Today we would like to introduce you to our new series of the absinthe history. Antoine has written a script about the origins of absinthe, and its ups and downs in history. Every other week, we will reveal another chapter of this script via newsletter (sign up, if you wish to receive it), and we hope that you will find it interesting to learn a bit more about absinthe.
Chapter One – An introduction
Absinthe – this spirit has provoked a great deal of interest, as well as criticism, in the past 200 years. Wormwood, which used to be considered a medical plant, is the most essential herbal ingredient of absinthe. This is why this liqueur was believed to cure and prevent diseases, and eventually became so popular, that it went from being just a fashionable drink, to the national drink of France. All this happened before absinthe was banned and finally prohibited – until its revival in France and the rest of Europe only a couple of years ago.
Discover the turbulent history of absinthe, and get to know all facets of the “Green Fairy”, and you will be able to understand which place absinthe holds in today’s society.
Wormwood, the medical plant
Since the Antiquity, wormwood (latin: Artemisia Absinthium) has been recognized as a plant, that carries therapeutic virtues. Either in form of leaves, powder, dyes, or band-aids, it was used to:
- Aid digestion
- Adjust the menstrual period
- Treat fever, malaria and dysentery
It was also used as an antiseptic and as a worming medication. Today, the wormwood essence is an ingredient in plenty pharmaceutical products, such as anti-inflammatories.
Wormwood (lat.: Artemisia Absinthium)
Wormwood was a part of medical treatments – since ancient times.
Wormwood is already mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1600 BC. The script recommends the use of wormwood as both a stimulant and tonic, an antiseptic, as a remedy for fever, and as a painkiller.
The Greek philosophers and physicians, Pythagoras and Hippocrates of Kos (460-377 BC), praised the virtues of this plant, and its positive effects on one’s health. They also talked about its aphrodisiacal effects, and claimed that wormwood enhanced their own creativity.
In the Xvth century, Pliny described the use and the virtues of wormwood as follows:
“There are several kinds of absinthe: that called Santonic from a city of Gaul, the Pontic from Pontus, where cattle grow fat on it and because of it are found without gall; there is none finer than this: the Italian is far more bitter, while the pith of the Pontic is sweet. About its use all agree, for it is a plant very
easy to find and among the most useful; moreover it is honoured uniquely in the rites of the Roman people in that at the Latin festival when four-horsed chariots race on the Capitol the victor drinks absinthe, because, I believe, our ancestors thought that it was an honourable reward to be given health….”
In addition, it is interesting to quote Adam Lonicer (1528-1586), who lists the many different ways of using wormwood in his book of herbs (Kräuterbuch):
“Consumed in form of a drink or food, it is indeed benefciail for the stomach, it aids digestion, warms the body, soothes pain and egests all bile and other poisons. ( … )
If you drink juice mixed with wormwood over a period of 10 days, the sugar contained in the juice fights jaundice and cures dropsy, and eliminates discomforts of both spleen and liver. ( … ) The wine made of wormwood has the same virtues. ”
The origins of absinthe: A medical elixir was created
Henriette Henriod, often called „Mother Henriod“, said that she had always been aware of the medical benefits of wormwood. In the second third of the 18th century, she produced an elixier made of wormwood in her hometown in Couvet, Switzerland, which was used to cure various diseases. Major Dubied quickly recognized the rising demand for this elixier, so he bought the recipe, and together with his future son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, he opened the “Dubied Father & Son” distillery in 1798. After a few successful years, Henri-Louis Pernod decided to found his own business. And with the first distillery in Couvet becoming too small, he crossed the borders, and opened the first “Pernod Fils” distillery in Pontarlier, France, in 1805. Since then, Pernod is a name that always will be associated with absinthe.
The first Pernod distillery in Pontarlier, France
But what about Pierre Ordinaire?
You find his name in all books, journals and articles devoted to absinthe. However, after carefully assessing old documents, it is nearly safe to say, that not Dr. Ordinaire distilled the wormwood elixir, but Henriette Henriod. It is nice to think that this drink was born in a small kitchen, created by a dignified lady who was not only able to fund her living on selling this product, but to enrich other people’s lives with this drink. Did you know, that Absinthe Roquette 1797 is named after the horse Pierre Ordinaire owned?
The distillation of the wormwood elixir by Henriod
„Mother Henriod“ had discovered, or adapted a recipe of absinthe, where she infused (today you would say macerated) and then distilled the liquor. She used to cultivate the herbs she needed in her own garden, and supported by a small still in her kitchen, distilled the elixir at home. Although she was never able to produce a lot of the elixir, she used to sell small quantities to hawkers who would then sell it to households or pharmacies.
The first recipes of absinthe and the desire for less bitterness
With the beginnings of the industrial production of absinthe, it was decided, that it was necessary to modify the recipe of the wormwood elixir to satisfy the growing number of customers. The bitterness was reduced through:
- using less wormwood in the recipe
- using more anise and fennel
For example, look at this recipe of Fritz Duval, a successor of Dubied Father & Son:
60 kg petite wormwood
30 kg hyssop ( … )
In order to understand why the recipe was changed, one needs to look at the way the wormwood elixir used to be consumed: Just like the absinthe today, the wormwood extract was drank diluted with water, therefore it tasted extremely bitter, which the distillers had to change in order for customers to enjoy its taste.
You should note that this recipe was still used in 1914, and favoured due to its high quality.
We hope you enjoyed reading the introductionary chapter of the History of Absinthe. In two weeks, the next chapter will be send out to you – talking about how it developed from being a medical elixir to a chic, international drink with a ritual (absinthe spoon, absinthe fountain…)
The second chapter of the Absinthe history is available here.