Absinthe is a distilled spirit flavoured with herbs, the most important of these being wormwood, or artemisia absinthium. Green aniseed, star anise and fennel are also commonly used, and other traditional ingredients include hyssop, lemon balm, coriander, mint, dittany, juniper, veronica, tansy and angelica. Absinthe is traditionally a natural green-yellow, or colourless, though since its re-emergence in the 1990s the trend has been towards bright greens, with some modern examples coloured somewhat less naturally in red, blue and even black. Absinthe tends to be bottled at a high proof, and is traditionally diluted with water by the drinker prior to consumption. Sugar is frequently added to balance the product’s natural bitterness.
History credits the creation of absinthe to one Dr Pierre Ordinaire, in Switzerland circa 1792. Fleeing the French revolution Ordinaire had settled in Couvet and created a tonic of wormwood, which he bequeathed on his death to his housekeeper (or lover, depending on the story), Mlle Henriette Henriod. Some sources have suggested, however, that Mlle Henriod and her sister were in fact producing and selling their elixir long before the arrival of Ordinaire. What is known is that in 1797 Henriod sold the formula to Major Daniel-Henri Dubied. That year Dubied’s daughter married Henri-Louis Pernod, and the major, his sons and his new son-in-law built the first commercial absinthe distillery. In 1805 Pernod set up a larger factory in Pontarlier, just across the French border, primarily to avoid paying import tax. By 1826 there were four distilleries in total in and around Pontarlier, including a second distillery set up by Pernod’s son; by 1849 there were 25 distilleries producing a total of 10,000,000 litres per day.
The initial impetus for absinthe to become more than just a regional drink came through the French Algerian conquest of 1830, when the French soldiers were given it to purify the water and as a preventative against malaria and dysentery. They developed a taste for this green liquor which they brought back home with them. The green hour, l’heure verte, became the fashion on the boulevards of Paris, where between five and seven in the evening the soldiers would congregate and enjoy their absinthe in the cafés. The bourgeoisie, seeking to associate with the returned heroes, would frequent the same cafés, also drinking absinthe. The poets and artists too developed a love of the green fairy, taking it with them to the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, thus beginning the long association between absinthe and the bohemian lifestyle.
Absinthe became the drink, inspiration and muse for many artists of the late 19th century. Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Picasso all painted works inspired by and featuring absinthe; as did Vincent Van Gogh, whose legendary self-mutilation is often blamed on over-indulgence. Poets such as Baudelaire, Dowson, Rimbaud and Verlaine devoted verses to their favourite tipple. Ernest Hemmingway was known to enjoy a glass and named a cocktail of his creation, the lethal mixture of absinthe and champagne, after one of his novels: Death in the Afternoon. The decadent Oscar Wilde was moved to comment, “A glass of absinthe is as poetic as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
By the mid 1870s the vine louse phylloxera was decimating the vineyards of Europe, causing the price of wine to increase dramatically. At the same time the lack of availability of grape spirit forced the distillers to turn to cheaper grain and molasses alcohol, meaning that the price of absinthe dropped significantly, along with the quality. Absinthe now became the drink of the poor as well as the bourgeoisie, artists and military. As absinthe’s popularity increased a temperance movement developed in parallel, supported, ironically enough, by the ailing wine industry which was seeking to gain back some ground from its new great rival. Soon absinthe found itself considered in a different category to other alcoholic drinks; studies were undertaken into “absinthism”, considered to be distinct from alcoholism, and absinthe began to become the scapegoat for a wide range of social problems; blamed for causing insanity, depravation and even France’s military failures.
Public opinion had turned against the green fairy by 1905, when the infamous Lanfray murders took place in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland. In August of that year, after a domestic quarrel, Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife and two daughters, aged four and one, before trying and failing to kill himself. A heavy drinker, he was in the habit of drinking around five litres of wine a day, supplemented with brandy, various liqueurs and absinthe. On the day of the tragedy he had an absinthe for breakfast, followed throughout the day by crème de menthe, cognac and a large amount of wine. The extent and variety of his drinking habits, was generally disregarded, however, and absinthe was deemed to have been the culprit. A petition led to absinthe being banned in the canton of Vaud, and a second led to a national referendum in 1907, in which the Swiss voted to ban absinthe. Jean Lanfray was sentenced to life in prison, but hung himself in his cell.
The ball was set in motion; around this period absinthe was banned in Belgium (1906), Holland (1910) and the USA (1912, seven years before prohibition). Numerous attempts were made to ban it in France, but these had little effect until the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914. Initial heavy losses were blamed on absinthe consumption amongst the troops, and the French government ordered all departments to ban its sale (though not its production). This was not enforced particularly well and absinthe consumption continued much as before. Eventually the government felt action was needed, and on the 16th of March 1915 the manufacture and sale of absinthe in France was prohibited. Other countries, notably England and Czechoslovakia, never introduced a ban; allowing a company called Green Bohemia to take advantage of this and begin importing Hill’s absinth to the UK in 1998, rekindling interest in the green fairy after 80 years.
Absinthe is made by a combination of maceration and distillation. Wormwood, anise and fennel are steeped in alcohol along with a variety of other herbs. This maceration is then distilled, giving a clear spirit which may then be bottled and sold as blanche, or ‘white’ absinthe. More commonly a second maceration will take place, adding extra wormwood and flavourings and allowing the plants’ chlorophyll to colour the liquid green. Lower quality absinthes may skip the distillation process altogether and simply add flavourings to neutral spirit.
Absinthe is placed broadly into two categories: French and Bohemian. Traditional French style absinthe is made as described above. It generally has pronounced aniseed notes and a complex herbaceous taste. Quality absinthes from elsewhere, such as Spain and Switzerland, can be thought of as being in this group (though they are subtly different). Bohemian absinth, spelled without the ‘e’, is associated with the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe, but is made in many places. It tends to have less aniseed flavour – sometimes none at all – and is usually very strong.
Initially absinthe was simply diluted with water, but as it gained in popularity it acquired a ritual and paraphernalia, such as spoons and fountains. To prepare an absinthe in the French style, a measure of absinthe is poured into a glass (some specific absinthe glasses are marked at the correct level for a measure) and a slotted absinthe spoon is rested across the rim. A sugar cube is placed on this spoon and water is dripped, either from an absinthe fountain or a special carafe with a narrow aperture. As the drops or water hit the sugar cube it dissolves and drips into the absinthe. The water mixes with the absinthe, lowering its alcoholic percentage and releasing the plant oils it contains, causing it to change from a clear green (or colourless) liquid to an opaque milky colour. This effect is known as la louche. The ratio of absinthe to water is a matter of taste, and dependent on the absinthe, but 1:5 tends to produce a reliable enjoyable drink, perfect to be sipped during l’heure verte.
The Czech, or Bohemian method is more spectacular, but less poetic. A teaspoon of powdered sugar is soaked in absinth and lit. As the sugar melts it is stirred into the absinth, and the flames are doused by the addition of water, either in equal parts or a ratio of 1:2, and the whole thing is drank in one. Bohemian absinth contains little or no anise or other herbs and so does not louche when water is added.