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Wednesday, December 2, 1998 Published at 10:04 GMT


UK

Drink me. . .at your own risk

Van Gogh: a case of seeing double Dutch

The prospect of absinthe being sold again in the UK after 70 years has got a lot of people excited. But not everyone, writes the BBC's Ryan Dilley.

The offer of "a sip of the Green Goddess" brings to mind some disturbing visual images, the least scary of which involves a fitness instructor and a brace of squaddies with stirrup pumps. Of course, to the initiated such an invitation holds the promise of acquainting oneself with the Queen of the periodic table of illicit tipples - absinthe.


[ image:  ]
In the popular imagination absinthe is the green liquid which made fin de siècle Paris gay and prompted Vincent Van Gogh to lop off his shell- like. The fact that this favourite of the Bohemian set was banned in France in 1915 - when production stood at some 10m gallons per year - has ensured the blisteringly powerful drink an enduring place in alcoholic folklore.

Demented addicts

Exploiting this mystique (and the fact that it has never officially been banned in the UK) four Londoners have set up a firm to import a Czech version of the drink to slake the thirsts of Britain's fin de millennaire revellers. Boasting a painting-stripping 70% alcohol content, Hill's Absinth has all the kick of its Gallic cousin, but more importantly it is made with the same wormwood extracts which governments around the world blamed for creating legions of demented absinthe addicts back in the early 1900s.


[ image: A strange sight, but not a hallucination]
A strange sight, but not a hallucination
Absinthe is made by steeping wormwood, along with other herbs, in pure alcohol. The resultant liquid, turned a rich green by the herbs' chlorophyll, contains an intoxicating compound called thujone - a substance often and perhaps misleadingly likened to the drug cannabis.

The Green Goddess is marketing dream - a product whose reputation has only been strengthened by an 80-year prohibition in its spiritual home. Another selling point for the fashionable bars who are lining up to take delivery of the 40 bottles is its sheer theatricality. Thanks to its formidable alcohol content and bitter taste, both water and sugar must be added to absinthe to render it even halfway palatable. Tradition demands that a spoonful of absinthe-soaked sugar be set alight and dripped into a full glass - igniting the contents. The mixture is then diluted with water, producing the cloudy draught familiar to drinkers of the thujone-free pastis Pernod.

Avant garde

Green Bohemia - the company behind absinthe's return to fashion - are keen to point out the drink's importance to the Parisian avant garde. Tom Hogkinson, from the hip magazine The Idler and a co-founder of Green Bohemia, points to its hedonistic pedigree. Zola, Picasso, Lautrec and Baudelaire were all admirers of the emerald elixir, earning it a reputation as a creative lubricant. Interestingly, it was a musician John Moore, of the Jesus and Mary Chain, who first introduced his fellow Green Bohemians to absinthe after trying it at a gig in Prague.

Claims have been made that absinthe improves both the intellectual and sexual prowess of the imbiber. Robert Tisserand, an expert on the properties of herb, suspects that over time the reverse is true. Few scientific tests have been carried out on the effects of absinthe - its banning in France, Switzerland, Belgium and the US was based largely on anecdotal evidence amid a public outcry that decent society was about to be overrun by thujone-addled degenerates.


[ image: Will the clubbing generation go for it?]
Will the clubbing generation go for it?
"Wormwood oil is a neurotoxin, a poison," says Tisserand. "In sufficient quantities the substance causes laboratory animals to confront imaginary enemies, experience auditory and visual hallucinations and suffer convulsions." Hardly the makings of a good night down the pub. However, these symptoms would only be experienced in humans after they had ingested the equivalent of 25 glasses of absinthe - a Herculean effort even by Gazza's standards.

Chronic absinthism

Both Tisserand and Dr Debbie Shaw, from the National Poisons Information Service, point to the problems of "chronic" exposure to thujone. Although unproven, a link has been suggested between thujone and addiction to absinthe - indeed "absinthism" was recognised by French physicians as a distinct form of alcoholism characterised by the sort of mental instability which plagued Van Gogh.

The fact that the Green Goddess has always remained legal in the UK was in part due to its relatively rare consumption. The unlikely prospect of an Ecstasy-weary generation turning to absinthe might prompt moves to outlaw its entry into the country. The pressure group Alcohol Concern are horrified by the new development. "Alcohol is used as a social lubrication, to help reduce people's inhibitions," said spokeswoman Caroline Bradley, "but this product is clearly not about socialising or partying." Alcohol Concern decry a drink, now synonymous with excess, whose sole purpose seems to be to bring about in the drinker "a change in their state of mind".

Mind numbing

Those who have already quaffed the controversial spirit invariably remark on its belly-warming strength, which in part numbs the mouth against its unusual taste. Of its supposed hallucinatory effects few offer any startling revelations. "I'd already drunk quite a few other things that night, but the absinthe was. . .well, the icing on the cake," said 24-year-old student Raoul. "I didn't have any visions, but I did giggle a lot and even offered to pay for the taxi home. . .which was a first for me."

Green Bohemia have timed the introduction of their absinthe to coincide nicely with the office party season - a time when even advocat is transformed into an acceptable tipple. But budding Baudelaires and lounge lizard Lautrecs had better look sharpish - Robert Tisserand suspects that the government may be worried by the spirit's resurgence and end its already limited availability.



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