Sugar and the Absinthe Ritual

Sugar Cube

Dacice sugar cube

Pernod Fils, and other leading manufacturers, actively promoted the sugar ritual (while also of course saying that their absinthe could – not should, but could – be drunk sans sucre). There is much more evidence of absinthe in the Belle Époque being drunk with sugar, than without – and generally a generous dose of sugar, often two or even three cubes as you’ll see in some of the contemporary photographs on the following pages (it’s been suggested that late 19th century sugar, being less highly refined than the modern equivalent, was also less sweet). Cusenier, producer of the only absinthe more expensive than Pernod, showed it being drunk with sugar in all their promotional material.


Jakub Rad – the inventor of the sugar cube.

The modern idea expressed sometimes amongst some US absintheurs, that sugar “masks” flavours is incorrect. It’s really more about individual preferences, and also about the characteristics of an individual absinthe. Generally sugar binds together otherwise disparate flavour elements and smooths out the drink, and it’s primarily for this reason that absinthe was historically usually drunk with sugar (rather than to counteract bitterness, which on the evidence of dozens of vintage absinthes often isn’t even there). Absinthe with sugar added tastes rounder, and more unified – particularly so if it contains certain herbs.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that most absinthes, including all the finest brands, were either drunk with sugar, or with one of the myriad other sweeteners such as anisette and orgeat (French almond syrup) popular at the time.

absinthe-drinkOf course the classic absinthe ritual with perforated spoon and sugar cube only dates from the 1880s, when cubed sugar first became widely available. Prior to that, absinthe was likely sweetened with sugar syrup. The sugar cube itself was invented in 1841 in Dacice, South Bohemia by the director of a Czech sugar beet factory, Jakub Rad, after his wife had cut her hand badly trying to slice into a large loaf of raw sugar. He pondered the problem and several months after the incident he presented her with a gift-wrapped package which contained 350 red and white sugar cubes. The town has a plaque and a large sugar cube made of granite in his memory. Rad’s invention seems not to have been widely commercialized outside the region, and it wasn’t until the German industrialist Eugen Langen patented an efficient method of producing sugar in cube form in the 1870s, that its use became widespread in Europe. Henry Tate bought the rights from Eugen Langen and introduced the Langen cube process to the UK, and its use throughout France and Switzerland followed shortly thereafter.

Naturally sugar use is a matter of taste and personal preference, and today we have a less sweet tooth in some respects than was the case a century ago. But sugar is a time honoured and traditional addition to absinthes of the highest quality, and it’s certainly worth trying any new absinthe both sans sucre and with the addition of a sugar cube, in order to fully appreciate its taste and potential.

A popular vogue in the late 19th century were numbered series of satirical or humorous cards, which were usually sent over the course of a few days to the same addressee. Several featured absinthe drinking, as these 1909 cards show.

L’Homme distrait
This 6 card series is particularly interesting, as the spoon shown is a rare example of the Les Cuillères Longues pattern.

The art of making an absinthe:

Two sugar tablets (or perhaps one very large one.
The card dates from 1906.

La Buveuse d’Absinthe.

Two large sugar tablets for one small glass of absinthe – the lady had a sweet tooth!

Le Pêle-Mêle 1911.

Pour la fair il faut mainte peine C’est plus malin qu’on ne le croit, L’absinthe est une souveraine Qu’il faut traiter comme il se doit.