Betina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch, Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, a Contemporary Guide (Corvus Publishing, 2003)

This book promises a great deal, and delivers most of it. It's designed beautifully from beginning to end — the cover is colored the perfect shade of pale green to match the absinthe in the glass in the photograph under the title. And what a title! It's been a great conversation starter at parties this past holiday season: "I've been reading a book called Absinthe: Sip of Seduction...."

Photographs and art reproductions are plentiful throughout. There's hardly a page without something intriguing to feast your eyes upon. And the layout complements the lavish visual feast. The pages are generous, with just the right balance between visuals, text and white space. Contrasting fonts and text boxes are used judiciously, without being overdone or confusing. The paper is a nice weight, smooth and satiny, supporting the glorious colors of the reproduced posters and paintings without being unpleasantly shiny or chemical-smelling. All in all, this is a luscious book to hold and look at.

The information and tidbits here are equally luscious. Absinthe has had a cloudy, romantic history, and now I know why. Wittels and Hermesch tell about its beginnings as a wormwood tonic created for health benefits. They recount its rise in popularity to its cult status among Victorian poets, artists and megalomaniacs, Aleister Crowley and Rimbaud among them. And finally they discuss its controversial downfall.

I've always known absinthe was illegal, and I've heard the usual vague explanations about its poisonous, madness-inducing qualities. The authors of Absinthe: Sip of Seduction present a far more convincing story, involving the Victorian establishment's misunderstanding of alcoholism and the wine market's fury over absinthe's growing profit share. It's a fascinating look at the way medicine and economics can feed into one another and co-create a popular hysteria.

To round out the picture of this near-mythical libation, Wittels and Hermesch mention modern artists who have taken up the cult of absinthe anew (Johnny Depp, to no one's surprise), and they supply a host of information about where to find absinthe today, where to go to drink it in company, the best modern makers of absinthe, and purveyors of absinthe collectibles, including all the paraphernalia necessary to serve and drink it properly.

My one negative criticism of this book is that it was poorly edited. It's littered with syntactical and other grammatical mistakes that, unfortunately, distract from its content. This is inexcusable on Corvus' part. But I recommend looking past it, if you can, so as not to miss a wonderful piece of folklore.

[Grey Walker]

Wittels and Hermesch offer a wealth of Web resources in the back of the book,
but a good place to start is Wittels' own Web site, All Things Absinthe