave absinthe it’s infamy in decades past) is molecularly similar to THC could help to confirm it, though I seem to remember reading a chemical expert saying that, on a molecular level, the reaction should be different.

But I digress.

The next time I came in contact with the idea was an eponymous song by the martial industrial/folk band Blood Axis on their album “The Gospel of Inhumanity”, which was lyrically composed of 19th Century poetry, one pro-absinthe, one anti-. The liner notes featured, as its illustration, “The Green Muse” by Albert Maignan. In spite of the fact that the latter half of the song and the painting in particular could be considered cautionary, both the image and the song were the anchor that firmly docked the Green Faerie at the pier of my soul.

Several articles read on the subject later, the opportunity was finally presented to me to try it. A good friend of mine in Hamilton, named Joel (whom I have not seen in ages) invited me over for an afternoon of movies and drinks. I barely consumed any alcohol at all, at this point in my life, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me. That afternoon, in fact, presented me with three things close to my heart – the films of The Brothers Quay, the films of Jan Svankmajer and the emerald elixir that would be my friend for the next decade, plus. Thanks, Joel. I owe you.

My initial impression after having consumed a glass was not that good of one. I loathed licorice (still do) and the closeness of anise to it in flavour did not endear it to me. Nevertheless, I filed it away for future reference as something I had experienced and would be willing to try again.

Years later, I bought myself a bottle of the same brand Joel has served me (Absente, specifically). I ended up developing a fondness for it and subsequently found a certain love for the aesthetic and technology surrounding it (the period artwork, the literature inspired by it, the glasses and spoons developed to enhance the experience).

I have yet to try more than a handful of different brands, alas. As I get my hands on new ones (I live in Canada, so my options are limited), I will post reviews of them. In the meantime, I’ll review what I can and offer what insight into it that I am able to.

Until next time.