A brief history of absinthe

“The green fairy” has been shrouded in suspicion for decades—from blindness to hallucinations and hysteria, the list of supposed dangers have long been warned of. We go behind the myth to discover the history of the spirit.

What is absinthe?

what is absinthe

Absinthe is a botanical spirit that ranges from 45-75 per cent in strength. Produced using green anise, grande wormwood and sweet fennel, when distilled well it has a light, aniseedy taste and depending on the brand, its flavour can range from sweet and floral to spicy.

 

The history of absinthe

the history of absinthe
T. Privat Livemont, poster for Absinthe Robette 1896, © David Nathan-Maister & The Virtual Absinthe Museum

Though the first recorded evidence of absinthe consumption dates to the 18th century, the origins of the spirt could herald back as far as Ancient Egypt, where wormwood (the herb from which it derives) was used for medicinal purposes. In Ancient Greece, there’s evidence of the consumption of a wormwood-flavoured wine.

Legend dictates that absinthe as we know it, however, was first patented as a cure-all remedy in Switzerland, by French doctor Pierre Ordinaire. There is contention around the origin of his recipe, however—many believe absinthe was being distilled by the sisters of the Henriod family, and their mother and grandmother before them, many years before the doctor moved into the village.

wormwood

Whatever the true story, after the doctor's death, the Henriod sisters sold the recipe to Major Dubied in 1797, who opened the world’s first absinthe distillery, “Dubied Père et Fils in Couvet” with his son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod, opening a second distillery in France just a few years later. Pernod is still a notable brand of absinthe today. 

As the 1800s wore on, absinthe rapidly grew in popularity, in part thanks to its popularity with soldiers, who were given the drink as a malaria preventative, and returned home with a taste for the spirit. In fact, the drink became so popular, that the hour of 5pm—the most popular time to consume abstinthe—became known as “the green hour”, a trend that would eventually become the modern-day "Happy Hour".

Perhaps part of absinthe's appeal lay in the way it broke down social boundaries. In France’s bistros and bars, rich and poor drank the spirit side by side, often drinking from the same absinthe fountains, in a blend of social class rarely seen in other areas of society.

 

Why was absinthe banned?

absinthe propaganda poster
The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva, which now hangs in the artist's favourite cafe, Cafe Slavia. Image via Wiki

The more popular absinthe became, the more distilleries opened to meet with demand, and the sudden influx of production saw a sharp drop in the cost of the spirit. At the same time, many counterfeit companies began to produce imitation absinthes, which were often not distilled at all and contained poisons, including the copper sulfate the fraudsters used to give the drink its distinctive green colour.

Meanwhile, an infestation of “grape phylloxera” insects destroyed over two-thirds of Europe’s vineyards, decimating the wine industry and seeing absinthe overtake wine as the most popular drink in France.

Wine lobbyists, therefore, began working to discredit absinthe, warning of the “dangers” of the drink to the French government. In fact, absinthe carries no more risk than any other high strength spirits.

Drinking too much absinthe garnered its very own name—abstinthism—which was supposedly characterized by not only drunkenness but also hyper-excitability and hallucinations. Doctors even claimed that absinthism was a hereditary disease, that could be passed onto the drinker’s children.

absinthe

By 1880, it became popular in Parisian bars to ask for “a ticket” when they wanted a glass of absinthe, a reference to a ticket to Charenton, the infamous lunatic asylum just outside the city.

In 1905, an alcoholic Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray murdered his family in the grip of an alcohol-fuelled rage. Throughout the day he had consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one brandy-laced coffee, two crème de menthes and two glasses of absinthe. The bubbling moral panic around absinthe in Europe meant that the media focused solely on absinthe as the cause of his actions. The murders led to a petition with 82,000 signatures calling for the banning of the spirit, which passed in Switzerland in 1910, the US in 1912 and France in 1915. It wouldn't be leaglised again in the US until 2007. 

 

Who were some famous absinthe drinkers?

absinthe drinker
The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso. Image via Wiki

Absinthe in part owes its mysterious reputation to some of its high profile drinkers. From Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce to Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Marilyn Manson, the spirit has no shortage of high-profile fans. And they don’t hesitate when it comes to singing its praises. Here are just a few choice quotes about the drink from its famous admirers.

“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” – Oscar Wilde

“I sit at my door…sipping absinthe, and I enjoy every day without a care in the world” – Paul Gauguin

“Let us toast to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives…and to the ‘good life’, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.” – Hunter S Thompson

 

Where can I drink absinthe today?

where can i drink absinthe in london

As Britain never technically banned abstinthe—the rumours and scaremongering in the rest of Europe simply led to the drink falling out of favour—the 1990s saw something of a revival of the spirit in the country.

Our favourite spot to try a taste of the “green fairy” for yourself is Croque Monsieur. A short walk from London’s Mornington Crescent station, this tiny basement bar has something of a speakeasy feel—without the snobbery.

The absinthe cocktails on offer are delicious and surprisingly light, with a menu designed to ease the absinthe-newbie into the drink gradually, with options in beginners, intermediate and advanced levels.

The bar is a particularly great showcase for the diversity of the spirit, with flavours ranging from the sweet and sour of the beginner’s “Sneaky Vimto" to the sophisticated flavours of an absinthe-laced Dark-n-Stormy-with-a-twist “Chocolat”, right through to the sweet but punchy aniseed flavour of “Death in the Tropics”.