The absinthe ban, and the modern absinthe renaissance.


What were the Lanfray murders?

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 celebrated 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 thoroughgoing alcoholic who habitually drank up to 5 litres of wine a day. Forgotten also, was that on the day of the attack he had consumed not only the two absinthes before going to work – hours before the tragedy – but also a crème de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine to help his lunch down, another glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of coffee with brandy in it, an entire litre of wine on getting home, and then another coffee with marc in it. People were in no doubt. It must have been the absinthe that did it. Within weeks, a petition demanding that absinthe be banned in Switzerland was signed by over 82 000 local people.

The major absinthe producers, realising too late that their businesses and livelihoods were in jeopardy, fought a desperate rearguard action, organising counter petitions, and promoting the health benefits of their absinthes. There was an increasing vogue for oxygen enriched "absinthe oxygénée", and many brands were sold under the designation "absinthe hygenique".

Some producers - Bailly and Cousin Jeune amongst them - produced absinthes claimed to be thujone free - "absinthe sans-thuj" - but these seem never to have caught on. Of course the science behind the claims of the manufacturers was as dubious and corrupt as that of the temperance movement, and was often mocked in the satirical journals of the day.

Crucially, although in some cases financially powerful, the major absinthe producers lacked political influence in the Chamber of Deputies (where large hereditary landowners - often grape-growers - were disproportionately well represented). The fact that the management of the biggest producer, Pernod Fils, were of Jewish origin (Arthur and Edmond Vielle-Picard, who purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1894, were half-Jewish) in a France still reeling from the anti-semitism exposed by the Dreyfus affair, further aggravated the situation.

The popular press, led by the left-wing Parisian daily Le Matin was virulently pro-prohibition. The momentum to ban the drink was now unstoppable.

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.

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.