There is no other spirit that is surrounded by more myth than absinthe. The name absinthe has its origin in the Latin name of its main ingredient, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium).
Absinthe is a spirit based on the ingredient’s wormwood, anise, fennel and other herbs. It is therefore an herbal beverage with 45 – 85 alcohol percent by volume, which people drink diluted with ice water. The mix-relations are 1: 1 – 1: 5. An absinthe fountain can serve several glasses parallel with ice water.
Absinthe – the Green Fairy
The nickname of absinthe comes from its color and its captivating effect – “Green Fairy”. Like the name of the traditional drinking time: the “Green Hour” between 5 and 7 p.m.
The green color of absinthe derives from the chlorophyll of some herbs. The milky cloudiness is called the Louche effect. It happens due the water-soluble essential oil anethole`s non-dissolution in ice water. This effect is similar to other anise spirits like pastis, raki and ouzo.
History of the absinthe
The original recipe for wormwood-infused wine is documented around 1737 in Val-de-Travers in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. As so often, not everything has been documented, and it is first in 1797 that there is reliable evidence of the acquisition of an absinthe recipe for a Major Dubied by the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire from Switzerland. Together with his son Marcellin and his son-in-law Henri Louis Pernod, Dubied founded an absinthe distillery in Switzerland. Due to the export and the associated customs clearance of the bottlings, Pernod moved the distillery to Pontarlier in France in 1805. At that time, the daily production volume was around 400 liters of Absinthe.
When the Paris government sent troops to Algeria in 1830 to occupy and colonize the North African country, the units were given a lot of absinthe. Absinthe had the advantage that it was inexpensive to produce compared to wine and other spirits. In addition, the herbal beverage acted as medicine against epidemics and fever attacks in the distant land, but should also give the soldiers the necessary courage in combat due to its intoxicating effect. The Algerian war ended in 1847 with France’s conquest, the troops returned home, and news of the miracle cure spread like wildfire. Pernod absinthe became a bestseller. In the now 20 distilleries, production had to be increased to 20,000 liters per day.
The IT Drink of the 19th century
As early as 1860, absinthe had a cult status that people who kept a good eye met between “5pm and 7pm” at the “green hour”, the “heure verte”, to drink absinthe. At the end of the 19th century, absinthe became a drink for workers and bohemians alike.
The popular French writers Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud were absinthe consumers, and the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and the Irishman Oscar Wilde also loved the green spirit.
Absinthe, which was fondly called “la fée verte”, was also popular among painters. They claimed to have seen colors and of course the “green fairy” appeared and inspired many.
Gaugin, van Gogh and Picasso bet on the drink with the supposedly magical and mind-expanding effect. Toulouse-Lautrec is said to have painted most of his works in feverish absinthe haze. However, it was also rumored that van Gogh had mutilated his ear because of an absinthe-induced frenzy.
Apparently not only the bohemians drank more and more absinthe but also the good citizens. After all, sales of the wormwood spirit in 1912 reached 220 million liters in France alone.
The end of absinthe
At the beginning of the 20th century, absinthe was the victim of an extermination campaign by anti-alcoholic associations and the wine industry. These claimed that the thujone contained in absinthe was poisonous and caused “absinthism”.
Even after taxation, absinthe was cheaper than wine because the alcohol could be produced from various raw materials and the transportation and shelf life for high-proof spirits are cheaper than for wine. For the wine producers, this led to falling sales figures for the first time and triggered one of the largest marketing campaigns in the history of alcohol: together with the emerging abstinence movement, the wine producers attacked absinthe drinkers.
According to the latest findings, the symptoms observed at the time were caused by too much and too low-quality alcohol. After much anti-absinthe propaganda, the distillate was banned in many European countries and the USA due to a murder (J. Lanfray, 1905) committed in Switzerland by a man drunk on absinthe. In 1905 the Belgians became the first nation to ban the production and sale of absinthe. The Swiss followed in 1908. Absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, then banned in France in 1915. In Germany, however, absinthe was still allowed to be sold well into the 1920s. In Spain, Portugal and today’s Czech Republic alone, no one thought of an absinthe ban and continued to produce.
The Pernod company circumvented the French ban by initially relocating its production to Spain and then focusing on the production of aniseed schnapps such as pastis.
Revival of absinthe
The Czech distillery, Hill’s Liquere, noticed a prohibition gap in Great Britain and started producing absinthe for the British market in the 1990s. Some lifestyle magazines and filmmakers have now given the absinthe a scandalously dazzling image by assuming a hallucinogenic and erotic effect and caused increasing demand.
Based on new knowledge of the ingredients and an EU regulation, the ban was successfully terminated and there was nothing standing in the way of the rehabilitation and resurrection of absinthe. As the nerve poison thujone can get into the distillate from the wormwood herb, absinthe may contain today by law a maximum of 35 mg / kg thujone.
In the US the brands Kübler and Lucid and their lawyers did most of the work to get absinthe legalized in the U.S., over the 2004-2007 time period. In the U.S., March 5 sometimes is referred to as “National Absinthe Day” as it was the day the 95-year ban on absinthe was finally lifted.
“Did you know?…”
…is a series of articles by White Path Creek Distillery, Ellijay, GA. Please feel free to contact us if you disagree about any historical facts or information. We love to discuss the history of alcohol, our cultural heritage, and our passion for distilling with you!
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