Hemingway and Absinthe

Extrait d’Absinthe E.Albadó, Habana. Circa 1930
The first bottle ever discovered of vintage Cuban absinthe. Pre-Castro Cuba had a considerable history of absinthe production – Hemingway drank it there, and used to stock up on his frequent marlin-fishing trips to the island, where he later bought a house. This bottle, produced by the Aldabó Distillery (also known as a rum and curaçao producer) appears to be a good quality, naturally coloured absinthe, and likely dates from the mid 1930’s.

The American writer Ernest Hemingway was a heavy drinker, and a passionate lover of absinthe, which he continued drinking in Spain and Cuba, long after it was banned in France. The most notable mention of absinthe is in his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. The hero is Robert Jordan, an American guerrilla leader on a mission to blow up a strategic bridge, and one of his few comforts is absinthe, the ‘liquid alchemy’ which irresistibly recalls the better life he had known in Paris. Holed up in a cave, he shares a canteen filled with absinthe purchased in Madrid with a gypsy companion:

“It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. One cap of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ille de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.”

When Hemingway lived in Florida in the 1930’s, he was still able to obtain absinthe from nearby Cuba, where he often went marlin fishing and where he later acquired a house. In a 1931 letter he writes:

“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”

No doubt Hemingway enjoyed the humorous transposition here of woodworm and wormwood, although whether the long suffering Mrs. Hemingway was equally amused at having knives thrown at her furniture, is not recorded….