A Brief History of Absinthe
"He raised his glass glimmering pallidly in the light, - his words,
his manner, fascinated me, and a curious thrill ran through my brains. There was something spectral in his expression too, as though the skeleton of the man had become suddenly visible beneath its fleshly covering -as though Death had for a moment peered through the veil of Life..."
-Excerpt from Wormwood: a Drama of Paris
Every bottle in a bar has a story usually pertaining to some shit head pioneer of distillation. Sadly, most of these tales are crafted to sell what lies behind their labels, often a relic of its former self. However, there is real history living in these bottles, revealing a glimpse of a bygone age preserved & immortalized in it’s distilled spirit. Though there are many interesting accounts bolstered on the back bar one story seems to stand a bit stranger than the others. The mention of Absinthe brings with it something a bit more devious than your average bottle of booze. Absinthe’s reputation has stood for over a century and is synonymous with delirium and many historical acts of deviance. These notions lack a certain truth and the reality is that Absinthe’s reputation was manufactured by an industry that feared it’s prominence. The real story is far more interesting..
Structurally Absinthe is represented by three herbs; the holy trinity of wormwood, fennel, and green anise. Though fennel and anise give absinthe it’s notable sting of licorice it’s really wormwood that’s the heart of the spirit. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) not only lends absinthe its name but is also at the center of the spirits notoriety. The consumption of wormwood is first noted around 1500 BC where it is mentioned in the ‘Ebers Papyrus’ one of the earliest medical text of ancient Egypt. Wormwood as a medicinal treatment has been noted across many cultures for its properties as an aphrodisiac and it’s ability to stimulate appetite, digestion, and even creativity. An early precursor to absinthe would come from infusing wormwood into wine to be consumed recreationally as well as medicinally. The Greeks would name their wormwood wine “absinthes oinos”. The French would name theirs “vermouth” (the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood is ‘wermut’). It’s here, infused into wine and consumed for its medicinal value, that wormwood would stay for quite some time. Till the likes of a French physician, sisters of Switzerland, and a father and son entrepreneur would pave the way for what we know as absinthe today.
From Egypt, circa 1500 BC we can take a leap forward in history some 3,000 years to the end of the 18th century in Couvet, Switzerland. The father of modern absinthe Dr. Pierre Ordinaire began producing the spirit as a general cure-all & remedy for what ails you. Like most physicians of the time, Ordinaire would compound his own medicines and his recipe was produced from wormwood, anise, hyssop, melissa herb (a type of mint), coriander, veronica, chamomile, persil, & spinach (likely for color). He dubbed his remedy “Bon Extrait d’Absinthe”. Sometime after his death, Dr. Ordinaire’s recipe was passed to his housekeeper La Mere Henriot. Along with her daughters, La Mere Henriot ran a small absinthe shop in Couvet. The recipe was eventually purchased by Henri Dubied and his son in law Henry-Louis Pernod in 1797. Together they opened the ‘Dubied Father & Son Distillery’ in Couvet, the first Absinthe distillery. The elixir was sold for eight years until in 1805 a second facility ‘The Pernod Distillery’, is opened by Henri Pernod in Pontarlier, France 12 miles from Couvet. From here the stage is set for the absinthe boom of the 19th century.
Throughout the 19th century, absinthe saw a huge rise in consumption, growing to be one of the most popular and recognizable beverages the world over. The largest growth began in the 1840’s as French soldiers serving in Algeria would receive rations of the spirit to treat the spread of malaria. Upon returning home to France these soldiers would bring their taste for wormwood with them. ‘l'heure verte’ (the green hour) would become standard midday practice for much of Europe (see happy hour). As the “Green Hour” grew in popularity many notable artists had a love affair with the drink. Artist from Van Gogh to Hemingway took “The Green Fairy” and ingrained it into the world’s consciousness. In these years Absinthe found a growing international market, and in the 1880’s a shortage of French wine left a void that would further increase its consumption. Absinthe’s popularity spread from Spain to Great Britain, Portugal, Czech Republic, and even the United States, where the “Sazerac” cocktail would cement absinthe’s legacy into the heart of New Orleans. But, all good things must come to an end, and the close of the 19th century would mark the end of the era of wormwood.
The eventual downfall of Absinthe would come near the beginning of the 20th century from a combination of temperance, wine lobbies, and the brutal murder of a Swiss family. For sometime Absinthe had been the target of the temperance movement and had come to be the scapegoat for many deplorable acts of alcoholism. The public perception of absinthe as the root of all social injustice was likely heightened by promotion from wine lobbyist fearing Absinthe’s foothold in the market after the French wine shortage of the 1880’s. The lobbyist would do an effective job and make the case that the wormwood content of Absinthe would cause fits of madness. Though most cases of violence could more honestly be attributed to rampant alcoholism the movement to end “Absinthe Madness” was growing and it was only a matter of time until the bubble would burst. The nail in the coffin is often considered to be the murder of the Lanfray family in 1905. Having started his day with two dilute pours of Absinthe, Jean Lanfray would proceed to consume liters of wine and a few drams of brandy in his evening coffee. Upon returning home Lanfray got into an altercation with his wife and shot her in the head with his rifle. He would move on to execute his two daughters, Rose & Blanche, before, as some accounts state, turning the rifle on himself. His suicide attempt failed as the police found him alive with a bullet lodged in his head. The act was dubbed “The Absinthe Murders” and the notorious scene was greatly used in the movement against absinthe. The bans would begin the same year starting in Belgium in 1905, the Netherlands in 1910, the U.S. in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. Though Absinthe producers would find clever ways to keep their spirit alive Absinthe would never again rise to the social significance it once held.
In its wake, Absinthe would give rise to a bevy of anise-flavored spirits the world over. Pastis, anisette, herbsaint, ouzo, arak, aguardiente would rise to popularity in their respective countries claiming the void left by Absinthe. The influence spreads further and the world's affection for anise can be seen in many regionally spiced spirits including Becherovka, Chartreuse, Galliano, and even Jagermeister. For the better part of one hundred years, Absinthe’s legacy lived in these spirits and with the more seasoned enthusiast. This stayed true until the 1990’s when Absinthe’s resurgence began in England where the spirit began to be imported. Moving across the world in a fashion similar to its ban the production and consumption of Absinthe would grow through the years. In 2005 the bans were lifted in Belgium and in Absinthes home of Switzerland. In 2007 Lucid became the first legally imported Absinthe in the United States and later that same year the St. George Distillery would produce the first legal U.S. Absinthe since the ban. Absinthe would again find itself a staple of bars the world over, this time lacking the social impact it once held.
There’s a remarkable lesson in the history of Absinthe one that paints a shockingly vivid picture of it era. When I imagine Absinthe in its heyday I find it astounding that a drink of such strength and polarizing intensity could capture the world’s favor. In a modern context, Absinthe is often dulled out in dashes and bar spoons to accent more favorable base spirits. It says a lot about how very much the modern palate has changed in the century since Absinthe’s prominence. The next time you find yourself enjoying Absinthe in any form contemplate that what you're enjoying was once as synonymous as Coca-Cola and as notorious as cocaine. I know that my brief foray into the story of Absinthe has unearthed a few simple truths regarding that nature of distillation. From here I think the only logical step is to move away from the bar and toward the still and see if I can make a small contribution to legacy of wormwood myself.
“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives... and to the "good life", whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”
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