Introduction

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER I ~

Nover-Absinthe-BlanquiAbsinthe… the Green Fairy… La Fée Verte… no other drink has the same romantic history – the French Impressionists….Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh….Paris in the Belle Époque… the cafés of Montmartre… the muse of writers from Verlaine and Rimbaud to Joyce and Hemingway. Of course, there’s a darker side to absinthe as well – no other drink has ever roused the same degree of passionate condemnation, and no other drink has ever been banned outright in the way absinthe was in the years leading up to 1915. All that remains of the heyday of this elixir are the echoes it left behind – books, posters, advertising material, temperance propaganda, glasses, spoons and other peculiar accoutrements of absinthe drinking. By focusing on these – and illustrating them whenever possible – I hope to tell the story of the Green Fairy from its origins in the late eighteenth century, to its much lamented prohibition at the beginning of the twentieth, and then on to its surprising and phoenix-like renaissance in the first years of the new millennium.Absinthe is a strongly alcoholic apéritif made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts, chief amongst them grand wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) and green anise, but also almost always including at least four other herbs: petite wormwood (Artemesia pontica, aka Roman wormwood), fennel, melissa (aka lemon balm or citronnelle), and hyssop. From an English perspective it may be useful to think of absinthe as a kind of gin, with wormwood substituting for the juniper. Both, from a distilling perspective, are aromatized spirits – a blend of essential oils in a base of neutral alcohol. As with gin, high quality absinthes are always distilled from whole herbs rather than produced from herbal essences, but unlike gin are usually coloured green by a secondary herbal infusion. Clear absinthes – often called La Bleue or La Blanche, and historically popular in Switzerland – are made without the final colouring step. Well made absinthes have a deliciously complex herbal and floral character, with an underlying bitterness caused by the wormwood, and are always drunk diluted with iced water, never neat. A good absinthe steadies the nerves, stimulates the appetite, and promotes conversation and – if its Bohemian adherents are to be believed – even inspiration.Much of the romance surrounding the drink is tied up in the rituals surrounding its preparation. The classic French absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or ‘dose’ of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche (“loosh”) into an opaque, opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually anywhere from three to five parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe.

Absinthe-Group

The most popular misconception about absinthe is that it is a drug, or at least similar to some sort of narcotic in effect. This is simply not true. The hysteria surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fuelled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant, uniquely different from all other alcohols and that it caused hallucinations that drove men mad, threw them into epileptic fits, and even made poor old Van Gogh slice off his ear. The truth however, is much more fascinating, even if less dramatic.

Absinthe differs from almost all other drinks in containing a higher percentage of alcohol – up to 72% – and of course in containing extract of wormwood, or Artemesia absinthium, to give it its correct Latin name. The high alcohol is there for a specific practical purpose – the plant-based chlorophyllic coloration that gives well made absinthe its green hue is only stable at alcoholic strengths of around 65% and above. The drink itself was always meant to be diluted with several parts water before consumption, and indeed a properly prepared glass of absinthe need be no stronger than a gin and tonic, or a whisky and soda. Wormwood is a herb related to the aster (asteraceae) family that grows wild in many areas of Europe. Since ancient times it has been prized as one of the most valuable medicinal herbs. An Egyptian papyrus from 1600BC recommends wormwood as a stimulant and tonic, an antiseptic, and as a remedy for fever and menstrual pain.

The chemical name for the principle active ingredient in oil of wormwood is thujone. Thujone is a terpene and is related to menthol, which of course is known for its healing and restorative qualities and is widely used in pharmaceutical products. In its chemically pure form, thujone is a colourless liquid with a menthol-like aroma. Pronounced “thoo-jone” with a soft ‘J’ – it is a naturally occurring substance, also found in the bark of the thuja, or white cedar, tree, and in several other herbs besides wormwood – including tansy and the common sage used in cooking. There is thujone in some commercially produced sausage stuffings. Extremely high doses of thujone are however dangerous, and have been shown to cause convulsions and other distressing symptoms in laboratory animals, but the concentration of thujone actually found in absinthe is many thousands of times lower than this. It’s worth bearing in mind that many common substances found in food – the sodium in salt comes to mind – are deadly in their pure form at high concentrations, but quite harmless in the trace quantities in which we actually consume them. Thujone’s mechanism of action on the brain is not fully understood, and the effect of well-made absinthe varies from person to person, but is typically no more marked than the mild “buzz” one gets from drinking tequila. Generally, it can best be described as a kind of heightened clarity of mind and vision, warmed by the effect of the alcohol. Some users report unusually vivid dreams.

Most modern “legal” absinthes, in keeping with EU regulations, contain less than 35mg of thujone per litre, and recent research has shown that pre-ban absinthes, contrary to ill-informed speculation by several authors, also had relatively low thujone levels. So the entire historical demonisation of absinthe based on its allegedly high thujone content now appears to have been based on a wholly false premise, and it’s increasingly clear now that, apart from the obvious and undeniable dangers of the alcohol itself, absinthe poses no special health risks.

Maison Chassany

Legend has it, that the inventor of the drink was the Huguenot doctor Pierre Ordinaire, who in 1792, shortly after the French revolution, travelled around the Val de Travers near Couvet in Switzerland, and produced the first absinthe as we know it today, initially as an all-purpose remedy or cure-all. It was nicknamed La Fée Verte – “The Green Fairy” on account of its seemingly magical curative properties – and this name stuck throughout absinthe’s heyday. 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 at the beginning of the 19th century and began commercial production with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. From these humble beginnings grew the mighty Pernod Fils absinthe empire. The popularity of absinthe spread further when 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 dysentery. 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 bistrots all over France. Absinthe hit its peak during the years between 1870-1910, when it fell dramatically in price, becoming accessible to all parts of society and rivalling wine as the most popular drink in France. By then EVERYONE drank absinthe – society ladies, gentlemen-about-town, businessmen and politicians, artists, musicians and ordinary working-men and women. It was, ironically, precisely this wild and widespread popularity that sowed the seeds of the drink’s destruction, because while the abuse of absinthe could be tolerated amongst the wealthy and the small Bohemian sect, when it became increasingly popular in the urban working class it occasioned widespread alarm amongst medical men and the new generation of socially aware politicians.

Kursaal Enghien In the 1860’s, there was for the first time, concern about the consequences of the 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. Although the science, or pseudo-science behind these anti-absinthe reports was dubious and often obviously flawed, it was generally accepted in France, and perhaps even more importantly, published as fact in the popular press of the day. 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 dangerous chemical adulterants used in cheap absinthes of the time. However, the increasingly influential temperance leagues in France and Switzerland seized on these dubious reports to build their case against the drink – in this they were paradoxically urged on and funded by the wine lobby, desperate to regain the market share they had lost to cheap absinthe. Wine was regarded as food from the soil, a healthy beverage, integral to French identity, while absinthe was an industrial product, often of dubious provenance, often made by entrepreneurs who lacked the political and social connections of the long established wine growers. It became the poster child of the prohibitionists, the exemplar of the dangers of alcohol.

Like a vice slowly tightening, the pressure to ban absinthe inexorably increased. The last straw was a series of particularly brutal family murders which were – largely unfairly – blamed on absinthe consumption. The most notorious of these was the notorious Lanfray case, which riveted the European press in 1905. Jean Lanfray, a Swiss peasant of French stock, having drunk two glasses of absinthe, shot his pregnant wife and two daughters, before attempting to kill himself. He failed, and was found the next morning collapsed across their dead bodies. Public reaction to the case was extraordinary, and it focused on just one detail – the two glasses of absinthe he had drunk beforehand. Forgotten was the fact that Lanfray was a long-standing alcoholic who habitually drank up to 5 litres of wine a day and had consumed huge quantities of wine and marc on the day in question. Within weeks, a petition demanding that absinthe be banned in Switzerland was signed by over 82 000 local people. Absinthe was finally banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the USA in 1912 and finally by a 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. All the great producers in France closed down or went bankrupt. A small rump of the Pernod empire decamped to Tarragona in Spain and continued to make absinthe on a small scale for several decades more, but largely only for local consumption in Spain, where it was never banned. In the Val de Travers, the birthplace of the Green Fairy, clandestine production began within weeks of prohibition, and continued on a very small scale for the next century, the techniques – and sometimes the small hand made portable stills – passed down from father to son or from mother to daughter. But for all practical purposes the drink was only a memory. The revival, when it came, originated not in France or Switzerland but in Eastern Europe, with its long tradition of herbal bitters. In 1988 the EU adopted a permitted thujone standard of 10mg/l for general liquors, and 35mg/l for bitters (which, it was later realized, could effectively include most absinthes as well). It seems likely that the intention was simply to tidy up existing legislation, not to pave the way for the re-legalization of absinthe, but pave the way it nonetheless did. Radomill Hill, owner of a newly privatized Czech distillery, produced the first widely sold commercial absinthe of the modern era. Although only very vaguely related to what had historically been considered absinthe, Hill’s luridly coloured drink caught on like wildfire, and was soon exported to the UK and elsewhere. This was followed by a general relaxation of other restrictive legislation in both France and Switzerland, and shortly afterwards by the production of the first high quality distilled absinthes. There are now a considerable number of French and Swiss absinthe producers, and others in the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere. In 2007, after intense lobbying, a long overdue relaxation of the absinthe ban in the USA 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.

And so, more than two centuries after its birth in a forgotten corner of rural Switzerland, and a century after its apogee in the glittering Paris of the Belle Epoque, the Green Fairy has risen again, to once again amuse, inspire and delight its admirers, and confound and infuriate its detractors. I hope this volume will offer you a guide to its charms and to its complexities, and to its extraordinary history. Wherever possible the text is based on original source documents and contemporary publications, but my grateful thanks go to Marie Claude Delahaye in France and Barnaby Conrad in the USA, who wrote the first modern histories in French and English respectively, and to whom all subsequent authors owe a debt of gratitude The more recent works of Phil Baker and Jad Adams have also proved useful references, as have the publications of my friend, the indefatigable art historian Benoit Noel. Lastly, I must thank my wife, without whose assistance and encouragement this book would not have seen the light of day.

Vive La Fée Verte!Absinthe Edmond Morin