The history of Absinthe
March 8, 2017
The “Green Fairy”
In the long history of alcohol, few distilled beverages have achieved the notoriety of absinthe. Light green in color and exceedingly potent (110-144 proof), absinthe, has also become known as the “Green Fairy.”
— A Perfunctory Life (@Leonid_ZMan) February 15, 2017
Absinthe became popular in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, especially with the belle-époque bohemian population. Impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet were familiar with the spirit, each famously capturing absinthe drinkers on canvas. Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe were also avid consumers.
Alas, these heady days of absinthe weren’t to last—by 1915 the drink was banned in the U.S. and most of Europe. This included France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. So, what accounts for such an abrupt about-face?
Although some recipes call for additional herbs and flowers, absinthe traditionally is made from anise and fennel. Both of these come from the parsley family, and wormwood, a bitter, aromatic shrub. These three basics components are then soaked in alcohol and distilled.
As it has such a high alcohol content, absinthe is often diluted with water. Usually by placing a sugar cube on top of a slotted spoon. The spoon sits over the glass of absinthe, and then pouring ice water over the sugar cube so both water and sugar mix with the alcohol.
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First appearing in Switzerland in the 18th century, absinthe saw a surge in popularity. Starting in the 1840s the French military prescribed it to protect its troops from malaria. Not surprisingly, the soldiers returned home craving the stuff, and by the 1860s it had become massively popular. So popular in fact, that 5 p.m. became known at bars, bistros and cafes as l’heure verte (“the green hour”).
Falling Out of Favor
Slowly but surely, though, a cloud of controversy began to descend upon the popular spirit. First, the French wine industry. They were concerned that absinthe was taking too much market share. They began a smear campaign—absinthe, the wrongly contended, was a poison.
It is no doubt because of its association with Paris’ “degenerate” artist and writer population, absinthe was targeted by social conservatives and prohibition movements.
According to author Barnaby Conrad III, in his 1988 book, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, one absinthe critic claimed, “[It] makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
While drinking Absinthe…
This misconception wasn’t helped when Oscar Wilde, on a three-day absinthe bender. Where he hallucinated “flowers, tulips, lilies and roses” springing from the sawdust-covered floor and making “a garden in the café.” Nor did the rumor that Van Gogh chopped off his ear while drunk on the spirit help the cause.
However, the final nail in the proverbial coffin was driven in 1905. When Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and tried to kill himself after drinking (among many other things) absinthe.
Soon thereafter, a petition banning the spirit began to circulate. The petition was signed by more than 82,000. In 1908, Swiss voters approved an official ban. The U.S. and France soon followed suit.
Misconceptions about absinthe continue to this day, with many believing the spirit causes hallucinations. Specifically blaming the chemical thujone, which occurs naturally in wormwood. This is incorrect for 2 reasons.
First, there very little thujone left in absinthe after distillation.
And Second, as noted by Julia Layton, in her article, “Does absinthe really cause hallucinations?”: “a person drinking absinthe would die from alcohol poisoning long before he or she were affected by the thujone. And there is no evidence at all that thujone can cause hallucinations, even in high doses.”
Layton goes on to note “any absinthe-related deaths can most likely be attributed to alcoholism, alcohol poisoning or drinking the cheap stuff, which, like moonshine, can have poisonous additives in it.”
In the 1990s, British importer BBH Spirits, discovered that the UK had never officially banned absinthe. So BHH began to import the spirit from the Czech Republic.
Once back on the alcohol beverage map, its popularity surged and pressure to lift the bans in other countries soon followed. The U.S. opened its borders to the “Green Fairy” in 2007, and France in 2011. Nearly 200 brands of absinthe are produced in more than a dozen countries.
Of course, this is a boon for bartenders, yet another interesting ingredient from which to make cutting-edge cocktails. Among the many absinthe-based drinks they can wow their clientele with:
• The Sun Also Rises (a Hemingway daiquiri with a spoonful of absinthe)
• Sleepy Hollow (a smoky combination of absinthe and mescal)
• Corpse Reviver No. 2 (gin and absinthe = refreshing, delicious and dangerous)
• The Green Beast (a powerful lime and absinthe punch)
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all—Death in the Afternoon. A concoction invented back in 1935 by none other than Ernest Hemingway. Ernest created the cocktail for a celebrity mixology book. His instructions? “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.”
Join us to find out more
Cutting-edge cocktails and unique spirits will be one of the many interesting and timely beverage alcohol-related topics at the all-new BAR Management Conference. BAR 17, the beverage alcohol industry’s premier annual gathering, May 21-22, 2017, in Chicago, IL. The BAR Management Conference offers bar professionals access to an array of lectures and workshops intended to explore bar trends, pain points and best practices towards profitability. For more information, visit Restaurant.org/BAR.