The Rise of the Green Fairy

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER II ~

Although medical potions and decoctions made from wormwood date back to at least Roman times, the invention of absinthe as we now know it – a mildly bitter green-coloured distilled drink based on wormwood, anise and fennel – is traditionally credited to the romantic figure of Pierre Ordinaire, a Hugenot doctor who fled France for Switzerland in the mid 1700’s and plied his trade in the remote Val de Travers near Neuchâtel.

From Pliny to Dr. Ordinaire

From Pliny to Dr. Ordinaire

Although medical potions and decoctions made from wormwood date back to at least Roman times, the invention of absinthe as we now know it – a mildly bitter green-coloured distilled drink based on wormwood, anise and fennel – is traditionally credited to the romantic figure of Pierre Ordinaire, a Hugenot doctor who fled France for Switzerland in the mid 1700’s and plied his trade in the remote Val de Travers near Neuchâtel.The traditional story goes that, travelling everywhere on his faithful horse Roquette, he sold this green-tinged herbal potion as remedy for a range of ailments from kidney stones and gout to worms. The drink was soon nicknamed ‘La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy” both for its beautiful colour and for it’s purported quasi-magical qualities. On the death of the good doctor the recipe then passed to two sisters from Couvet called Henriod, who continued distilling the elixir,...

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Early Herbals

Early Herbals

Although absinthe is mentioned briefly several times in the Bible (perhaps most notably in the Revelation of St John, Chapter 8 Verse 11), the first detailed description of its use, and therapeutic properties is in Pliny the Elder’s great compendium of the knowledge of the ancient world, Historia Naturalis. The Editio Princeps was printed by Johannes de Spira in Venice, in 1469. The copy shown below was printed 12 years later in 1481, by Andreas Portilia, the second printer in Parma, and is closely modelled on the typography of the great Venetian printer Nicolaus Jenson, who produced several editions in the 1470’s. Absinthe is mentioned several times peripherally in the text, but there is an in-depth description in Book XXVII, devoted to medicinal herbs. This was first cited by Edmond Couleru in his seminal 1908 Au Pays de l’Absinthe, but he incorrectly identified the passage as coming from Book...

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De Absinthio

De Absinthio

Hiera Picra, vel de Absinthio analecta, Ad normam & forman Academiae Naturae curiosorum selecta Written by Dr Johannes Michaele Fehr, published in Leipzig by Jacob Trescher in 1667. This recently discovered 17th century monograph on the medical and pharmaceutical uses of the wormwood plant has the potential to substantially increase our knowledge of the early history of absinthe and the wormwood-based medicinal elixirs that preceded the commercial product introduced in the 1790’s. Whilst absinthe is mentioned in almost all early herbals, this appears to be the only book exclusively devoted to the subject. The author was founder and president of the Academia...

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The Pernod Empire

The Pernod Empire

By 1805, the firm of Maison Pernod Fils was established in Pontarlier in the Doubs region by Major 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 metres 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 litres a day. Louis’s sons Fritz and Louis-Alfred took over the reins and, assisted by financing from the Veil-Picard banking family of Besencon (and also by a brilliant Swiss engineer, Arthur Borel, a...

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The Grande Marques

The Grande Marques

As one would expect absinthe was produced in many different grades and was sold at widely varying prices, to cater for all parts of the market – from the elegant boulevardier down to the ordinary working man and below him even, the desperate alcoholic scraping his last few sous together to feed his addiction. At the top of the quality pyramid stood Pernod Fils and Cusenier’s Oxygénée, which commanded a wholesale price of around 2 francs per litre (this equated to a retail price of 5 francs). Below them, the other grande marques: Berger, Edouard Pernod, Premier Fils, Junod, Terminus, at around 1.60. Then lesser but still very reputable brands like Parrot, Bazinet and Vichet at 1.30, with reliable house brands at about a franc per litre bottle. Below this, an unregulated mass of crudely produced and often adulterated rotgut which sold for as little as 60 centimes per...

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Military Men – Absinthe and the ‘Bat d’Af’

Military Men – Absinthe and the ‘Bat d’Af’

The association of the French military with absinthe went back to the North African wars of the 1840’s, when absinthe was issued to French legionnaires fighting in Algeria. While it was administered to the soldiers for its reputed medicinal qualities (it was believed to kill malaria and fend off dysentery by purifying the water it was added to), the troops quickly acquired a taste for absinthe’s pleasantly bitter herbal taste. No doubt its high alcohol level also helped to relieve the boredom of barracks life and provided a much-needed boost to troop morale! When the soldiers of the Bataillon d’Afrique returned to France, they brought with them their predilection for absinthe and it quickly became all the rage in bars and bistrots all over...

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Café Society and Absinthe

Café Society and Absinthe

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 military and the fashionable bourgeoisie. It was believed to sharpen the appetite for dinner, and in the early evening, the sweet anise-scented aroma of absinthe wafted over the wide Parisian boulevards. By the early 1870s, it had become common practice to begin a meal with an apéritif, and of 1500 available liquors, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk. Licensing laws were relaxed during the 1860’s, which resulted in a proliferation of new bars, 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...

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Belle Époque Cafés

Belle Époque Cafés

The lengthy article Characteristic Parisian Cafés by Theodore Child, published in the April 1889 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, is the most detailed contemporary English language account of the café environment in Paris at the time, and of the absinthe-drinking boulevardiers who frequented them. HARPER’S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE CHARACTERISTIC PARISIAN CAFÉS. By Theodore Child. Vol. LXXVIII APRIL 1889 No. CCCCLXVII In Paris, public-houses where liquid refreshments are sold take many names, of which ‘café’ is the most general and comprehensive. “Brasserie” is a café where beer is made a speciality, “cabaret” is the old-fashioned, but still used, word meaning a place where both drink and food are sold. Then there are the popular names not recognized by the standard dictionaries, such as “caboulot”, “boussingot”, or “bouchon”, meaning a little low café; “bouisbouis”, meaning a low café with the attraction of music and singing; and “mannezingue”, “mastroquet”, and “troquet”,...

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Absinthe in the Colonies

Absinthe in the Colonies

Pernod Fils (and some of its larger competitors such as Cusenier, Berger and Edouard Pernod) exported their absinthe worldwide. The French colonies – especially Algeria, Vietnam, Madagascar and Tahiti – were all significant markets, as were South American countries like Argentina and Chile.  ...

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Artists, Writers and Poets

Artists, Writers and Poets

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 de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde (see The Effects of Absinthe for more about Wilde), Edgar Allan Poe, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and many others all featured it prominently in their works. All these artists were celebrated not just for their artistic output, but also for their often outrageously bohemian lifestyles.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 his paintings also depict the bar in which he habitually drank absinthe and he painted...

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English Fiction

English Fiction

Contemporary fiction inspired by absinthe took many forms – poems, plays, short stories, novels. By far the most influential and popular English language work was Marie Corelli’s novel Wormwood, a lurid Victorian melodrama that was enormously popular both in the UK, and in the United States, where it went through dozens of unauthorised editions within the first few years of its initial publication in 1890. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris By Marie Corelli Published 1890 by Richard Bentley & Son, London. ‘Excellent Let me be mad, then by all means! mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest most luxurious madness in the world!’ Marie Corelli’s Wormwood tells the story of Gaston Beauvais, a promising but naïve young man whose disillusionment at the hands of a woman leads to his downward spiral into the decadent world of fin-de-siècle Paris. When his story begins he is callow but handsome and...

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