Thursday, 18 June 2009
When I first read about William Gurstelle's new book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers, my heart sank. The sub-title - Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously - seemed to express everything that responsible absinthe companies want to avoid. Absinthe is NOT dangerous, it doesn't make you mad or give you hallucinations. Absinthe should be consumed just for the pleasure you would get from any great, complex spirit..
And then I thought back to my feelings the first time that I became aware of absinthe being available again. I'd be living in Asia for nearly six years and had completely missed the furore over its UK launch. I saw a bottle on a supermarket shelf in England and I was very surprised, quite shocked, and, yes, a little scared. At the back of my mind there must have been a thought that, yes, absinthe was dangerous ...
So I tried to put myself into the position of someone not in the absinthe business, of someone who had never even tried absinthe while reading the absinthe section of this book. And from that viewpoint, Gurstelle's ruminations on absinthe are well researched, well presented and quickly dispel any notions that one might have of encountering real danger.
Gurstelle's mentor on absinthe is Dr. Dirk Lachenmeier (it could have been a very different chapter had his mentor been Professor Wilfred Arnold), and, with Lachenmeier's help, Gurstelle very quickly establishes that absinthe, drunk responsibly, is not dangerous, but is, in fact, a drink to be enjoyed for what it is, and not for what it does (or doesn't do).
And then comes my favourite part of the absinthe section: Dr. Lachenmeier's top tips for selecting absinthe. In just over one page, Gurstelle lists specific points that separate the "excellent" from the "miserable" (the author's words, not mine). These points provide a good check-list for both absinthe virgins and for those with just a bit of experience. Surprisingly, the list does not include the need to look out for "absinthes" made with added sugar which would not meet 19th century standards for real absinthe.
The section finishes with an excellent absinthe chosen, and poured. I wanted to read Gurstelle's impressions of his absinthe: how did it smell, how did it taste? Could he close his eyes and imagine himself in 19th century Paris or in an Alpine meadow? He opts to leave that to the reader's imagination and maybe that is right .. to leave your readers wanting more.
It is clearly established, therefore, that a well-made 19th century absinthe presented no dangers (other than high alcohol content) and that today's absinthes are no different. It is fitting therefore that absinthe is included in the Minor Vices chapter. I like the link Gurstelle points out between absinthe and making gunpowder, but otherwise it is clear that there is no link between absinthe and danger. Many of the other pursuits explored in this fascinating book are more genuinely dangerous and life-threatening, and Gurstelle takes care to warn his readers about the risks of flame-throwing, eating fuju, etc! I like the philosophy behind the book: a little danger can be good for you, people who take risks in life succeed in life. As the author puts it: "Learning the art of living dangerously ... is an important life skill."
Ignore, then, the isolated review or two that have said that this book talks about making absinthe (that could be dangerous). See some other comments and fuller reviews on Amazon.
Gurstelle concludes his thoughts on absinthe: "A votre santé." To your health too, William!