History of Absinthe

Origin of Absinthe

There’s couple of versions of how absinthe came about. Some historians assume that absinthe was found in Couvet, Switzerland in 1792 – not far from French border – where Henriod sisters were making remedies for the common folks. One of those remedies was made by distillation of a tincture based on wormwood and anise and was called «Bon Extrait d’Absinthe». Final remedy also contained chamomile, fennel, speedwell, coriander, hyssop, parsley root, melissa, spinach. Henriod sisters were selling this elixir through the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire that escaped to Switzerland during the French Revolution. Other historians think that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire was the one that came up with the recipe of absinthe. He was prescribing it to his patients as a cough medicine and restorative tonic water.

Later on the French businessman Henri Dubied bought a secret recipe – whether from the Henriod sisters of from the Dr. Ordinaire – and with the help of his friend Henri-Louis Pernod started mass production in 1798. The same year they built first absinthe distillery in Couvet under the name “Dubied Père et Fils”. The sales were rising and in 1805 they had to build another distillery, this time in Pontarlier, France under a new name “Maison Pernod Fils”. Absinthe under this trade mark is still produced in France. Ever since that time absinthe was used as a remedy for all sicknesses.

Spreading of Absinthe

During the French colonial wars in North Africa (1830-1847) popularity of absinthe rapidly rose. French soldiers were given absinthe to disinfect the water and as a prevention of malaria and dysentery and other diseases. It turned out to be very effective and became a part of daily routine in the French army’s life from Madagascar to Indo-China.  At the same time cases of paranoid schizophrenia, called “le cafard”, became more pronounced among the soldiers in the North Africa’s troops. The habit to drink absinthe spread among the French colonists and emigrants as well as among the soldiers. In 1881 absinthe became widely outspread. By that time popularity of absinthe became almost equal to popularity of wine. “New York Times” noted that cases of cirrhosis among French girls in their late teens and early twenties were more common than in any other country and the reason was their habit to drink absinthe. Their passion for absinthe was explained by their uncanny way of drinking it. Girls were drinking absinthe undeluded due to the fact that they were wearing the corsets. Some absinthe lovers claimed that even white wine can be considered as impure in comparison.  The taste of absinthe was characterized as the taste of menthol cigarette.

Soldiers that came back from the war weren’t able to give up the habit to drink absinthe and very quickly it become the everyday habit for French people, especially in Paris. Lunch time in France isn’t just a time when you grab a quick bite with coffee – it is ritual that helps you to forget about your work at least for one hour. It is almost a cult. Every employer and every employee were administrating the same “ceremony” in their favorite places. Lunch for French people always starts with aperitif and no drink could ever compete with absinthe that was “officially” said to improve the digestion.  A glass before lunch, a glass after the work, a glass before dinner to improve the appetite, a glass or two before sleep… Absinthe hasn’t become “just popular” it literally was overflowing cafes and bistros in Paris and gradually took over all of the Europe and in the end it crossed the ocean and won over America.

There were numbers of properties that absinthe allegedly had – it spiked creative activity of Parisian artists, it relived stress and fatigue of the working class, pleasantly refreshed respectable bourgeois in hot summer days, and it even made passionate French more feverish and heated (the latter incidentally has a real ground since all most of the components of absinthe have long been considered a strong aphrodisiac). In the result time between 5 PM to 7 PM in Paris was called “l’heure verte” in French it means “the green time”. At  precisely that time almost secret ritual dedicated to absinthe was going on.

With a time absinthe became “simpler”. In the beginning “old Algerian soldiers and twiddling bourgeois were drinking this shady potion that smelled like a mouth rinse” but around the year 1860 absinthe was descending from the bohemian heights to the level of simple commoners. From the very start absinthe was based on vine spirit and was quite expansive but with appearance of cheaper brands that were based on grain spirit or sometimes even on denatured (industrial) alcohol absinthe became more accessible and harmful. Most of cheaper absinthes weren’t distillated and were especially bitter.

There are few reasons why the working class was “infected” with the bourgeois tradition to drink absinthe: reduction of working hours to 8; pay rise; infection of vineyards by phylloxera in 1870-1880 and as a result price of the wine rose rapidly. Thereafter the price of vine spirit rose as well so the producers of absinthe started using denatured alcohol. This made absinthe cheaper than wine in 7-10 times. The cheapest of them was pure poison and was consumed by workfolk in questionable establishments that sometimes haven’t had even chairs or tables just a bar stand.

Since 1880 absinthe was associated with schizophrenia, suffering and death. It was called “madness in the bottle” (fr. La folie en bouteille). Consumption of the drink was increasing with every year; if in 1874 consumption if absinthe was 700,000 liters per annum then in 1910 it grew to 36,000,000 liters. It was no wonder that more people were opposing absinthe – “If absinthe won’t be banned, our country will quickly become one huge padded cell where one half of French people will be dressed in straitjackets by the other half”.

One more reason for working class to drink absinthe was desire to get closer to high-minded and glorious felling that according to rumors Parisian artists were experiencing. All  of the poets, writers, painters, of that age  were admiring the “green fairy” (fr. “la fée verte”). Oh, that magical state when your muse was there by wave of your finger! Apparently it was the same fairy that to some extent became The Muse of the new age and inspired the great creations that bore the whole series of new forms in poetry and painting. In 1859 Édouard Manet created his famous painting “The Absinthe Drinker” that ensured he had a permanent spot in “The Salon” – place where the most talented painters were trying to be exhibited. In 1876 Edgar Degas embodied the same idea in his work “Absinthe”.  Baudelaire, Verlaine, Zola, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, and Victor Hugo and many others were praising absinthe as well. Those “absinthe lovers” usually started and finished their day with the glass of “green fairy” in one of cafes on Montparnasse. There are facts claiming that Toulouse-Lautrec was not strong enough to endure even slightest separation from the favorite drink and was carrying it with him in a special flask that was custom-made and built in his walking stick. Flask was able to contain half of a liter of absinthe!!!

Among the “wildest” funs of absinthe were Verlaine and Rimbaud… Lovers weren’t in a slightest embarrassed to drink absinthe in the broad daylight while reading poetry to each other. But the madness started at the nightfall! Together Verlaine and Rimbaud frequented brothels where they partook in unbelievable orgies. It wasn’t a rare occurrence to observe half-naked, drunken crowds running wild around Paris, with Verlaine and Rimbaud at the forefront “taking captive” all those they met on their way.

Ah, what were the times! Golden or rather Green Era! It was era of opera, prostitution in high society, unabashed consumerism, massive laughter, and inspiration! Still historians cannot calculate the exact number of French, English, German painters and poets that were “hooked” on companionship of “green fairy”. However, it ended tragically…

Persecution and prohibition

In July 1905 Jean Lanfray, Swiss farmer, while under influence of considerable amount of alcohol and two glasses of absinthe shot his family. The fact that he consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of brandy, two glasses of mint liker and a coffee with a brandy were somehow overlooked or ignored. So the blame was solely placed on two glasses of absinthe that he had that day. This case was on the front pages of almost all major European newspapers and as a result 82,450 people signed petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland. It was satisfied in 1906.

Mass alcoholism among French workers and shortfalls in army due to general deterioration in health of recruits which was associated with frequent consumption of absinthe led to the fact that on August 16, 1914 French government tried to ban absinthe. In March, 1915 with the support of “wine lobbying” not only the sale but production of absinthe was prohibited.

Even earlier in 1912 American senate voted for prohibition of “all the beverages containing thujone”. In 1980 in addition to that law American government ruled to prohibit any soldier to drink absinthe even abroad.

Ultimately absinthe was banned in a lot of countries: Switzerland, USA, France, Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and many others. It became known as a drug.

Since 1930s till the end of 1980s absinthe existed in the shadows (mostly the pre-war absinthe was consumed or the contraband from England). Also substitutes were created: anise-based vodka, vodka macerated on leaves of wormwood, etc.

Revival of Absinthe

Great Britain, or rather Scotland, is considered to be a place where absinthe started its path to rebirth. It was never banned in Scotland but after the persecutions in other countries was never popular there up until 1998 when Czech distillery Hill’s founded in 1920  started to import its product to British market. To a large extent celebrities contributed to the success of this enterprise especially Johnny Depp. While shooting “Fear and Loathing in Las-Vegas” Depp told about his absinthe experience with Hunter S. Thompson during the filming of “Sleepy Hollow” in Britain. Later on the fashion was picked up across the ocean. You could see a lot of celebrities drink absinthe from Eminem to Marilyn Manson.

It is hard to say why despite the awful taste Czech absinthe was so popular. “The only reason you drink this absinthe is to quickly get dunk; only masochist would add water to this absinthe so he could prolong its taste”.  But to actually enjoy absinthe while you drink it slowly it has to be quality absinthe.

Every expert was criticizing Hill’s and a year later with the assistance of French absinthe expert and a founder of Absinthe Museum Marie-Claude Delahaye new brand of absinthe was created under the name “La Fée”. The taste of this brand was huge improvement after the Hill’s.

Producer’s marketing strategy was counting on British “comic” attitude towards “the most dangerous poison”, series of promotions were distinctively “not serious” by characteristic which is not usual for alcohol promotions. It led to creation of a positive image of absinthe – funny and slightly sinister – but absinthe never had so “cheery” reputation.

In 2004 government of Switzerland voted for legalization of absinthe that was banned since 1907. July, 24, 2004 court of Amsterdam declared 1909 law that prohibited absinthe to be invalid by Dutch law. Now manufacturers are bound to follow the European Union restricts concerning thujone content in absinthe.

Maximum thujone levels in the EU are:

  • 0.5 mg/kg in food not prepared with sage and non-alcoholic beverages prepared with Artemisia species.
  • 10 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages not prepared with Artemisia species.
  • 25 mg/kg in food prepared with sage.
  • 35 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages prepared with Artemisia species.