Absinthe

Absinthe is an addictive, intoxicating drink most popular during the 18th century. Artists, poets, painters, writers of the time were indulged to this drink of purpose enhancing imagination and creativity. Rimbaud being one of them was highly familiar to absinthe, together with lover Verlaine who was drawn to the absurdity of drinking and died of debauchery.

“For me, my glory is but a humble ephemeral absinthe drunk on the sly, with fear of treason and if I drink no longer, it is for good reason!”

– Paul Verlaine

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.”

– Oscar Wilde

  • Absinthe takes its name from Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood and one of its ingredients, thujone, a natural chemical compound that is the supposed source of absinthe’s alleged mind altering properties.

  • Wormwood was first used to flavor alcoholic drinks as far back as 1792, when a potion was created by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland.

  • Ordinaire’s elixir also contained anise, hyssop, Melissa, coriander and various other local herbs, and at 68% alcohol presumably packed quite a punch.

  • Ordinaire allegedly left his recipe to two sisters, and they in turn passed it on to a Major Dubied whose son-in-law was one Henri-Louis Pernod.

  • Whatever the truth behind its origins, absinthe stopped being a local curiosity and started on its route to becoming a national phenomenon in 1797 with the foundation of a distillery by Major Dubied, his son and his son-in-law.

  • By the mid 19th century there were at least half a dozen producers operating in the region, with Pernod alone producing 20,000 liters a day from 26 stills.

  • The success of Pernod as a brand brought many imitators and the company went to court to prevent these trading on their hard-earned reputation. It was the introduction of these cheaper, adulterated imitations that may have been responsible for the reputation that absinthe gained for causing delirium and madness in those who drank it.

  • From the mid 19th century onwards absinthe became associated with bohemian Paris and featured frequently in the paintings of such artists as Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

  • When they were not painting it they were drinking it in large quantities, joined by contemporary poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine (who practically made a career out of it).

  • In fact it was not just popular among artists and poets. Parisian café³ were full of gentlemen drinking absinthe, so much so that the time between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. became known as L’heure verte (the green hour, in reference to absinthe’s color) and absinthe was the most popular aperitif in France.

  • So, if absinthe was so popular, why was it banned? There were a number of reasons. It got caught up in the temperance movement that was sweeping Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and became the scapegoat for all alcohol. Then, findings were published showing that thujone was a neurotoxin in large quantities that caused convulsions and death in laboratory animals.

  • There was also pressure from the wine producers who saw its popularity as a threat to their sales. The final nail was driven in the coffin with the lurid ‘Absinthe Murder’ that took place in Switzerland in 1905 when one Monsieur Lanfray shot his entire family after drinking absinthe.

  • The fact that he had also consumed several liters of wine and a considerable amount of brandy was overlooked by the prohibitionists, and two years later absinthe was banned in Switzerland.

  • By the start of the First World War, absinthe had been banned in the U.S. and every country in Europe except France, Spain and England. It is no exaggeration to compare the impact of banning absinthe to the effect that the banning of Scotch whisky would have on Scotland.

  • What is modern absinthe like? Well, broadly speaking, if you like pastis you will like absinthe. Absinthe’s anise is not as heavy and a quality absinthe will be unsweetened (most are not), but there is a family resemblance.

  • Remember that absinthe is not hallucinogenic and should not be drunk with any expectations of getting ‘high.’ It certainly has some effects that are secondary to the alcohol and these can best be described as a feeling of clarity and sharpness of perception.

  • But do bear in mind that absinthe is far stronger than most spirits you will be used to ? if you overdo it, you will still be seeing the Green Fairy when you wake up the next day.

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