What is absinthe?
Absinthe – this spirit has provoked a great deal of interest, as well as criticism, in the past 200 years. Wormwood, which used to be considered a medical plant, is the most essential herbal ingredient of absinthe. This is why this liqueur was believed to cure and prevent diseases, and eventually became so popular, that it went from being just a fashionable drink, to the national drink of France. All this happened before absinthe was banned and finally prohibited – until its revival in France and the rest of Europe only a couple of years ago.
Why was absinthe banned?
At the end of the nineteenth century, the society began to really enjoy absinthe, and so its demand increased rapidly. Absinthe was slowly made the symbol of alcoholism and made responsible for crime, violence, alienation, and social collapse.
The anti-alcohol lobby chose absinthe as their main target. They joined forces with the wine growers, at the time very powerful, and who were seeing their sales suffer through the popularity of absinthe.
This is why in 1914, absinthe was declared illegal for the following reasons:
• to put the vine growers at ease and to foster the traditional industry • to control the consumption of alcohol, especially of French soldiers in order to stay competitive during war • to put a stop to illegal trade and to avoid tax losses
Is absinthe legal in my country?
Most likely, yes!
If you are of legal drinking age in the country of your residence, and if alcohol isn't illegal in your country, the chances that absinthe is legal in your country are very high. All throughout Europe and the US, Canada, Australia, and most parts of Asia, you can find and buy absinthe nowadays.
Its sale however is subject to legal restrictions:
• The thujone level must be no higher than 35mg (USA: 10mg)per litre. This is a wise European measure as it allows for the production of absinthes similar to those of the nineteenth century which contained on average 6mg of thujone per litre. Having said that, with a level as high as it's allowed today, you would have to drink at least 5 litres at once, to start feeling any effects of thujone. But to be honest, you'd probably already passed out long before being able to drink that much. • The fenchone level must be no higher than 5mg per litre, and the pinocanphone level, no higher than 20 mg per litre. This limit is only applicable in France.
How is absinthe made?
There are three different ways to make absinthe:
• Through distillation of aromatic plants, which are first macerated in alcohol • By mixing herbal essences with alcohol • By macerating aromatic plants in alcohol
Absinthe that is obtained through distillation are those of the best quality: This procedure creates a product that benefits from all aromatic aspects of the herbs used, as well as bad tasting bitter essences are excluded.
Some distillers prefer to macerate and distill each herb separately.
Why does absinthe turn cloudy when I add water?One of the herbs used to make Absinthe is anise, which contains an essential oil: anethole. Anethole completely dissolves in alcohol, but not in water. So, when you add water to your absinthe, the alcohol level decreases, and the anethole precipitates. This is what we experience as the explosive reaction of absinthe turning cloudy, when water is added.
Is there a 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, and Czechoslovakia’s 1987 “Velvet Revolution”.
Radomill Hill, an entrepreneurial Czech distiller, having inherited from his father a small distillery dating from the 1920’s, decided, with the return of a free market economy, to start producing absinthe. Hill claimed that he based his new product on an old family recipe, and that the distillery 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 curacao, a creme 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.
But no serious evidence of extensive pre-1990 Czech absinthe production has ever been produced - no pricelists, 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.
So one can say 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 had though an unexpected positive side-effect: 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 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 produce absinthes of dubious quality - some are a travesty of what true absinthe should be, with almost no traditional herbal and floral character.
Fortunately, authentic and traditional absinthe, cousin with the ones from the Belle Epoque, can now be found, especially in the family distillery "Les Fils d'Emile Pernot" near Pontarlier who produces the very famous Un Emile 68 or even the complex and subtle 1797 Roquette.
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. 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.
How did absinthe influence artists like Degas, Manet, van Gogh and Picasso, and writers like Verlaine, Rimbaud, Wilde and Hemingway?
Absinthe – because of its beautiful and ever-changing green colour, its air of danger and seduction, and above all because of its allegedly psychoactive properties - was romanticized and captured in artwork and writings by countless artists, playwrights and authors. The surrealist Alfred Jarry, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Picasso, Hemingway and many others all featured it prominently in their works. All these artists were celebrated not just for their work, but also for their often outrageously bohemian lifestyles. Some even went mad, or at least behaved as if they were (facts that would later be used by prohibitionists as proof of absinthe's evils).
Degas' groundbreaking L'Absinthe (1876) pictures two forlorn-looking café patrons staring out beyond their milky-green drinks. Although the people pictured were merely actors, this painting later roused intense comment for its unprecedented gritty realism. Edouard Manet, took this even further by daring to paint an actual drunkard with absinthe, titled The Absinthe Drinker (1859).
Perhaps the most famous of all absinthe drinkers was Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh painted many of his works in ochres and pale greens, which are the colours of absinthe. Many of these paintings also depict the bar in which Van Gogh drank absinthe, and himself with glasses of the apéritif. It's widely, but almost certainly incorrectly believed, that Van Gogh went mad from absinthe poisoning. As is often the case, the truth is more complex.
Van Gogh was throughout his life an outcast and a depressive who suffered from epileptic fits and bouts of psychotic attacks. He also drank a lot of absinthe while living in Arles with Paul Gauguin, and was prone to deeply eccentric behaviour – such as painting outside at night with candles hooked to his hat. He was sent to a sanitorium in 1888 after he was forced out by a petition from people in his town who were frightened by his bizarre ways. He never acted violently, excepting when he sliced off his own ear during a psychotic fit.
Van Gogh certainly drank excessive amounts of absinthe, and he did suffer from mental deterioration - however, the one does not necessarily follow the other. Van Gogh's family had a history of mental illness, and van Gogh not only drank absinthe, but also turpentine on several occasions (it's interesting to note that thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood, is a terpene). He committed suicide in 1890, clearly deeply disturbed over and above the consequences of his absinthe drinking.
The great French poet Paul Verlaine was another notorious absintheur. His family life was less than ordinary: Verlaine's mother kept the foetuses of her three earlier, miscarried pregnancies preserved in jars in the pantry. Verlaine attacked his mother and then destroyed Verlaine began drinking as a teenager, and was already an alcoholic before he found absinthe. His disastrous on-again, off-again relationship with Rimbaud aggravated both his alcoholism and his mental instability, and culminated in a 5 year prison sentence for attempted murder. In prison he had sworn off absinthe, and for several years after his release drank only beer and worked steadily at his poetry. But by the 1890's he was drinking heavily again, and had become a well-known and pathetic figure in the Latin Quarter, sitting in a corner at the Cafe Francois Ier on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or at La Procope, nursing absinthe after absinthe.
Verlaine's last years were spent in and out of hospitals and institutions, were he was treated for amongst other things cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia, rheumatism, gonorrhea and syphilis. During his last illness the hospital nurses would overlook the small bottles of absinthe his friends tucked under his pillow; they knew he was too far gone now for such small pleasures to make any difference. Verlaine died in 1896, drinking to the end, although he had bitterly repented of his absinthe addiction in his Confessions, published the previous year : "...later on I shall have to relate many [...] absurdities which I owe to my abuse of this horrible drink: this drink, this abuse itself, the source of folly and crime, of idiocy and shame, which governments should tax heavily if they do not suppress it altogether: Absinthe!"
Absinthe also features very prominently in the early works of Pablo Picasso. One of the most important works of his so called Blue Period is Woman Drinking Absinthe. Painted in 1901, it shows a woman dressed in blue and with elongated hands and fingers, sitting at a corner table in a café, with a glass of absinthe before her. Later, Picasso’s earliest cubist works were inspired by absinthe – one, Bottle of Pernod and Glass, painted in 1912, was directly based on a ubiquitous Pernod publicity poster of the era, designed by Charles Maire, showing a bottle of absinthe, a glass, and a folded newspaper.
Perhaps Picasso’s greatest absinthe masterpiece – and the last one, because the drink was banned the following year - is his cubist sculpture 'Absinthe Glass' of 1914, a painted bronze in an edition of six, all of which were painted differently. The sculpture has a stable, glass like base, but an opened out, sliced up body. On top rests a real absinthe spoon and a painted bronze sugar cube.
Although not an alcoholic (at least till the last year of his life), the great poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, was a heavy absinthe drinker during the time he lived in France. He once famously said :
“Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
Wilde also described the effect of absinthe as follows :
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things. One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and began to pile the chairs on the tables. ‘Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor. ’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must go now, Sir.’ ‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer. ‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again. ‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt - the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
The American writer Ernest Hemingway was a heavy drinker, and a passionate lover of absinthe, which he continued drinking in Spain and Cuba, long after it was banned in France. The most notable mention of absinthe is in his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. The hero is Robert Jordan, an American guerrilla leader on a mission to blow up a bridge, and one of his few comforts is absinthe, the ‘liquid alchemy’ which can replace everything else, and which irresistibly recalls the better life he had known in Paris. Holed up in a cave, he shares a canteen filled with absinthe purchased in Madrid with a gypsy companion :
"It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. One cap of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ille de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.”
When Hemingway lived in Florida in the 1930’s, he was still able to obtain absinthe from nearby Cuba, where he often went marlin fishing and later acquired a house. In a 1931 letter he writes :
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”
No doubt Hemingway enjoyed the humorous transposition here of woodworm and wormwood, although whether the long suffering Mrs Hemingway was equally amused at having knives thrown at her furniture, is not recorded….
What is the history of absinthe ? Who invented it ?
Banned for almost a century until its recent revival, absinthe is something of a “living fossil”, a coelacanth amongst drinks, able to magically transport us back to the glittering world of Paris and the Belle Epoque, a world of bohemian musicians and writers, of the Moulin Rouge and the cafes of Montmartre, a world of starving struggling artists and glittering courtesans.
But the origins of the drink lie far from the bright lights of Paris – absinthe was first produced near Couvet in Switzerland, and nearby Pontarlier in the Doubs region of France. This largely forgotten part of rural France, nestled in the wooded foothills of the Jura mountains, is still regarded as the true home of absinthe.
Legend has it, that the inventor of the drink was Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who in 1792, shortly after the French revolution, travelled around the Val de Travers on his faithfull horse Roquette, and produced the first commercial absinthe, initially as an all-purpose remedy or cure-all. It was nicknamed "La Fée Verte" - "The Green Fairy" - and this name stuck throughout absinthe's heyday. It was recommended for the treatment of epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches and worms. Dr. Ordinaire's invention aroused the interest of a gentleman named Major Dubied, who saw its possibilities not just as a patent medicine, but as an aperitif. Dubied purchased what was reputed to be Ordinaire’s original formula from two sisters called Henriod at the beginning of the 19th century and began large scale production.
It's likely that this traditional story is considerably embellished - the manufacture of absinthe-like drinks in the Neuchatel region is recorded from the 1750's or even earlier, and the two Henriod sisters were making the drink even before Dr Ordinaire's arrival in the Val de Travers. Most probably Dr Ordinaire was simply a doctor who did much to promote the use of absinthe as a herbal tonic and folk remedy in the region.
By 1805, the Pernod Fils absinthe company was set up in Pontarlier in the Doubs region, run by Dubied's son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. Initially there were just two stills producing only 16 litres of absinthe per day. Shortly afterwards the elder Dubied and his son split from Pernod to return to their own firm, which was later passed down to a cousin named Fritz Duval.
Pernod Fils went from strength to strength. Henri-Louis's dynamic younger son Louis purchased 36 000 square meters of land on the outskirts of Pontarlier alongside the Doubs River, and built a factory with a daily production exceeding 400 litres. By 1850, when Louis died, the factory had 26 stills producing 20 000 liters a day. Louis's sons Fritz and Louis-Alfred took over the reins, and assisted by financing from the Veil-Picard banking family (and also by a brilliant Swiss engineer Arthur Borel, a close associate of the Pernod's for 3 generations, who designed most of the factories innovative distilling, bottling and packaging equipment) continued to expand.
Pernod Fils went on to become one of the largest and most successful companies in France, and was a pioneer in the humane and enlightened treatment of its mostly female workers. As early as 1873 a profit-sharing and pension scheme was introduced, and the company at its own expense insured its workers against accidents, gave them unemployment compensation and provided medical benefits.
The popularity of absinthe spread further as it was used as a fever preventative by French troops fighting in Algeria from 1844 to 1847. Mixed with wine or water - jokingly referred to as "absinthe soup" - it was believed to kill germs and fend off dysentry (no doubt, this high alcohol combination also helped to relieve the boredom of barracks life). When the troops of the Bataillon d'Afrique returned to France, they brought with them their taste for the refreshingly bitter drink, and absinthe became a hit in bars and bistros all over France.
The reign of Napoleon III - from 1852 to his downfall with the Prussian invasion in 1870 - was something of a golden age for absinthe. Still relatively expensive, it was primarily a drink of the fashionable bourgeoisie. It was supposed to sharpen the appetite for dinner, and in the early evening, the smell of absinthe wafted over the Parisian boulevards. By the 1870s, it had become common practice to begin a meal with an aperitif, and of 1500 available liqueurs, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk.
Licensing laws were relaxed during the 1860's, which resulted in a proliferation of new cabarets and cafés - more than 30,000 existed in Paris by 1869, and 5 p.m. signified l'Heure Verte - the Green Hour - in almost every one. The cafés were an extremely popular place to socialize, since most of Paris' citizens were living in cramped apartments, often in squalor and poverty.
Nowhere was this cafe culture more vibrant than in the Parisian district of Montmartre, already by the mid 19th century the favourite haunt of the bohemian literary and artistic set. Amongst the best known establishments were the Brasserie des Martyrs, a particular favourite of Baudelaire, the Cafe du Rat Mort, popular with writers by day and a lesbian hangout at night, and most famous of all, the Chat Noir, founded in 1881 by Theodore Salis, an unsuccessful painter. Erik Satie played the piano here and Alfred Jarry was a regular, as was the remarkable poet and inventor Charles Cross, who reputedly drank 20 absinthes a night.
In 1860, a young Parisian author, Henri Balesta, wrote "Absinthe et Absintheurs", the first book to record the social context of heavy absinthe drinking. He describes a typical cafe scene :
"In the morning, at lunchtime, the habitués invaded the bistrot. The professors of absinthe were already at their station, yes, the teachers of absinthe, for it is a science, or rather an art to drink absinthe properly, and certainly to drink it in quantity. They put themselves on the trail of the novice drinkers, teaching them to raise their elbow high and frequently, to water their absinthe artistically, and when, after the tenth little glass, the pupil rolled under the table, the master went on to another, always drinking, always holding forth, always steady and unshakeable at his post."
Absinthe hit its peak during the years from 1880-1910, when it fell dramatically in price, becoming accessible to all parts of society and businessmen and politicians, artists, musicians, ordinary working-men. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 litres of absinthe, but by 1910, the figure had exploded to 36,000,000 litres of absinthe per year. It was a quintessential part of Belle Epoque French society.
Riding the crest of this wave the Pernod company boomed, continually expanding production. By 1896 production was up to 125 000 liters per day.A devastating fire in August 1901 destroyed much of the factory (and resulted in millions of liters of absinthe being discharged into the Doubs River, which turned cloudy with anise for miles downstream), but the shrewd Pernod's collected almost 4 million francs in insurance payouts and rebuilt the plant with fireproofing and the very latest technical machinery.
So successful did Pernod Fils become that it spawned a host of copycat brands – there was an Edouard Pernod, a Gempp Pernod, a Legler Pernod, Jules Pernod, Jules Pernot, Perrenod et Cie, Emile Pernot, Pierrot, Père Noë and many similar. The constant legal battles that Pernod Fils waged to protect its name laid the foundation for some of modern French copyright law.
A particularly cheeky brand was called “La Meme”, which means “the same” in French :
...waiter! another absinthe!
OUI! the same! (but maybe NOT the same one he was drinking.…)
Pernod Fils (and some of its larger competitiors such as Berger and Edouard Pernod) exported worldwide. The French colonies - especially Algeria, Vietnam, Madagascar and Tahiti - were all significant markets, as were South American countries like Argentina and Chile. Naturally, absinthe soon found its way to the "Little Paris" of North America, New Orleans, where it quickly became extremely popular, particularly as an ingredient in cocktails such as the Absinthe Frappé. The “Old Absinthe House”, with its beautiful and timeworn green marble absinthe fountain, is one of New Orlean’s most famous sights. Aleister Crowley, the mystical writer and occult magician wrote his famous and often quoted tract "Absinthe - The Green Goddess" in the Old Absinthe House in 1916 while waiting for a woman friend. It was first published two years later in the socialist journal "The International". After the end of prohibition, the New Orleans-based Legendre Company launched "Herbsaint", an absinthe-like pastis, which is still made today.
Why was absinthe banned ? What was absinthism ? Who was Dr Valentin Magnan ?
Absinthe was originally fairly expensive, and largely a drink of the upper-middle classes. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century it had fallen dramatically in price, both because of increasing economies of scale in its production, and because most producers had switched from grape alcohol to far cheaper grain and beet alcohols. At the same time the number of brands exploded, with many catering for the very cheapest end of the market.
Absinthe became increasingly popular amongst all classes of French society, and began to displace wine as the standard drink of the French working class. During this period the French wine industry was struggling with the crippling effects of both oidium (a kind of mildew) and phyloxera (an incurable aphid infestation deadly to vines). Almost all the French national vineyard had to be replanted, a process that took decades and resulted in a prolonged shortage of wine, and a consequent rise in wine prices.
Increasingly, absinthe was the affordable, and far more alcoholic, alternative to wine. This was both a major reason for its enormous popularity, and ultimately the root cause of its downfall. When the wine industry began to recover in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the politically well-connected grape growers, seeking to recover the market share they had lost, began to agitate for the prohibition of what they termed “unnatural” products like absinthe.
In the 1860's, there was for the first time concern about the results of chronic abuse of absinthe. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was first described in a series of influential papers by Dr Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan wrote :
"In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becaomes purplish, swollen, the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn't remember one thing that has happened."
Magnan's research was fundamentally flawed. His experiments involved exposing small animals to large quantities of pure wormwood essence, rather than to commercially produced absinthe, which contains only a relatively small percentage of actual essence. (In French, crucially, the same word, absinthe, is used for both the essence and the drink, which meant that extracts from Magnan's and other scientists works could be quoted directly by anti-absinthe prohibitionists in order to demonize the drink).
A skeptical English scientist writing in The Lancet, in 1869, described how :
"the question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by Monsieurs Magnan and Bouchereau in France."
The experiments placed animals such as guinea pigs in tightly sealed glass jars, some with a saucer of pure wormwood essence, others with one of alcohol. The animals which inhaled wormwood vapours experienced "epileptiform convulsions", those exposed only to alcohol fumes merely became lively and drunk. The Lancet's anonymous correspondent continued :
"Upon these facts it is sought to establish the conclusion that the effects of excessive absinthe drinking are seriously different from those of ordinary alcoholic intemperance. It is not the first time that we have had to notice discussions on this subject, and to comment upon the inadequacy of the evidence produced in order to prove that absinthism, as met with in the Parisian world, is something different in its nature from chronic alcoholism. We have never denied the possibility of an ultimate discovery of such differences, but we do maintain that as yet no symptoms of absinthism have been described which are not to be met with in many of the victims of simple alcoholic excess."
He went on to remark that the insomnia, trembling, hallucinations, paralysis and convulsions identified by Magnan as typical of absinthism were all equally well known symptoms frequently met with in English alcoholics. He correctly pointed out that the fact that concentrated fumes of wormwood were peculiarly toxic was evidence of little, as wormwood is present in only small proportions in absinthe, and no absinthe drinker drinks, or inhales, concentrated wormwood.
Magnan, undeterred by this criticism, continued his researches on the same lines. He made much of the undeniably true observation that many of the most desperate alcoholics encountered in Parisian hospitals were habitual absinthe drinkers. He attributed their degeneration specifically to the absinthe they were drinking, rather than even considering the alternative and far more likely explanation that, in common with hard-core alcoholics the world over, they were simply seeking out the cheapest and strongest spirit available to them. In late nineteenth century France this was absinthe, just as it had been gin from the eighteenth century onwards in England.
Although as we have seen, the science, or pseudo-science behind these anti-absinthe reports was dubious and often obviously flawed, they were generally accepted in France, and perhaps even more importantly, published as fact in the popular press of the day.
Further aggravating matters was the then widely held belief in scientific circles that not just the consequences of alcoholism were hereditary - fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and birth defects - but alcoholism itself. In other words, an alcoholic father would sire alcoholic children and grandchildren, with each generation sinking deeper into despair and depravity. Absinthism was regarded as the most dangerous and virulent form of alcoholism, and the most likely to be passed down from father to son.
It now seems clear that the symptoms of “absinthism” were due primarily to the effects of the alcohol itself, and also perhaps to the many sometimes extremely dangerous chemical adulterants used in cheap absinthes of the time. Well-made absinthes used chlorophylic colouration from herbs to achieve their characteristic green colour. This however was an expensive and difficult to control process, so unscrupulous low cost producers substituted chemicals such as copper sulphate to achieve the same effect. Antimony chloride – another highly poisonous substance - was also used to help the drink become cloudy when water was added.
The adulteration of spirits was a huge problem worldwide from the middle of the eighteenth century when industrially made drinks like gin were first developed in England, right up to the implementation of accurate scientific testing and regulation at the beginning of the twentieth century.
During the late 19th & early 20th centuries France, together with many western countries, was under pressure from various temperance movements and their constituents to curb alcohol consumption on a governmental level, as it was seen to morally corrupt its citizens. In the midst of this prohibitionist excitement, fanned by the chief French temperance organisation, the Ligue National Contre L'Alcoolisme (or the "Croix Bleue" as it was colloquially known), the word "absinthism" came to lose its specific meaning. Absinthism and alcoholism were confused, and an alcoholic was simply deemed an "absinthe drinker".
This confusion of meaning seems to have been deliberately encouraged by the prohibitionist movement. Wine was believed to be healthy and natural, since it came from the land and was a time-honored tradition, not to mention a major source of revenue. Absinthe, however, was made with industrial alcohol, and was moreover by far the most alcoholic of all liquors. It’s not surprising, that by the 1890’s, absinthe had become the primary target for the French temperance movement.In 1907 the Croix Bleue gathered 400 000 signatures on a petition which declared :
"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."
This narrow focus on absinthe was of course entirely in the interests of the powerful wine industry lobby. After all, under the growing threat of Prohibition, how better to draw attention away from your own alcoholic product –wine - than to make people believe that it is the healthy, natural exception to the "bad" rule? After a series of temperance rallies in Paris, the June 15th 1907 headline of Le Matin read : "TOUS POUR LE VIN CONTRE L'ABSINTHE".
The leading anti-absinthe firebrand in the Chamber of Deputies, Henri Schmidt, told the assembly that studies "proved" that absinthe was 246 times more likely to cause insanity than wine, and was three times more guilty than other distilled alcohols like cognac. Schmidt went on to argue:
"The real characteristic of absinthe is that it leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse. It is truly 'madness in a bottle' and no habitual drinker can claim that he will not become a criminal."
Adding to the political agitation against absinthe was its popularity not just with the working class, but also with the radical bohemian set – young artists like Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, writers like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, to name just a few. Their scandalous lifestyles and debauched behaviour shocked and outraged the establishment, and absinthe, their favourite drink, came to encapsulate in the public mind everything that had gone wrong with conservative France.
Indoctrination against absinthe in schools A 1907 dictation book containing a passage on the dangers of absinthe.. It amusingly starts with :
"L'absinhte est une poisson extremement dangereuse."
Will absinthe make you go mad?
According to many different texts and beliefs, absinthe makes people go mad, blind, epileptic, and apparently it could even infect you with tuberculosis, or simply turn you into a criminal. This is all nonsense of course, but there has to be a reason why that many people believe in those myths? We can find the answer in the 19th Century. >At that time, absinthe was particularly popular. There was a broad range of different absinthes available - some where sincere, honest products, some were cheap, badly made products that shouldn't even have entered the market. They were made with methanol and were seriously dangerous for the human body. To draw the line between those toxic cheap copies of absinthe, and the real drink must have been extremely difficult for both the society and the government of the 19th Century.
Does absinthe have side effects?
When thinking about side effects caused by absinthe, you should differentiate between effects caused by herbs and plants included in absinthe to those cause by alcohol. These effects vary from person to person.
Although we hear a lot of talk about thujone, and even though many producers target their marketing at the hallucinogenic effects of thujone, this doesn't mean that it's the only substance causing any side effects when drinking absinthe.
Some scientists even suggest that other substances, such as Fenchone (from fennel), Pino camphone (from hyssop), and Anethole (mainly from anise), can cause effects that every person experiences in a different way. Those effects however are harmless, and are rather noticed in a positive way.
What is thujone?
From a scientific viewpoint, thujone is an active substance contained in the oils of the wormwood plant. It accounts for 50 to 60 percent of the essential oils of wormwood, and belongs to the category of neurotoxic substances, an overdose of which can induce convulsions and dementia.
But as previously mentioned, absinthe can be consumed legally everywhere and there are good reasons for this. There are still laws in place that govern the amount of thujone contained in absinthe, as well as governing other factors of absinthe production.
There is no need to think that drinking absinthe could be harmful:
• Today's scientists say that the quantities of thujone in absinthe are way too small for it to cause any harm. • Once wormwood is distilled, it contains very little thujone. The stem of the plant contains most of the thujone, but only the buds and leaves are used for distillation. • At the end of the XIX century, fake analyses circulated, claiming the level of thujone in absinthe was as high as 260 mg per litre. However, more recent, unbiased studies that were conducted on pre-ban absinthe, proved that they actually only contained 20 mg per litre.
It wasn't until after the ban of absinthe (the second half of the XX century) that scientists were really able to give a precise rate of the level of thujone in absinthe. The experiments and analyses made before that period are not coherent. So don't worry, and enjoy your absinthe.
For all those seeking hallucinogenic effects of absinthe, sorry to disappoint you!
Will absinthe make me hallucinate?
Sorry to disappoint you, but not at all!
Absinthe isn't a drug and will never cause any such effects.
A theory from 1975 claimed that thujone is related to THC in its molecular structure, and that effects are similar. However, a more recent study by Meshler and Howlett from 1999 called "Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior" vol 62 N°3, proved that this was a false assumption. Try to be careful about what you believe about absinthe that you read on the internet - most so called 'facts' are further from reality than they are to fiction.
Has Absinthe anything to do with pastis?
Although the Stories of Absinthe and Pastis are related to one another, it would be false to say that they are the same drink. When Absinthe was banned, quite a few drinks were developed in order to take its place. That is how Pastis was born, such as Ricard for example. So, thanks to absinthe, Pastis was able to become as popular as it is today. However, the taste of absinthe and Pastis differ in various aspects. Although it's true that most absinthes have an aniseed taste, not all of them do! And there is no brand of Pastis that offers the herbal and fruity taste that absinthe has.
Are the absinthes today the same as before the ban?
You often hear that the modern absinthes are lighter, and 'they got rid of all the dangerous molecules'. But as explained before, Absinthe is anything but dangerous, and there is no need to exclude thujone.
There are a lot of bad quality absinthes around today, just as there are cheap copies of every product out there. But we think it's important to point out that there are amazing products available today, and that they are extremely close to the quality and taste of absinthe during the 19th Century and before prohibition.
A lot of absinthes are still made by hand, using traditional recipes and methods. There are even some distilleries that have survived all throughout the Belle Époque and the ban, that still make absinthe today. So you wouldn't be lying if you said that you're having the same absinthe that Rimbault used to drink.
What does absinthe taste like?
There are a lot of different types of absinthe, and you can easily feel overwhelmed by the broad range of choices. However, to be considered an absinthe, all these spirits must fulfill the following criteria:
• To be refreshing. • To remind you of the smell of an Alpine field by revealing complex, floral and spicy notes.
• To taste well balanced, so that all the herbal flavours seduce both your palate and your nose.
• To taste bitter, but then again, not too much*
• To have the flavour of aniseed, yet not overpower other scents (this is what an excessive use of star anise instead of green anise can cause)**
* A lot of people believe that grand wormwood has a very strong bitter taste. However, when it's distilled, most of the bitter parts are lost, because they're allocated in the stem which isn't used for distillation. This is why in the end, only the pleasant flavours of grand wormwood are revealed, leaving a very aromatic bitterness, and a quite strong floral taste.
**For the non-aniseed-flavoured Absinthes, this is of course not to be considered.
Which herbs are used to make absinthe?
All Absinthes are different, and therefore it's nearly impossible to say how each individual absinthe is made, also because some of the ingredients remain secret. However, they (almost) all have the same basic ingredients:
• Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absintheium) • Petite Wormwood (Artemisia Pontica aka Roman Wormwood)
• Green Anise (not to be confused with star anise, mainly used for the production of Pastis)
Depending on each individual recipe for absinthe, many more different herbs are added to those just mentioned (often more than ten), such as:
• Star anise
• and many more…
It is not only the herbs that are used to make absinthe that makes it so special; but also the way they are selected: They need to match each others taste, one herb mustn't overpower the other, and so on...
What's the traditional colour of absinthe?
When we think of absinthe, the colour green instantly pops into our heads. This is probably because the green absinthes during the Belle Époque were most popular.
The final step of creating a green absinthe, is to macerate it with herbs (mostly Petit Wormwood, Hyssop and Melissa) in order to develop its green colour and a herbal taste. This is a very delicate procedure that requires patience and skills, which is why there are a lot of artificially coloured absinthes out there today.
We shouldn't forget about the clear absinthes, also called 'Blanches' or 'Bleues'. Although they aren't as popular as green absinthe, they offer just as many complex aromas and taste!
Why have most absinthes such a high level of alcohol?
There are a few good reasons why the alcohol level in absinthe is reasonably high:
• It helps absinthe to maintain its green colour, naturally obtained by the maceration of different plants. This is also the reason why many green absinthes have a higher ABV than clear absinthes. • Some of the flavours wouldn't be able to develop if the alcohol level wasn't this high.
Please note that absinthe should be diluted with water, which decreases the level of alcohol to about the same level as a glass of wine would have.
Which is the best absinthe?
It's not easy to answer this question - there is such a huge variety of different absinthes: Some of them have a very high level of anise, some are more bitter than others, and some have a distinct herbal taste when others don't. The best way to make your decision is probably by browsing our selections, read our descriptions, or to seek advice from other absintheurs in forums on the net. If you have specific questions, we're more than happy to help! Simply email us via the contact form, and we'll try to reply to you right away!
When should I drink absinthe?
As long as you enjoy absinthe moderately, you can drink it whenever you feel like it. We'd just like to recommend that if you're planning on drinking other spirits as well, you should drink the absinthe first so you can appreciate it best. During the 19th Century, absinthe used to be served as an aperitif before dinner - widely known as “l'Heure Verte” - the green hour - between 5pm and 7pm.
Should I burn my Absinthe before drinking it?
Even though you may often see people setting absinthe or the sugar cube on fire, this was never practiced in the past, and is the result of a marketing strategy to make absinthe more appealing, developed in clubs in the Czech Repulic during the 1990s. Although it might be fun drinking absinthe like this, it actually burns all the good flavours and aromas of our favourite drink.
If you are interested in experiencing all the aromas and flavours absinthe has to offer, you are better off diluting absinthe with ice cold water, and maybe adding a sugar cube.
Should I have my absinthe with sugar?
According to historic adverts and texts, absinthe was enjoyed with sugar from about 1850, if not before. Sugar helps to ease the bitter taste of absinthe, and can enhance certain flavours. However, most absinthe lovers prefer to enjoy their absinthe without any sugar - yet again, this is entirely up to you and your personal preferences! Some absinthes 'need' sugar because of their strong taste, others don't simply because they're already smooth enough. Learn more about whether or not to add sugar to your absinthe.
Why is it best to pour the water slowly?
Decanters, brouilles and absinthe fountains were invented for one particular purpose: to enable you to pour the water into your absinthe glass as gently as possible – ideally, drop by drop – especially at the begining, when the absinthe starts to louche. There are two main reasons for pouring the water carefully:
• The louche is even more beautiful. • The different aromas of your absinthe develop more slowly, and can become much more complex and interesting. (Chemistry helps to understand this phenomenon: each essential oil precipitates at a different dilution, and pouring the water slowly enables the aromas to develop one after the other).
How should I store my absinthe?
Although Absinthe does keep well, there are a few steps to take, so that neither the alcohol, nor the chlorophyll escapes:
• You should store it with the bottle standing up, away from light, and at a temperature that does not rise above 30°C, to protect the chlorophyll. • You should use a cork stopper, rather than a metal or a plastic, so that the alcohol doesn't evaporate, and so the absinthe doesn't lose its flavour. If you wish to store your absinthe for longer than six months after you opened it, you should change over to a cork stopper if you're not already using one. • When your bottle is more than half empty, you should fill it into a smaller bottle, so that the surrounding air inside the bottle doesn't influence the taste.
Perhaps you would also like to know, that if you just opened a bottle, you should let it air for a bit. Furthermore, some absinthes age very well, so you should not hesitate to store your favourite ones in the cellar for a few years!
When was absinthe banned?
Absinthe was first banned in the Congo Free State in 1898, then in Brazil and in Belgium in 1906, in Holland in 1908, in Switzerland in 1910, in the USA in 1912 and finally in France – distracted and shell-shocked by the first defeats of World War I - in 1915. In the end this magical and historic elixir that had once captivated, delighted and inspired a nation, went out not with a bang, but with the merest whimper.
What happened after the ban?
Most of the great absinthe-producing firms went bankrupt, or amalgamated, or switched to producing pastis. Some firms transferred their production to Spain, where absinthe was never banned, and where it continued to be made on a small scale for the next century. A remnant of the Pernod company made absinthe in Tarragona from 1918 until the mid '60's, although by 1950 the product had already deviated quite considerably from the pre-ban French original.
In the Val de Travers region of Switzerland, production of the local uncoloured "Le Bleue" went underground, and fairly large scale bootlegging operations continued up to 2005, when absinthe was once again made legal. In many countries though absinthe was never formally prohibited – it just faded from sight.
Absinthe has never been banned in the UK, nor in much of Southern and Eastern Europe.