The origins of absinthe

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!
'la même?'
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.