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 litre.
At an expensive and fashionable cabaret like the Moulin Rouge, a glass of Pernod Fils cost between 50 and 65 centimes (still, relatively speaking, cheap – about half the price of a whisky, and little more than draught beer). At an ordinary bistrot or cafe, the house brand would run at about 25c, while at a rough standing-room only tavern on the outskirts of the city, a glass of inferior absinthe might be as little as 5c.

An advertising carton for Royer Hutin Absinthe Suisse.

All high quality absinthes were distilled, naturally coloured, and in the case of the very best brands like Pernod Fils, made from a base of grape alcohol. Cheap brands were made from herbal essences, usually artificially coloured, and used cheaper grain or beet alcohols. High quality absinthes were usually aged in large oak vats for at least six months, and sometimes as long as several years. Because of the cost of tying up capital in stocks, some manufacturers experimented with various accelerated ageing techniques, including devices that forced oxygen into the absinthe under high pressure – so called “absinthe oxygénée”.

A large case label for a Pontarlier producer.

There was no legislated industry-wide standard terminology, but generally the top designation was Absinthe Suisse, which denoted a quality level, not a geographic origin. Then came Absinthe Superieure, followed by Absinthe Fine or Demi-Fine and lastly Absinthe Ordinaire. An Absinthe Suisse had an alcohol content of between 65% and 72%, an Absinthe Fine was around 55% while an Absinthe Ordinaire would be only 45% alcohol.

A circa 1905 town plan for Pontarlier, showing all the significant buildings, including the 15 largest absinthe distilleries.

Cousin-Florentin Bourgeois

Lanquetin Junod

Constant-Paillard

Legler-Pernod (Gillet)

Pernod Fils

Édouard Pernod

Dornier-Tuller, Deniset Jeune (Vichet), Parot Fils, Absinthes Françaises.

Bazinet, Dechanet, Deniset Fils.

Cusenier Oxygénée

The Cusenier Distillery was established in Ornans in 1858 with an initial focus on the manufacture of kirsch and absinthe. In 1871 an additional factory was opened in Paris and in 1872 a third one in Charenton. Further large distilleries were opened in Marseilles, Brussels, Mulhouse, Cognac, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. By this stage this firm was producing a vast array of liqueurs and spirits but Absinthe Cusenier took pride of place. Cusenier’s absinthe was renowned for its quality and was the only absinthe in France to sell at a higher price than Pernod Fils. From 1898 the word ‘Oxygéneé’ was appended to the brand name indicating the use of Cusenier’s patented manufacturing process in which oxygen was pumped under pressure through the newly distilled absinthe, something which was believed to improve the taste and also touted as having health benefits.

Advertising postcard promoting the health benefits of Cusenier’s Absinthe Oxygénée.

An almost identical tin advertising sign to the one above hangs on the wall behind these bistrot card players on the left.

Another famous poster also produced in 1896, designed by Nicholas Tamagno for Cusenier. The bon vivant enjoying his Absinthe Oxygénée is the French comedian Joseph-François Dailly (1839 – 1897). 1.28m x 0.95m.

An explanation of the merits of the Absinthe Oxygénée process.

A brochure showcasing the principal products of Cusenier Fils Ainé. Pride of place went to Absinthe Cusenier – the illustration shows an officer of the Bataillon d’Afrique in North Africa relaxing over an absinthe.

Premier Fils

Absinthe Premier Fils was based in Romans and was one of the larger manufacturers outside the Doubs region. Their absinthe targeted a mainly female audience and was lighter and more floral than the traditional richer Pontarlier style. Every label declared that the colouration of the absinthe was derived exclusively from herbs and flowers sourced from the mountains of the Alps.

Edouard Pernod

From an early age Edouard Pernod worked with his father in running the small Pernod distillery in Couvet. In 1827 his father handed it over to him with an agreement that he, Henri-Louis, would focus on selling his absinthe in France and the colonies, while Edouard would concentrate exclusively on Switzerland and the rest of the world. The firm expanded rapidly to meet growing demand and in 1834 began exporting to Belgium and Germany, followed a few years later by the United States, Holland and Brazil. By 1850 they had outgrown the Couvet distillery, and an additional branch was established in Lunel.

In 1880 Edouard Pernod retired and was succeeded by his eldest son, also named Edouard. Edouard continued to grow the Edouard Pernod brand, but sold off the Lunel distillery to his son-in-law Charles Gempp. By the 1890’s Edouard Pernod was producing up to sixty hectolitres per day of high quality absinthe. In 1888 when Louis Alfred sold the Pernod Fils trademark to the Veil Picard brothers, the current Edouard decided that this meant that the contract which had been signed between his grandfather (Henri-Louis) and father (Edouard Snr) was now no longer valid and that he could now legitimately sell his absinthe in France. In 1897 he set up a branch of Edouard Pernod in Pontarlier. When absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, the Couvet distillery closed, and Pontarlier became the primary name on the labels until France followed suit with prohibition 5 years later.

A large format carton (70cm x 50cm) for Absinthe Edouard Pernod, showing two climbers pausing to prepare an absinthe on the slopes of the Matterhorn! The fact that the brand label is not shown explicitly indicates that this was probably an existing painting, co-opted for use in this carton, but the whereabouts of the original, and the name of the artist are not known. Although Edouard Pernod was a large company, this carton must have been produced only in small quantities for a limited period, as this seems to be the sole surviving example.

Gempp Pernod

Gustave Charles Gempp married Edouard Pernod’s daughter Louise, and after assisting his father-in-law ended up running the Edouard Pernod branch in Lunel until 1880, when he bought full ownership of the distillery and launched his own label by astutely combining his last name with that of his wife’s to become Gempp-Pernod. In 1905 the Perellier brothers purchased the business, but retained the Gempp-Pernod name. Gempp-Pernod was a good quality strongly flavoured absinthe that targeted a middle and working class market.

A 1907 calendar for Gemmp-Pernod.

Gempp-Pernod.

Gempp-Pernod.

Jules Pernod

Jules-Francois Pernod – no relation at all to the famous Pernod’s of Couvet and Pontarlier – started his career as a factory director in a fertilizer plant. In 1883 he began experimenting with manufacturing spirits, including kirsch, rum, cognac and finally absinthe. In 1888, he registered the trademark Absinthe Jules Pernod.
In 1884 his distillery in Montfavet, near Avignon, was still of modest size, with four 500 litre stills, but over the next 30 years production expanded considerably, and the firm became a major thorn in the flesh of Maison Pernod Fils. After a furious legal battle with Pernod Fils, Jules Pernod finally won the right to promote his product using the simple generic term “Un Pernod” – certainly a key factor in its success.

The firm of Auguste Junod was founded in 1838. By 1844 the annual turnover of the distillery exceeded 10 000 francs per annum and shortly afterwards four new alambics were purchased to expand production even further. On the death of Auguste Junod in 1870 his son Arthur took over the firm and commenced a program of rapid expansion including the construction of an impressive new distillery on the road between Pontarlier and Besancon. Building continued through the 1880’s and 1890’s and by the end of the century the installation consisted of sixteen large stills with a total capacity of fifty hectolitres. Annual production was in excess of 10 000 hectolitres.

Rare embossed lithographic sign for Absinthe Junod.

Absinthe Jules Pernod tin lithograph.

Absinthe Junod tin saucer.

Joanne

Terminus

Tamagno’s 1892 poster for Absinthe Terminus used the likenesses of two famous stage personalities of the day: Constant Coquelin and Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt was furious that her image was used without permission and successfully sued the manufacturers – as a result the posters had to be removed from the walls of Paris. 1.28m x 0.98m (50″ x 38″) format.

An 1894 calender advertising Absinthe Terminus. The gentleman in the red jacket is the Absinthe Terminus drinker, his friend in the black is drinking Absinthe Ordinaire!

A scarce series of chromolithographic cards advertising Absinthe Terminus, printed in colour and gold by F. Champenois, Paris.

A remarkable, probably unique survival: the original tissue paper used to wrap each Absinthe Terminus bottle as it was placed in its wooden shipping crate.

G. Lanquetin Fils

A particularly cheeky brand was called “La Même”, which means “the same” in French: …waiter! another absinthe! ‘la même?’ OUI! the same! …but maybe NOT the same one he was drinking.…

Georges Lanquetin the distiller of La Même absinthe (standing in this photograph).

Duval

Fritz Duval was the successor firm to Dubied Pere and Fils, which had been founded by Major Dubied the father-in-law of Henri Louis Pernod. Dubied had reputedly purchased Dr. Ordinaire’s original absinthe recipe from the Henriod sisters and much of the Duval firm’s marketing tended to emphasise this direct link to the earliest days of absinthe.

An early photographic advertising carton for Absinthe Duval (35 x 50cm), showing the tallest pine tree in France, situated in the Joux forest just outside Pontarlier. The connection to absinthe is not immediately clear, although Pontarlier is known for its sapin, a liqueur made from pine buds. This carton originates directly from descendents of the Duval family, and is possibly a one-off photographic mock-up made for proofing purposes, rather than a commercially distributed item.

A more conventional advertising carton for Absinthe Duval.

Ducros-Fils

Founded in 1830 by Alexandre Ducros this distillery was based in Valence-sur-Rhone. This was a successful medium-sized producer now mainly remembered for commissioning the famous poster shown below by Leonetto Cappiello.

A smaller format version of Cappiello’s famous poster for Absinthe Ducros.

Cousin Florentin

Cousin Florentin was founded in 1906 and was located just outside Pontarlier.

Dornier-Tuller

Dornier-Tuller was founded in 1878 and based both in Fleurier and Switzerland.

Absinthe Dornier-Tuller.

Absinthe Dornier-Tuller.