New Orleans and the Old Absinthe House

New Orleans has always been the centre of absinthe culture in the United States. On a conspicuous corner of Bourbon and Bienville in the French Quarter stands the famous Old Absinthe House. An antique, square building of plaster and brick, it’s been visited since the late 19th century by many well-known people including Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, William Thackeray, Walt Whitman and Aleister Crowley.

The building was constructed in 1806 by two Spanish importers, Francisco Juncadella and Pedro Font. It continued as a commission house for various foodstuffs until 1820, when it was turned into an épicurie, and then a boot shop. Finally, in 1846, the ground floor corner room became a saloon known as Aleix’s Coffee House, run by Jacinto Aleix and his brother, nephews of the widow of Juncadella. Absinthe was being sold from this building as early as 1826. In 1869, the Aleix brothers hired Cayetano Ferrér, another Catalan, who had been a barkeeper at the French Opera House. In 1874, Cayetano himself leased the place and renamed it The Absinthe Room because of the numerous requests he had for the drink which he served in the Parisian manner.

The building in which the drinking establishment was located was later called The Old Absinthe House. After the doors to the bar were nailed shut by U.S. marshals during the Prohibition, Pierre Casebonne bought the cash register, the paintings on the wall, the old water dripper and the marble topped bar from which absinthes had been served and moved them to what was then called the Old Absinthe House Bar at 400 Bourbon Street. The bar and the fountains were returned to their original home in early 2004. These green marble fountains can still be seen at the Old Absinthe House. Their marble bases are pitted from the water which fell, drop by drop, from the faucets over the many years they served their mission.

The bar of the Old Absinthe House, 1903.

The Old Absinthe House, 1950’s.

There are three antique fountains in the Old Absinthe House – all made of green Carrara marble, and each equipped with 4 brass taps through which cool water is piped.Each of the three fountains is surmounted by a cast brass figurine – in this case, none other than the Emperor Napoleon.

One of the two “Classical” fountains in a circa 1935 drawing, and at left, as it looks today. The limestone base is, famously, deeply pitted by the dripping of the taps over the decades. They were already pitted like this by the early 1900’s. Aleister Crowley wrote in 1917: “Here, too are marble basins hollowed—and hallowed!– by the drippings of the water which creates by baptism the new spirit of absinthe”.

The last of the three fountains, also with a deeply pitted limestone base. From a circa 1935 booklet: “The exquisite Carrara marble fountain fixtures of the bar are mute testimony of the glamour of bygone days. Although in daily use since 1806, they are in a wonderful state of preservation with the exception of the many pit holes that have worn in the marble bases of the two fountains, caused by the constant dripping of water for over a century and a quarter. Originally imported from Europe for the purpose of making frappés, these fountains were the first bar fountains seen in the New World. The faucets regulate the flow of water, drop by drop, into a glass filled with cracked ice…