A Brief History of Absinthe
Known affectionately as the Green Fairy or the Green Goddess, absinthe has been known to exist in various forms for thousands of years. The name is believed to be derived from the Greek word ‘absinthion,’ meaning undrinkable, many who’ve sampled it may well agree. The liquorice tasting drink was first produced near Couvet in Switzerland, and also close to the Doubs region around Pontarlier in France. This part of rural France, situated in the woodlands of the Jura, is still considered the true native home of absinthe.
The drink’s inventor was said to be a doctor called Pierre Ordinaire, although similar drinks infused with wormwood date back to Egyptian times. Legend has it that in 1792, the doctor ventured to the Val de Travers area in Switzerland on horse, and there produced the first commercial absinthe. He distilled botanicals such as wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), and herbs like fennel in an alcoholic base to create the traditionally green concoction for his patients. It was originally designed as a remedy to conditions like gout, colic and headaches. It wasn’t till much later that it’s potential as an aperitif was discovered. And with an alcohol content often as high as 80 per cent by volume, that’s some pre-dinner drink!
It was the 1830s when the drink became popular. French troops fighting in Algeria used it as an anti-malarial agent. They tended to mix it with wine, calling it “absinthe soup.” It became a popular beverage when the troops of the African Battalion returned home from fighting. Their thirst for this newly acquired taste helped define a generation, with middle-class Parisians lining up to quaff the green stuff. So much so that the time of around five thirty became known as “The Green Hour.” A time of day when Parisians packed into the Boulevards and cafe bars. There was a massive devastation of French vineyards in the 1870s, so the price of wine was at a premium. Step in the stronger, cheaper alternative absinthe, which using industrial alcohol, popped up on every street corner to be peddled to the masses.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the drink became commonly known as “The Queen of poisons.” In France it was considered responsible for a range of social changes, such as a drastic increase in numbers incarcerated in asylums. Between 1867 and 1912, 16,532 patients were admitted to the asylum, about 1 percent of those were diagnosed with absinthism. By the end of the nineteenth century, France alone was pouring over 2 million litres of the stuff down their necks each year. And by 1910, it was reported the figure had gone up to the staggering figure of 36 million litres per year!
The drink was not only limited to French borders, in 1878 the States got a taste for the green stuff, importing over 7 million litres from Europe. New Orleans took to the Green Goddess so much that it became absinthe capital of America, boasting local brands such as Green Opal and Milky Way. In 1874 Cayetano Ferrer took over the lease of an old Juncadella Mansion, renaming it the ‘Absinthe Room.’ He was known for serving absinthe in French style fountains that dripped cold water onto sugar lumps suspended on perforated spoons over glasses of absinthe until the drink was diluted just right, with the perfect amount of sweetness. The fame of this speciality take spread far and wide.
Notable visitors to his bar included Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and British occultist Aleister Crowley, who like many others was fascinated by this potent liquid. Crowley had this to say on the drink,
“What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride that they are not as other men” – The Green Goddess (1918).
It was 1915 when the glory days of the drink ended, when a ban was imposed in France due to its harmful effect. It was a ban that was taken on by the US and almost the whole of Europe. Spain is thought to be the only European country to have never restricted the spirit’s consumption.
Creatives & Absinthe
It’s a drink that has truly inspired countless creatives. Names such as writers Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway. Painters like Édouard Manet, creator of ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud all indulged. The Green Fairy was their muse, their inspiration.
One of the most prominent and famed slaves to the drink was Lautrec. The disabled artist was known for carrying a hollow walking stick which hid a tube of absinthe inside it. On his adventures (and we’re sure there were lots of them) he was at times accompanied by his pet cormorant, that he had trained to partake in a drink of absinthe with him. You don’t see that in bars everyday.
Another of the famous names to drink absinthe heavily was Vincent Van Gogh. His strange behaviour (we’re being kind here, chopping off your ear anyone) is put down in part to his reliance on the drink, with its sometime hallucinogenic effects, some say he may have had a particularly bad reaction to it. He included the drink in some of his paintings and was said to have thrown a glass of it at Gauguin. To complete the circle Lautrec even painted Vincent drinking it.
Absinthe in the modern day
Loopholes in the law saw the spirit being produced and drunk again in the 1990s. The drink was still in the public consciousness but not in the same way as in those heady days in France. Two films in 2001 helped to popularise the drink again, there was the patchy From Hell, which starred Johnny Depp as a an absinthe addled Inspector trying to catch Jack the Ripper and then in the smash hit Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge, Kylie Minogue cameos as a green fairy. It’s even made its way into video games, in Fallout: New Vegas, absinthe is a consumable item boosting not strength but perception. It seems the legend of the drink is such that although we’ll never see it served on every street corner again anytime soon, it’s a spirit that will linger on in the ether for many generations to come.
In celebration of London Cocktail Week here’s 3 absinthe recipes taken from the annuls of time that you can test out yourself. But heed our advice, don’t overdo it!
Death in the afternoon
This one was dreamt up by Hemingway himself for a 1935 celebrity drinks book.
- 1 ounce Pernod Absinthe
- 4 ounces chilled Brut Champagne
Simply pour into a flute and serve up. Or for a more detailed description why not take direction from Ernest himself,
“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
McKinley’s Delight was created in 1896 to celebrate the 25th president’s election to office. What drink would be made to honour Trump? Nothing vodka based he’d hope, best to avoid anymore Russian associations. Anyway, think of this one as a jazzed up version of the classic Manhattan.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 1 teaspoon cherry brandy
- 1/4 teaspoon absinthe
Put the ice into a cocktail shaker. Pour in the rye whiskey, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, and of course, absinthe. Shake or stir to mix (we’d go with shaking). Then strain into a suitably chilled martini glass. A delight indeed.
The Corpse Reviver No. 2
This is an adapted version of the original recipe that is in from 1930s The Savoy Cocktail Book. Famous English barman and author of the book Harry Craddock had this to say on this interestingly titled drink,
“Four of these taken in swift succession will revive the corpse again.”
- 3/4 ounce cointreau or triple sec
- 3/4 ounce gin
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
- 3/4 ounce lillet blanc
- A dash of absinthe
Combine all of the ingredients in an iced shaker, apart from the absinthe. Shake like your life depends on it until the shaker is frosted over. Strain the contents into a chilled cocktail glass rinsed with absinthe. Garnish with a twist of lemon rind to complete this little elixir of renewed life.