“Absinthe, I adore you, truly! It seems, when I drink you, I inhale the young forest’s soul, During the beautiful green season.”
– Raoul Ponchon 1848 – 1937 French poet & friend to Rimbaud
Absinthe is an anise (liquorice) flavored drink named after the plant, Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. The plant ranges from two to four feet in length with grayish green leaves, yellow flowers, produces a strong odor and is quite bitter in taste.
Wormwood has been mentioned throughout history, from the Greek physician Galen in the second century A.D., to several places within the bible, and has been known primarily as a medicinal aide for various ailments.
It is allegedly believed that mod ern absinthe was created by a French doctor by the name of Pierre Ordinaire in 1792.
Fleeing from France during the revolution, he settled in the small village of Couvet, in west ern Switzerland. Finding worm wood growing throughout the Val-de-Travers region, he began experimenting with his own version of an absinthe elixir. Using wormwood, and various other herbs like: anise, hyssop, dittany, sweet flag, Melissa (a kind of mint), he created an extremely popular drink that was used as a general cure-all and was given its infamous nickname, La Fee Verte (The Green Fairy). As it turns out, the Henriod sisters had been selling absinthe as early as 1769 as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland before Dr. Ordinaire had even arrived. Yet it was the good doctor that made the drink well known and was the first to promote its wide spread use.
In 1797, a Major Henri Dubied bought the Henriod sisters’ recipe and started a small, eight by four meter distillery in Cou vet with his son Marcellin and son-in law Henri-Louis Pernod. In 1805, Pernod opened a larger absinthe factory/distillery across the Swiss border in Pontarlier, France, thereby creating the first distillery of an anise-based liqueur in France.
From 1844-47, French soldiers fighting in Algeria were given rations of absinthe as a fever preventative (mixed with wine or water, absinthe was believed to kill microbes). Subsequently, upon the return of thousands of soldiers to Paris, they brought their taste for anise with them to café’s and restaurants. By the turn of the century, the Pernod factory was producing and distributing 30,000 liters of absinthe all over the world. By 1910, France consumed 36,000,000 liters of the green drink a year.
With the rise of absinthe consumption throughout Europe during the 19th and 20th century, particularly throughout France, a Bohemian cult like status arose around the drink thanks to it being romanticized (as well as consumed) by arrays of writers, poets, and artists throughout Paris and other cul tural hubs throughout the world. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Lautrec painted several pieces in hues of green and portrayed absinthe drinkers (from women to homeless drunks on the street) and the drink itself in different mediums.
Writers like Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dawson, Ernest Heming way, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Marie Verlaine drank insatiable amounts of the seductive drink and wrote about its ability to create intense levels of drunkenness (and supposed hallucinatory states of enhanced perceptions and experiences) in their poetry, stories, and novels.
Although absinthe did contain high levels of alcohol, between 50-70%, depending on the specific recipe used, it did not cause hallucinatory effects, as many rumors had endorsed over time. The chemical thujone (a convulsant, harmful in high doses), found in wormwood, did not actually cause psychedelic effects and was not as harmful and or toxic as doctors and prohibitionists believed it to be. Nevertheless, absinthe became the first drink to specifically be outlawed by different countries. The Swiss banned absinthe in 1910. In 1912, the United States made absinthe illegal as well. In 1915, the production, circulation, and sale of absinthe was made illegal in France. Today, the sale and production of absinthe is highly regulated by the European Union based upon thujone levels and several distillers have found loopholes in the marketing of absinthe in order to avoid legal problems (in France, a liquor marketed as absinthe is still illegal but with a different name the producer is free and clear). Yet absinthe is still illegal in the United States. The production and importation of absinthe that contains grand wormwood is illegal, yet the possession and or consumption of absinthe in the United States is technically not a crime.
Set an old fashioned but simple absinthe glass on the bar with a slotted steel spoon balanced on top and an imperfect cube of brown sugar gently rest ing in the center. Then slowly allow about an ounce worth of Absynthe Camargo, (a Brazilian absinthe that is 54% alcohol and contains a legal amount of thujone and a species of wormwood that is legal to sell within liquors in the United States) to drip slowly onto the sugar, spoon, and into the glass. The absinthe is then lit with a match, with a lovely blue glow that enhances the deep green liquid sitting at the bottom of the glass. Water is then dripped onto the sugar, thereby allowing the bitter flavor of the absinthe to become somewhat diluted with the sugar’s sweetness.
What’s left is a strong, anise-flavored drink that certainly gives you a decent buzz and a sense of pride in your homage to the Bohemian artists and writers that began a love affair with this sumptuous lady all so many years ago.
By Francis Elman