|image source: portaseportais.com|
|image source: Wikipedia|
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: ibiblio.org
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
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.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!
'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.”
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
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).