“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are and that is the most horrible thing in the world” –Oscar Wild.
Has there ever been a more controversial drink than Absinthe? Elixir of Life, turned green demon, turned exotic and unobtainable liqueur. Then finally landing as an insignificant yet infamous spirit. While I’m sure most people still haven’t had much experience with Absinthe. And, might never want to be given its medicinal like flavors of anise and herbs, it truly has a deliciously dramatic history.
While popularized in France, Absinthe was originally created in Couvet, Switzerland by French Doctor, Pierre Ordinaire. His creation was anything but ordinary. His concoction was a mixture of fermented herbs that included Artemisia Absinthium or Wormwood. Wormwood was first used to help prevent malaria, which was ravaging French soldiers in Algeria during the 1800s. The taste for the green elixir became a favorite of the soldiers who would ask for it at bars back home throughout the 1940’s. What we now know, and will discuss later, is that the soldiers were more than likely suffering from alcoholism.
The recipe was sold to the Pernod Family, yes that Pernod Family that own favorites such as Absolute Vodka and Chivas Regal Scotch, of which Henri-Louis Pernod opened a factory in Pontarlier, France to manufacture Absinthe on a large scale. At this point, soldiers may have lead the way for Absinthe being accepted as more than medicine. However, it truly took off between the 1860’s and 1870’s when Phylloxera (a parasite) devastated vineyards all over France causing a wine shortage and changing the drink of choice amongst the well off from wine to Absinthe. It didn’t become known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, till it became popular amongst the bohemians and it was romanticized by artists, poets, and writers who called absinthe their muse.
Not too long after its rise in popularity, movements against absinthe broke out and it became the center of blame for tragedies committed while intoxicated. The most famous case was that of Jean Lanfray in Switzerland. Lanfray was arrested after shooting his pregnant wife and two children after an intoxicated argument with his wife. He and his legal counsel vehemently argued that it was the Absinthe that temporarily drove him mad. At this point, those pushing the concept of Absinthism (the habitual use of Absinthe that leads to mental unstableness), used the case to insist on the banning of Absinthe. Of course, they completely ignored all the other alcohol Lanfray had consumed on top of the mere two shots of watered down Absinthe.
Tragedies like this fueled the false science being done by psychologists and chemists, trying to prove that it wasn’t alcohol but wormwood that was the cause. This would exclusively link the tragedies to Absinthe aiding in the eventual ban of the drink globally during the early 1900’s. Absinthe was banned for almost a century in most countries until it became vogue in the early 2000’s because of its exoticness being only available in places like the UK where it was never banned (because it was never that popular in the UK to begin with). Slowly, under many restrictions, Absinthe has been legalized again.
The main restriction is the level of Thujone allowed. Thujone is the byproduct of fermenting wormwood and the chemical compound blamed for causing Absinthism. Despite modern science proving that Thujone is not hallucinogenic at all, it is still practically impossible to find “real” absinthe or absinthe made with the original recipe (unless you are in the UK). If you live in the United States, absinthe can only be sold if it is strictly Thujone free.
In the end, the main cause of absinthe’s effects were the extremely high levels of alcohol, sometimes 70% or more ABV, that made it a favorite amongst those suffering from alcohol dependency (think back to soldiers who were being regularly fed absinth as a medicinal elixir and craving it once they were home). This is why the next restriction is ABV levels. If you live in California Absinthe is restricted by ABC Laws enforcing that a producer cannot sell anything over 120 proof (60% ABV).
When you think about it, the history of absinthe has all the makings of a great drama series. There’s adventure, love, music, poetry, murder, and resurrection! We could call it The Real Housewives of Wormwood.
P.S. One should always drink responsibly. Within one’s personal limits and NEVER when driving.