November 3rd, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Forbidden Lore Redux: Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

When I was younger, I was baffled and amazed by the question of how the secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries could possibly be truly lost. It seemed impossible to me that knowledge known by two families, and demonstrated for hundreds of thousands or people over a span of almost a thousand years, most of that in a time and place with high literacy rates even by modern standards, could actually be destroyed. I spent much of my teens and twenties wondering if somewhere out there, a truly secret society, the spiritual or literal descendants of the Kyrkes and Eumolpid families, still had the secret and were keeping it safe and hidden until they judged that society was ready for it again, possibly until the long nightmare called Christianity was finally over.

It turns out that I needn't have bothered to wonder, or to wonder about the loss of knowledge that far back. It turns out that, had I realized this, I could have seen an example of exactly this, of knowledge being lost, during my parents' lifetime: the true secret recipe for absinthe. For those of you who've never heard of it, absinthe was a distilled liqueur that was absolutely legendary all over the world. Invented in 1792, it first gained worldwide notoriety as the preferred drink in the Bohemian slums of Paris during the the heyday of the Impressionist painters. By the late 1900s, distilleries were making and selling thirty six million liters of the stuff per year. Twenty years later, because of an anti-Bohemian backlash, it was made illegal all over the world, and the distilleries stopped making it. Then, roughly seventy years later in 1988, it became legal again all over Europe, more or less by accident.

But in that seventy years, every distillery that had been making absinthe had lost their recipes. No surviving brewers or distillers had ever made any. Nobody still alive had ever tasted real absinthe. All that anybody had to go on, now that it was legally possible to try to capitalize on the notoriety of the Bohemian subculture again, was a very rough and partial description of the ingredients, including oil of wormwood. So for twenty five years or thirty years now, at least, home distillers and various factories have been coming up with various wormwood liqueurs and passing them off as absinthe. I've had sips of things that claimed to be absinthe myself, twice, and it was nasty tasting stuff. But nobody knows any better. So absinthe drinkers all over the world are sucking down what amounts to green-tinted gin tainted with toxic levels of thujone, a poisonous compound in wormwood, and thinking that it's supposed to taste this nasty, that the nasty taste is something our grandparents and great-grandparents put up with as the price of getting high.

And then a miracle occurred, as documented in the November issue of Wired: Brian Ashcraft, "The Mystery of the Green Menace." You see, there was this guy named Ted Breaux who was fascinated by the legend of absinthe -- and an organic chemist. In 1996, he managed by accident to find an actual bottle of real absinthe in an estate sale, with the seals still intact. And so he used a hypodermic to extract the contents, a few drops at a time, and put them through years of painstaking research. By carefully comparing the gas chromatograph spectrometry of real absinthe to the results for various herbs, plants, liqueurs, and other compounds that might have been available in the 1800s, he eventually managed to synthesize a compound that exactly matched his bottle of Pernod Tarragona absinthe, to exactly reconstruct the ingredients and processes necessary to manufacture real absinthe.

And just as Wasson, Hoffman, and Ruck speculated about the known ingredients of the sacred potion at Eleusis, it turns out that the wormwood is a red herring. By the end of the distillation process, there are no detectable levels of wormwood oil in real absinthe. It was never the thujone from the wormwood that was getting people high. No, it turns out that Pernod and other distillers were, just like the Kerykes and the Eumolpids, steeping their wine in many, many other native European plants with gently mind-altering effects, and then distilling the resulting wine in a way that produced results that (a) taste good, and (b) mix alcohol with herbal stimulants and relaxants. (The result, by the way, the Nouvelle-Orléans brand of absinthe, is now commercially manufactured by Jade Liqueurs and sold throughout Europe. It's still illegal in the US.)

Had not that one intact bottle of real absinthe been found by an organic chemist who had both the skills, resources, and inclination to solve the riddle, that knowledge would have remained well and truly lost. It was never a state secret or religious secret, or otherwise protected by law. It was only a trade secret of a couple of families and companies. And all it took was for it to go out of style for a mere 70 years for the knowledge to be lost, almost for good. So suddenly I can understand that it only took one generation of the Kerykes and Eumolpid families converted to Christianity for the mystery to be well and thoroughly lost. The same kind of speculation went into making "absinthe" after the ban that Wasson, Hoffman, and Ruck put into their attempt to reinvent the kykeon, the secret potion of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the would be absinthe reinventors turned out to be dead wrong. So unless we were to somehow find, now 2000 years later, an intact sample of the original kykeon for some chemist to analyze, or unless we should be so lucky as to only now be finding something that three hundred years of treasure finders have sought, a set of written instructions for making it that date back to the pre-Christian era, that knowledge is gone. It turns out that, as Ted Breaux demonstrated, it is not only possible to destroy knowledge, it's apparently pretty easy to do so.