Absinthe is an anise-flavoured spirit derived from several plants, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium (“grand wormwood”), together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. Historically described as a highly alcoholic spirit, it is 45–74% ABV or 90–148 proof US. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green colour but may also be colourless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as la fée verte (“the green fairy”). It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a liqueur, but is not traditionally bottled with added sugar, so is classified as a spirit. Absinthe is traditionally bottled at a high level of alcohol by volume, but it is normally diluted with water before being consumed.
World Absinthe day was started to celebrate the renaissance of this spirit which has been returning to popularity over the last few years.
Later today, we will share the traditional French “Absinthe Ritual”, sometimes called the “Absinthe Drip Cocktail” as well as two other cocktails with a large absinthe content. Join us for these cocktails from 1900.
The precise origin of absinthe is unclear. The medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt and is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, around 1550 BC. Wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves were used as remedies by the ancient Greeks. Moreover, some evidence exists of a wormwood-flavoured wine in ancient Greece called absinthites oinos.
The first evidence of absinthe, in the sense of a distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel, dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, it began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792 (the exact date varies by account). Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold it as a medicinal elixir. By other accounts, the Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. In either case, a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters in 1797 and opened the first absinthe distillery named Dubied Père et Fils in Couvet with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the company name Maison Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe until the drink was banned in France in 1914.
Growth of consumption
An absinthe frappé, a common way to serve absinthe with simple syrup, water, and crushed ice
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when it was given to French troops as a malaria preventive, and the troops brought home their taste for it. Absinthe became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets by the 1860s that the hour of 5 pm was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). It was favoured by all social classes, from the wealthy bourgeoisie to poor artists and ordinary working-class people. By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price to drop sharply, and the French were drinking 36 million litres per year by 1910, compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion litres of wine.
Absinthe was exported widely from France and Switzerland and attained some degree of popularity in other countries, including Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Czech Republic. It was never banned in Spain or Portugal, and its production and consumption have never ceased. It gained a temporary spike in popularity there during the early 20th century, corresponding with the Art Nouveau and Modernism aesthetic movements.
New Orleans has a cultural association with absinthe and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar on bourbon Street began selling absinthe in the first half of the 19th century. Its Catalan lease-holder, Cayetano Ferrer, named it the Absinthe Room in 1874 due to of the popularity of the drink, which was served in the Parisian style. It was frequented by Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley, and Frank Sinatra.
Absinthe became associated with violent crimes and social disorder, and one modern writer claims that this trend was spurred by fabricated claims and smear campaigns, which he claims were orchestrated by the temperance movement and the wine industry. One critic claimed:
Absinthe 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.
Edgar Degas’s 1876 painting L’Absinthe can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay epitomising the popular view of absinthe addicts as sodden and benumbed, and Émile Zola described its effects in his novel L’Assommoir.
In 1905, Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray murdered his family and attempted to kill himself after drinking absinthe. Lanfray was an alcoholic who had drunk a lot of wine and brandy before the killings, but that was overlooked or ignored, and blame for the murders was placed solely on his consumption of two glasses of absinthe. The Lanfray murders were the tipping point in this hotly debated topic, and a subsequent petition collected more than 82,000 signatures to ban it in Switzerland. A referendum was held on 5 July 1908. It was approved by voters, and the prohibition of absinthe was written into the Swiss constitution.
In 1906, Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and distribution of absinthe, although these were not the first countries to take such action. It had been banned as early as 1898 in the colony of the Congo Free State. The Netherlands banned it in 1909, Switzerland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.
The prohibition of absinthe in France eventually led to the popularity of pastis, and to a lesser extent, ouzo, and other anise-flavoured spirits that do not contain wormwood. Following the conclusion of the First World War, production of the Pernod Fils brand was resumed at the Banus distillery in Catalonia, Spain (where absinthe was still legal), but gradually declining sales saw the cessation of production in the 1960s. In Switzerland, the ban served only to drive the production of absinthe underground. Clandestine home distillers produced colourless absinthe (la Bleue), which was easier to conceal from the authorities. Many countries never banned absinthe, notably the United Kingdom, where it had never been as popular as in continental Europe.
British importer BBH Spirits began to import Hill’s Absinth from the Czech Republic in the 1990s, as the UK had never formally banned it, and this sparked a modern resurgence in its popularity. It began to reappear during a revival in the 1990s in countries where it was never banned. Forms of absinthe available during that time consisted almost exclusively of Czech, Spanish, and Portuguese brands that were of recent origin, typically consisting of Bohemian-style products. Connoisseurs considered these of inferior quality and not representative of the 19th-century spirit. In 2000, La Fée Absinthe became the first commercial absinthe distilled and bottled in France since the 1914 ban, but it is now one of dozens of brands that are produced and sold within France.
In the Netherlands, the restrictions were challenged by Amsterdam wineseller Menno Boorsma in July 2004, thus confirming the legality of absinthe once again. Similarly, Belgium lifted its long-standing ban on January 1, 2005, citing a conflict with the adopted food and beverage regulations of the single European Market. In Switzerland, the constitutional ban was repealed in 2000 during an overhaul of the national constitution, although the prohibition was written into ordinary law, instead. That law was later repealed, and it was made legal on March 1, 2005.
The drink was never officially banned in Spain, although it began to fall out of favour in the 1940s and almost vanished into obscurity. Catalonia has seen significant resurgence since 2007, when one producer established operations there. Absinthe has never been illegal to import or manufacture in Australia, although importation requires a permit under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulation 1956 due to a restriction on importing any product containing “oil of wormwood”. In 2000, an amendment made all wormwood species prohibited herbs for food purposes under Food Standard 1.4.4. Prohibited and Restricted Plants and Fungi. However, this amendment was found inconsistent with other parts of the pre-existing Food Code, and it was withdrawn in 2002 during the transition between the two codes, thereby continuing to allow absinthe manufacture and importation through the existing permit-based system. These events were erroneously reported by the media as it having been reclassified from a prohibited product to a restricted product.
In 2007, the French brand Lucid became the first genuine absinthe to receive a Certificate of Label Approval for import into the United States since 1912, following independent efforts by representatives from Lucid and Kübler to overturn the long-standing U.S. ban. In December 2007, St. George Absinthe Verte produced by St. George Spirits of Alameda, California became the first brand of American-made absinthe produced in the United States since the ban. Since that time, other micro-distilleries have started producing small batches in the United States.
The 21st century has seen new types of absinthe, including various frozen preparations, which have become increasingly popular. The French Absinthe Ban of 1915 was repealed in May 2011 following petitions by the Fédération Française des Spiritueux which represents French distillers.
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