The Modern Absinthe Revival

Although absinthe continued to be made on a small scale in Spain, its modern revival really has its origins in the collapse of the Iron Curtain, with Czechoslovakia’s 1987 “Velvet Revolution” and the return of the free economy. When Radomill Hill, an entrepreneurial Czech distiller, inherited a small distillery dating from the 1920’s from his father, he decided, to start producing absinthe. Hill claimed that he based his new product on an old family recipe, and that the distillery had produced absinthe prior to the Communist occupation. Hill’s “absinth” was aggressively marketed in the UK in conjunction with the so-called Bohemian absinthe ritual, which involves soaking the sugar cube with absinthe, and then setting it alight, before plunging the caramelised sugar into the glass – a necessity with Hills and many other Czech absinthes, which, since they contain little if any anise, don’t louche. Initially this was claimed – absurdly – as an historically authentic alternative to the traditional French ritual (in reality it arose in Prague during the early 1990’s). It’s unfortunate that this travesty of the true absinthe ritual has been given widespread currency through it’s depiction in popular films such as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge.

It was common practice in the early 20th century for jobbing distilleries to make a wide range of house-brand liqueurs for their local market and for use in cocktails. These were often only crude approximations of the real thing, usually made from purchased essences. So a distillery might have made a curaçao, a crème de menthe, a kirschwasser, a “Chartreuse”, an anisette, a “Grand Marnier” etc. It’s possible that Hills did this, and that some kind of absinthe or absinthe substitute was included in their list. A price list from an Austrian distillery in the 1930’s that includes “absynth” is known, and absinthe substitutes were produced in the US, the UK and in Denmark in the 1950’s.

No serious evidence of extensive pre-1990 Czech absinthe production has however ever been produced – no price lists, catalogues, labels, bottles, posters, invoices, nothing whatsoever. It seems reasonable to assume that if anything like this existed on any sort of scale, it would have turned up by now.

One can say therefore with near certainty that there was no widespread Czech “absinthe tradition” prior to the launch of the Hills product. As to whether absinthe or absinthe-like products once existed there in a relatively minor way, they may well have, it’s hard to prove a negative. Notwithstanding all this, sales of the blue-green Hills “absinth” took off in the early 1990’s , especially in the UK, where an innovative publicity campaign soon made absinthe a must-have drink in trendy nightclubs and bars. Other manufacturers in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere soon followed suite, and today this style of “absinth” is made by many eastern European and German products. While some of these manufacturers present their products honestly, a regrettably high percentage sell their wares on the basis of dubious claims of drug like allure, or supposed aphrodisiac effects.

The commercial success of Hills and its followers did however have an unexpected positive side-effect: that of the tentative rebirth of the French and Swiss absinthe industry. In 1988 the EU adopted a permitted thujone standard of 10mg/l for absinthe, and 35mg/l for bitters (which effectively includes most absinthes as well). This was followed by a general relaxation of other restrictive legislation in both France and Switzerland, and there are now a considerable number of French and Swiss absinthe producers. Unfortunately many of them still produce absinthes of dubious quality – some are a travesty of what true absinthe should be, with almost no traditional herbal and floral character. Recognizably authentic absinthe is however made by a few small French and Swiss firms namely Claude Bugnon, Kübler, Matter-Luginbühl and the old firm of Emile Pernot in Pontarlier.

In 2007 an apparent relaxation of the US absinthe ban came into effect, with the determination that spirits with less than 10ppm of thujone would be regarded as “thujone free”, and that use of the word “absinthe” would once again be permitted. 10ppm is, in effect, a similar level to the EU standard of 10mg/l. A full account of the process leading up to the recent re-legalization in the US can be found at the end of this section. Stringent labelling regulations are enforced, and absinthes with more than 10mg but less than 35mg of thujone, which are legal in the EU, are still not legal in the US.