Absinthe has a bad reputation, even compared with other alcoholic beverages. But from its early use as a medical elixir to the wave of absinthe bans that occurred during the early 1900s, the drink has a very colorful history involving everything from medical miracles to murder.
Absinthe is an anise-flavored, distilled spirit that was originally developed not as an alcoholic beverage, but for medicinal purposes. Early prototypes of the beverage were used by the ancient Greeks in childbirth. Scholars credit Madame Henriette Henirod from the Swiss village of Couvet as the first individual to create recognizable absinthe during the mid-eighteenth century. The earliest written recipe is dated to 1794, and found in the record books of distiller Abram-Louis Perrenod, who would later become the namesake of the extremely successful Pernod Fils factory.
Absinthe as a wonder tonic
A man known as Doctor Pierre Ordinaire helped to popularize absinthe as a kind of cure-all elixir shortly after its invention. In the 1840s, the French government even began giving its soldiers in Algeria rations of absinthe. It was thought to purify water, making it more potable, and to prevent the spread of malaria. This practice lasted up until the beginning of World War I. Absinthe quickly grew in popularity, and what was originally an upper- and middle-class drink was soon enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
The poisonous fairy
As absinthe grew in popularity, it also garnered its first detractors. Known as “la fée verte,” or the green fairy, absinthe developed a reputation for causing hallucinations. Low-quality copies of the product made by large distillers may have been the cause of this by leaving in toxins such as poisonous copper sulfate, which contributed to the vivid green color of the drink. French physician Valentin Magnan performed a series of experiments on animals by feeding them isolated thujone, a toxic chemical found in wormwood, one of absinthe’s main ingredients. He pointed to the resulting seizures of these animals as evidence of the dangers of the drink.
Absinthe in the arts
The list of artists who found inspiration in the culture surrounding absinthe is extensive. The roster includes Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas among others. Oscar Wilde was an absinthe enthusiast, and Ernest Hemingway was an unlikely supporter of the drink as well when he sampled it during his time in Spain. Degas merits a special mention for his 1876 painting, “L’Absinthe,” which was later used as a rallying cry against the drink. Critics singled out the perceived shabbiness of the figures as an example of moral degradation caused by drinking absinthe.
A green curse
The tide turned fully against absinthe when in 1905, laborer Jean Lanfray murdered his wife and two daughters after a day of hard drinking. After two shots of absinthe, seven glasses of wine, a coffee with brandy, and another liter of wine that he consumed after work, Lanfray got into an argument with his spouse that ended in him shooting first his wife and then both daughters, from eldest to youngest. A petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland, where the crime occurred, quickly obtained over 82,000 signatures. Lanfray hung himself in prison after three days of confinement.
Friction between industries
Despite the fact that Lanfray had consumed copious amounts of wine, the crime was called “the absinthe murders” by the press. For the growing number of contemporaries who supported a ban on the product, it was an ideal example to exercise their point that absinthe caused madness and moral depravity. The wine industry in France had been decimated in the late 1800s by insect infestations, and some of the negative press against absinthe was coming from that business sector. It was a self-perpetuating cycle for absinthe makers; as wine became hard to obtain, more grain alcohol appeared on the market, and distillers were in competition to serve the cheapest product. But it was exactly this lack of quality control that eventually doomed absinthe.
Temperance sets in
Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, and in Switzerland and the Netherlands in 1910. It was outlawed in the United States in 1912, where it had become particularly popular in cities like New Orleans and New York. Even in France, where 36 million liters of absinthe were consumed only five years before, the wormwood-based drink was banned in 1915. But it was never banned in Spain, and Pernod Fils continued production across the border in Tarragona until the 1960s. Absinthe fields were plowed under, and former absinthe distillers were either forced out of business or began producing different spirits.
Not everyone agrees
Although temperance movements had been gaining traction around the world for some time, the ban on absinthe was unusual in the way it targeted a specific drink. Not everyone was convinced of the dangers of absinthe, and there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding the topic in the medical community. Some experts continued to swear by absinthe’s health benefits. Additionally, many saw the bans as an affront to personal freedom.
What’s really in absinthe?
The reality is that even traditionally made absinthe is no more dangerous than other kinds of alcohol if properly distilled. There are three main herbal ingredients present in the drink: artemisia absinthium (also known as grande wormwood), green anise, and sweet fennel. The herbs are combined in a still before alcohol is added and a mash created. The still is then heated in order to condense the alcohol. The traditional way to drink absinthe is in a two-part glass. The top portion of the glass is filled with ice and sometimes sugar. Cold water is added and allowed to seep down into the drink, creating a cloudy effect that brings out the taste of the herbs.
A modern revival
The European Union implemented food and beverage laws in 1988 that allowed the re-legalization of absinthe by limiting the amount of thujone levels in the beverage. The U.S. lifted its ban in 2007 and France followed in 2011. It’s not toxins, but special coloring herbs that give modern absinthe its distinctive green hue. Distillers have had to piece together clues from old recipes and analyze century-old bottles of spirits in order to accurately recreate the beverage. Pre-ban bottles of absinthe are now highly prized antiques and avidly collected by enthusiasts.