“Thy fumes are sharp, dire as Medusa’s tears,
In thy green depths a tempting demon leers,
Leading the victim on without alarm.”
Francis Saltus Saltus
Is there any substance as synonymous with the Bohemian Gothic idyll than Absinthe (or Absinth, to the Czechs)? The very name conjures visions of tortured poets and libertines, the forbidden decadence of the Green Fairy. Its history touches the heights of French society and the lows of prohibition. Yet despite its long history and sense of the arcane, the absinthe allure is alive and well, and as every gift shop and off-license in Prague’s centre attests, deeply ingrained in Czech history.
Sitting in Prague’s Absinth Museum (more of a cocktail bar than a museum, albeit one covered in antique bottles and absinthe accessories from across the ages) I must admit that while the drink’s modern incarnation is significantly lower on hallucinogenic wormwood than its predecessors, it has not lost a drop of its Bohemian romance.
As with the Belle Epoque itself, absinth was something borrowed from the French by Czechoslovakia in the early 19th Century. While absinth originated in Switzerland as a medicinal cure-all, it is the underground artists of Paris that it remains ever associated with. When Art Nouveau swept across the continent and took hold of the Czech imagination, absinth came with it.
Despite a similar name and reputation, Bohemian-style absinth lacks the distinctive anise taste of traditionally distilled absinthe, as it is produced by mixing pre-distilled alcohol with herbs for flavouring and wormwood for its distinctive effect on the drinker.
While absinth was banned elsewhere in Europe out of concern for the effect of this hallucinogen, Czechoslovakia was not affected by the prohibition, and the green liquor remains as popular here as it ever was. Prague’s notoriously bohemian Cafe Slavia still pays homage to its heritage, displaying Viktor Oliva’s painting The Absinthe Drinker (above).
Regardless of where in the world you’re indulging in absinthe, there are still certain rules that must be followed if you’re to do it ‘properly’. The traditional process of preparing absinthe is known as louching or, to the more poetically inclined, releasing the Green Fairy. The method consists of dripping water slowly through a sugar cube into the measure of absinthe, and watching as the translucent liquid is permeated by sugary swirls, eventually settling into a uniform opalescent green. The anticipation makes the first sip all the more rewarding, and the almost alchemical mystique of the process adds to the drink’s cultish status.
If you really want to upset a Czech absinth lover, suggest setting the liquor on fire. While flaming absinthe is known as ‘the Bohemian method’ and is now the norm in many of Prague’s more tourist-centric bars, there is no evidence that it was ever employed in Bohemia or elsewhere before the 1990’s, when the success of setting sambuca alight inspired drinkers to try it with absinthe, and the early 2000’s, when depictions of bohemian poets enjoying flaming absinthe were popularised by the film Moulin Rouge. While there is an undeniable appeal to a flaming shot, connoisseurs argue that this Hollywood-inspired process actually spoils the delicate herbal taste of the liquor.
Although I am a long-time lover of the aniseed-heavy French absinthe, my experiences of the Czech variant have never been anything short of magical. While Prague’s Absinth Museum offers a range of absinthes from around Europe, as well as absinth ice cream, absinth hot chocolate, absinth beer and even absinth cheese, I opt for a simple yet strong measure of traditional Czech absinth and smugly sip it surrounded by black-and-white photographs of 19th Century poets, dusty bottles, and even an obligatory skeleton.
The surroundings are crucial. After all, when it comes to absinthe, it’s not just the complex flavour that demands my full attention, but its rebellious reputation, ritualistic intensity, and the darkly artistic atmosphere that moves in the wake of every sip.