Wednesday, July 27, 2011

l'histoire de «la fée verte»

image source:
Absinthe.  The potent green nectar of the bohemian, the artist, the eccentric.  At least that's how I always have imagined it in my mind from the drink's representation in films such as Moulin Rouge! and From Hell.  It was always a liquid that was burned in the ritualistic preparation of the drink, one that was banned and that was whispered to make you go crazy.  Being neither a big alcohol drinker nor someone to seek contraband items, I could leave absinthe alone with its movie representations.  Even as an enthusiast of the 19th century I never bothered to further research absinthe.

image source: Wikipedia
That was, until two nights ago.  I was feeling rather sleepy and lethargic so I decided to settle into bed with my laptop and watch something on Hulu before turning out the light.  What I ended up watching was something that both appealed to my love of history and my current thirst for "news and information" pieces, simply entitled: Absinthe.  This hour-long informational movie focused on absinthe's history, from its creation in a small Swiss village, to its association with the French cafés and artists of the late 19th century, to the nearly global pre-WWI bans on the beverage, and its gradual reemergence as a legal and popular spirit.

First, I want to announce my ignorance of the following fact: in the 19th century, absinthe was drunk by pouring a little into a glass, then placing a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and slowly pouring cold water over it.  The sugar turns the green spirit a sot of milky-white color.  The sugar is stirred into the drink and is ready to wet the palate.  That whole "burn the sugar cube into the absinthe" thing from Moulin Rouge! and From Hell is historically inaccurate.  The process of burning the sugar is, apparently, a rather recent Czech method.

Although it is disputed whether absinthe existed at an earlier point, the modern incarnation of the drink known as absinthe was first made in the Val-de-Travers in Switzerland and peddled by one Dr. Pierre Ordinaire.  An herbal spirit, the doctor sold it as a sort of cure-all elixir to patients.  It is unclear whether the doctor had invented the drink and sold it to a peasant woman named Madame Henriod, or whether Mme Henriod had concocted the spirit and sold the recipe to Dr. Ordinaire.  What is known is that, around 1797, Mme Henriod had sold her recipe to a Major Dubied, who opened the first absinthe distillery with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod.  This distillery, which was moved to Pontarlier France in 1805, eventually became known globally by its brand name Pernod Fils, makers of popular, high-quality absinthe.

L'absinthe, by Edgar Degas (1876)
image source:
The green spirit, concocted from green anise, fennel, and other herbal ingredients, remained more or less a regional drink until the 1830s.  During that time the French army were fighting in Algeria, and tropical diseases such as malaria were taking their toll on the troops.  To stave off the disease the army gave the herbal elixir to their troops to sterilize their drinking water.  When the soldiers came home they brought their taste for the anise-flavored drink with them, ordering it on the sidewalk cafés of Paris.  Soon the artists, working classes, and bourgeoisie who came to the cafes took note of the drink and ordered it themselves.  It is speculated that part of the attraction to the drink was its anise or licorice-like flavor, an unusual taste in this period when cocktails had yet to be invented and the "flavor" choices were those of wine and beer.

By the 1860s and 1870s the drink had become so popular that the "happy hour" period from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. was often called  «l'heure verte,» or "the green hour," a name taken from the yellowish-green pallor of the liquid.

La muse verte, by Albert Maignan (1895)
image source: Wikipedia
Artists loved the drink because of the supposed "lucid drunkenness" or "drunken clarity" they claimed that the alcohol gave them.  This clarity, the "green fairy" within the drink, was the "muse" that awakened higher truths, original ideas, and unusual concepts within the artists of Paris, who went on to create surreal, imaginative, and avant-garde poetry, writing, and art pieces in the late nineteenth century.  Famous artists who regularly indulged in "the Green Fairy" included Vincent van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimband, Oscar Wilde, and Aleister Crowley.

The problem with absinthe was this strange quality to it- its purported "hallucinogenic" effects.  Some historians and experts surmise that strange visions, dreams, madness, and even death from drinking absinthe were caused by cheap and improperly distilled versions of the liquor.  According to Wikipedia and the documentary, some attempted to do experiments with the chemical components of grande wormwood, one of the main ingredients in absinthe:

One of the first vilifications of absinthe was an 1864 experiment in which a certain Dr. Magnan exposed a guinea pig to large doses of pure wormwood vapour and another to alcohol vapours. The guinea pig exposed to wormwood experienced convulsive seizures, while the animal exposed to alcohol did not. Magnan would later blame the chemical thujone, contained in wormwood, for these effects.
Other accounts of absinthe drinking and its bizarre effects, such as the following personal account by Oscar Wilde, must have alarmed more than just the teetotalers of the day:

The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things. One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and began to pile the chairs on the tables.
                                                                                                                                          'Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor.’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must go now, Sir.’

‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.

‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.

‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt - the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
Absinthe's eventual downfall, much like its rise, had almost everything to do with historical circumstances, as well as a reputation for creating madness.  In the 1870s and 1880s a blight struck the vineyards of France, pretty much obliterating the wine industry.  It took years for the wine industry to recover.  As a result wine, that French staple, skyrocketed in price, while the price of absinthe dropped from mass production.  When wine began coming back onto the market, its producers realized that they had lost a great deal of their market to absinthe.  That, along with the highly publicized murders of absinthe drinker Jean Lanfray's wife and two daughters by Lanfray himself, ignited the crusade against absinthe in earnest.  What the publicity of the Lanfray murders appears to have left out of the papers, however, was the fact that Lanfray drank two ounces of absinthe along with brandy-laced coffee, several glasses of white wine, several glasses of cognac, and two crème de menthes before losing his temper and shooting his wife and children!

As a result absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, followed by the U.S. in 1912 and France in 1915.

La Fin de la "Fée Verte," by Albert Ganter (1910)
image source: ecodigerati
Death of the Green Fairy, Audino (1915)
image source: Cafe Press
La Fée Verte did not quite die, however.  In countries where it had never been popular and was, therefore, never banned, the anise-flavored drink was reproduced and sold, sometimes at a poor quality and dyed green to give it its signiature color.  Clandestine distilleries operated in the Val-de-Travers, absinthe's place of origin up until the present, making a blue liquid that would attract less attention from authorities.

In the 1990s a resurgence of the drink's popularity occurred in the countries in which it had never been banned, especially England.  With pressure from local distillers to legalize absinthe, which has never been officially proven to cause madness when properly distilled, the bans on absinthe were lifted in France and Switzerland and "restrictions" placed on the ingredients used in the spirit- often on the levels of thujone.  The U.S. has only followed suit in the past four years, creating restrictions on what levels of chemicals can and cannot be in the drink as well.

I am certainly no expert on absinthe, having only just learned most of this information within the past 48 hours.  For more information I suggest you check out The Virtual Absinthe Museum- a true treasure trove of information on absinthe, from its history to its purported effects to absinthe-related merchandise (i.e. prints and posters).


  1. Thanks for the fascinating post. I have also never wanted to actually try absinthe, because I don't have any interest in things just because they are illicit and really hate pernod and the other similar drinks, but I think the history is fascinating.
    Also, the fact that absinthe was first peddled in Switzerland by a guy named Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is probably the greatest thing I have learned in a long time. We can only hope that it was brought to America by Johnny Nothing-to-see-here.

  2. I knew a bit about the history of Absinthe thanks to my art history classes, but never knew all of these fascinating details.

    I've had the drink a few times, and never even felt a buzz (much less had hallucinations). I do believe that what is now available is wormwood-free, although many Goths who drink it seem to believe it will cause them to hallucinate and therefore it does... Interesting. That said, I think it tastes nasty and I'm with Sabayon; I'm not going to drink it (or do anything else, for that matter) just because it's naughty to do so. :) But I do find the psychology behind that mindset intriguing.

  3. I drink it, but have never hallucinated. I actually use three cubes of sugar rather than just one.

  4. I didn't know about the correct way to drink it either! I love the pics you found on the death of the Green Fairy.