The Aftermath of Prohibition

The period immediately after the ban were characterised by the beginnings of clandestine distillation (and increasing nostalgia for the Green Fairy), while the authorities sought to strengthen the ban by prohibiting not just absinthe, but all similar and related alcoholic products as well.

Absinthe and Gunpowder

Several different schemes were put in place to compensate the absinthe distilleries both for the revenues lost due to the ban, and for their existing stocks of absinthe. One of the most interesting was the purchase, re-distillation and re-use of absinthe to make the gunpowder for shells.

A letter dated February 1916 sent by the Magnou Distillery to erstwhile absinthe producers, informing them that they could sell their reserves of now illegal absinthe to the distillery, which was authorized to pay them a fair price for a product they could no longer sell directly. The letter goes on to explain that the distillery would redistill (rectify) the absinthe into pure alcohol (named Bon Gout), which would then be sold on to the French Ministry of War, to be used in the manufacture of gunpowder. The letter stipulates that the absinthe could only be delivered in barrels or demi-johns (and not in regular bottles) and that the purchase price would be 8% over cost.

From the Washington Post, 3rd October 1915.United Press and Reuters picked up on the “absinthe to gunpowder” story, and it was widely reported in the US.

From the Clearfield Progress, 4th November 1915.

Eulogy For The Very Precious Liquor Absinthe

Ernest Tisserand’s 1922 “Éloge de la très précieuse liqueur d’Absinthe”, an elegiac memoir of the absinthe era that contains one of the very few contemporary references to the use of an absinthe fountain, and the first reference to home-distilled absinthe in the post-ban period.

I have drunk it, youngsters, and possibly at the time when you were still at your mother’s breast. And if I write that I have drunk it, don’t presume it was only to taste a few drops at the bottom of a glass of sweetened water, such as you may have done by paying dearly in a clandestine back-bar. I am of a generation that drank, in public, the delectable liquor and not its counterfeits, on the terraces of the cafes, whenever the urge took us. I am of a generation that remembers. And when they ordered us not to drink it anymore, I made sure that in my canteen there could be found more bottles than handkerchiefs or bandages. Thus armed, so sweet proved the war to me that, closing my eyes, I see the face of a childhood friend.

the unforgettable potion. Do not imagine that he fetched me after college to seat me before a purée similar to his. Mr. Eugene Manuel resembles the moon in this respect, amongst others – that I never laid eyes on him. But I heard a lot about him. And he even harangued me by means of our Selected Pieces . I am of a generation that learned by heart The Worker of Old and the Worker of Today, that rhyming dialogue, which called the Divine the “vert-de-gris coloured poison”, that masterpiece that strove to disgust youngsters with poetry and our own dear beverage all at the same time.

But instead, it made us love them both, oh moralists, you silly, mean people. Yes, you dirty dogs, we strove to remain like the worker of old, who slowly, passionately, detailed and cherished his work, and the more the beneficial elixir made his hand tremble, the more ornate with arabesques his work would be, that’s the paradox.

Cousin Flavie never drank absinthe. Her vice was the glory she craved, as a neglected old maid from the edge of her village. Grand cocotte? Liberator of the territories? Holy recluse? She hesitated for ten years. I advised her to generously drink the liquor that foments inspiration and immortality. But she preferred to send her photograph to White Pills, swearing that she owed her life to them. Faded laurels, dusty crown! Alas, all that remains of that day of triumph is a yellowed issue of The Petit Parisien, under a pile of dust cloths, in the cupboard of Flavie, the cousin the century forgot.

My brother Alcide never drank absinthe and his wife never had a lover. And therefore they are growing old together like two bells without clappers, like two empty boxes up in an attic, like two brown walnuts in the basket of a dead Negresse, like two crab claws on the side of a dune, like two pieces of bottle glass on the dung heap. I had warned them beforehand.

But uncle Noël could not stop drinking it. Oh how noble it appeared to my childish admiration when he returned for dinner as the salad was served, indifferent to the violent scenes and mute reproaches alike, and with his kiss brushed from his moustache onto my cheeks that incomparable perfume! His wife is dead now – I saw her buried – and absinthe is prohibited. But uncle Noël advances in a green old age with memories many and variegated. He knows. He evokes. is ambiguous. And when it sounds 6 o’clock in the afternoon, he grows distant, mocking, as happy as someone who drinks: the absinthe intoxicates from twenty years ago.

On the quay behind the cotton market, the bar opened for the nine o’clock snack. Soaked in the rain, the narrow
file of dock workers continually moved up, like a gutter full of ink. In the middle of the shop, the tin counter, a long rectangle with rounded corners. Two yellow gas lamps, and two doors. By the right-hand one, they entered. On the narrow side of the counter, near the entry, a ragged waiter never stopped pushing the small goblets wherein, heavy, the greenish yellow liquor swayed without a ripple. The customer threw down four cents, took his glass and presented it, at the second side of the counter, under the drip of eight small spigots. Then he turned around the bar while sniffing the hallowed substance, and treading with small steps, drank with small sips, then deposited the glass at the end of the fourth side of the counter, to leave by the door on the left. All passed there, a procession of five or ten thousand men, for the mominette that made the rain less cold, the bales less heavy and the despair of the heart without desires less cruel.

I know it, myself, who one day joined their rank and drank in their style, carrying bales of sorrow just as heavy, the rain of sorrow streaming down my spine, such that I no longer managed to even wish for death. I know it, because at the bottom of this heart where the light had gone out, two rounds at the bar at least lit yellow gas lamps that whistled in the anise-scented air.

Fairy with sea green eyes and plum-colored coat, hair dressed with opals and emerald rings your jealous sisters managed to have your banishment secured by villains, but none shall ever rise to your noble green throne, its velvet still preserving for our devotion the impression of the cheeks of your soft buttocks.

And why, aided by the cruel days holding us in chains , why dared they drive you out, these sacrilegious? Didn’t they know which ageless grandeur after all made you revered, and that fervent partisans die not for a queen in exile? Did they not see that you shaped the poets, the grand voyagers, the medical arts and the alchemy alike? Fools!

Wormwood perfumed the Hippocras Cardinal and the Hippocras with Beaune wine. “And sweetened wormwood elixir which inebriates with jubilation”, taught Tintetienne. And the storyteller marred the poet’s rhyme when he gave the name “wine” to this marvellous drink which Ulysses, after receiving it from Maron, son of Evanthès and high priest of Apollo, used to intoxicate Polyphemus, who believed it the mother-drop of nectar and ambrosia of the gods alike, and which, mixed with water twenty times, still scented the house with a celestial odour (Odyssey Song IX). That was absinthe, the exorable and succulent liquor of distilled wormwood, or something much like it, according to the secret received by the school of Pontarlier from the erudite lips of Rabbi Na-Dura, who in turn got it from a shepherd of Apiranthos.

There are no sweeter names than those borne by the plants from which this mild liquor is distilled. And I don’t know in all the world of plants more vivid and more proud. They are the very flower of the spirited hyssop, the fennel that scents the mullet grilled for kings, the melissa that restores colour to swooning women, the anise that makes food resound, the angelica embedded like sticks of joy in children’s gingerbread, the star anise nurtured by mandarins like the Dutch tend their tulips, the coriander that bleaches the saliva, the mint that drives love, the oregano that makes the eyes of maidens shine, and it is the wormwood finally, the grande wormwood and the petite, chaste ornament of the mountains and seashores , daughter of the pure high winds, wheat of virgin spaces, emblem of untamed freedom.

Translation in collaboration with Artemis and Peter and Sabine Schaf.

And drunk it I have, youngsters. And neither do I fail to drink it still. Not that I acquire evil essences from the pharmacist to mix up some cloudy cat piss. No, I have small crystalline spheres, a coal furnace, little boilers, lute of almonds and light coils. The sacred recipe is given to us by many common pamphlets and my curiosity to distill often enriches my stash by a few meager pints that, with God’s help, I make each time closer to the ideal.
In my cellar, emptied of wood, wine and coal, small flasks stopped with wax and sealed with silver are aging. And when the down on your cheeks turns to stubble, I will invite the most discerning among you to taste the exquisite flower of my wise work.

A post-ban broadsheet by the Ligue National Contre l’Alcoholisme attacking the absinthe substitutes, or “Camouflages,” introduced in the 1920’s and 30’s, including Boulanger’s Cressonnée and Hemard’s Amourette.