History of Absinthe

Absinthe, also known as the green fairy, has a romantic history like no other drink (Conrad, 1953). From humble beginnings as a “cure for all” to its height of popularity amidst the Parisian café scene of the late 1800’s, right through to its demise in the early 1900’s. In this essay I will outline the drinks history, from its origins to its spread, illustrate how absinthe was consumed and its taste, its constituents and controversial properties. Absinthe influenced many an almighty mind and had its own place in French Bohemian culture. I will outline its influence and demise, and finish with the small revival of the “Absintheur” in the last ten years.

According to legend the inventor of the drink was Dr. Pierre Ordinaire (Conrad, 1953), whom in 1872 produced the first ever, commercial bottle of Absinthe as a remedy. Claiming the drink was good for dysentery, epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches and worms. A gentleman named Major Dubied saw its potential as an aperitif rather than a herbal tonic and purchased the recipe from two sisters named Henriod beginning production of the recipe as an aperitif (Conrad, 1953). His nephew, Henri-Louis Pernod set up the Pernod Fils Absinthe Company in 1805 and this is where Absinthe began to be produced on a large commercial scale. The company grew from strength to strength and by 1850 was producing 20,000 litres per day (Nelson, 2002).

The popularity of Absinthe spread with French Troops returning from Algeria in 1844 (Baker, 2003) they had taken with them absinthe and mixed it with wine or water as a remedy and boredom killer, also known as Absinthe soup. Returning to France they brought with them a taste for Absinthe and it became a hit in the cafes of Paris. During the reign of Napoleon, Absinthe accounted for 90% of all the aperitifs consumed in France (Crowley, 1994). 5pm became know as l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour and Happy Hour today is a remnant of this.

Absinthe is traditionally consumed by placing a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and trickling water on to the cube letting it dissolve into the Absinthe, typically it is five parts water to one part Absinthe. This causes the green liquor to “Louche” and become opalescent (Crowley, 1994). This became somewhat of a classic ritual for “Absintheurs” and seeing the drink change colour was part of its ritualistic attraction and aesthetic appeal. Some considered it a science rather than an art to drink Absinthe well and while the “Professors of Absinthe” went on to their tenth glass, unshakeable at their post, their pupils rolled under the table (Balesta, 1860). A simple maceration of wormwood without distillation produces a bitter drink but with proper distillation and the infusion of anise, Florence fennel, hyssop, melissa and Roman wormwood it becomes more palatable and is rumoured to be a floral bouquet on the tongue (Baker, 2005). Some recipes call for angelica root, sweet flag, dittany leaves, coriander, veronica, juniper, nutmeg and various mountains herbs as well, all diffusing the bitterness of the wormwood.

Although Absinthe has a high alcohol content about 62% it was believed that the active ingredient in Absinthe is Thujone much like the THC that gives marijuana its kick (Allen, 145). Thujone, the derivative from wormwood is a terpene and related to menthol. High doses are extremely dangerous and can cause convulsions but the amount found in even the strongest Absinthe has a null effect. Recent research has discredited claims from the turn of the century and concluded that Alpha-Thujone and Beta-Thujone are not themselves dangerous (Baker, 2005). However alcohol and Thujone may work against each other and reduce the obvious effects of intoxication allowing the person to drink even more, becoming too drunk to notice that they were drunk for example. Thujone is found in sage, tarragon, vermouth, chartreuse and even Vicks vapour rub none of which has there ever been reports of hallucinations from their use.

Despite this evidence Absinthe was alleged by its users to have mildly hallucinogenic properties, it was the preferred drink of Vincent van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway (Lanier, 1995) and the subject of much of their works. Poets, playwrights and artists all embraced Absinthe as they attempted to romanticize and