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Absinthe and the Legend of la Fée Verte

It killed Oscar Wilde, and it drove Van Gogh to madness. It made men murder their families, and it turned respectable young ladies into syphilitic trollops. Absinthe’s story is clouded in sex and danger—alchemy and pseudoscience—so it’s no wonder artists and eccentrics can’t wait to spend a night with the muse to the greatest artists of La Belle Époque.

But absinthe’s legend is much older than that. Before it was known as a hallucinogen imbibed by those searching for the secret and sinister, the magic of absinthe was in the ability to bottle the French countryside. Through distillation (a process which mimics the stages of alchemical transmutation) absintheurs created an elixir of life with a story older than Nicolas Flamel himself.

The Drip

Atop a slotted spoon, a sacrificial sugar cube awaits dissolving. Beneath the spoon, about a shot of a murky, yellow-green spirit fills the bottom of my glass. It’s a natural color that makes me think of sunburnt grass or moss on a tree stump. With a carafe of ice water raised high above my glass, I pour a thin thread of water—over the sugar cube and through the spoon—which tap-dances on the surface of my drink.

Absinthe was born in the late eighteenth century near the French-Swiss border. The Swiss village of Couvet lays claim to the earliest sightings of the green spirit, though just over the border, the French town of Pontarlier was home to the initial refiners and producers of absinthe.

General agreement attributes the creation of absinthe to Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland who first prescribed the wormwood based elixir as a digestif (after dinner drink) though absinthe would go on to be enjoyed mostly as an apéritif (before dinner drink). Though it seems even absinthe’s humble beginnings are clouded in controversy: Some find it more likely that absinthe evolved from the tinctures of the local women herbalists who called it “Mere Henriod’s Elixir” or “Mother Henriot’s Health Elixir”.

Though wormwood tinctures have been used for medicinal and spiritual purposes since the ancient world—the ancient Greeks called it apsinthos, and even the Book of Revelation makes reference to an angel of death called Wormwood—modern absinthe is unique in its use of the trinity of herbs: grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium), aniseed (pimpinella anisum), and fennel seed (foeniculum vulgare). Other regional herbs like melissa, angelica and hyssop are common companions.

Around the end of the 18th century, the recipe for absinthe drifted into the hands of French businessman Daniel Henri Dubied and Swiss distiller Henri Louis Pernod, who, in 1797, opened the first absinthe distillery in the little village of Couvet. In 1805, the distillery migrated over the border to Pontarlier, France.

For much of the early 19th century absinthe remained a local drink, imbibed in the countryside near the French-Swiss boarder, though absinthe slowly gained popularity with the French military serving in the north of Africa who would add a little absinthe to their water as a purifier. Soon they began adding a little water to their absinthe instead.

The Louche

As the water slowly mixes in, billows of milky-white greenness consume the once deep yellow-green. The spindly, hazy paleness swirls up and around until the entire glass has clouded over. The added water gives it an opalescent quality, like spirits dancing in a crystal ball or chalk dust billowing around my glass.

In the late 1800s, France suffered a drought even worse than one of water: During the Great French Wine Blight infestation nearly wiped out the entire wine crop. But seizing her bonnes fortunes, the green fairy left her home in the country bound for the glitz and glamour of the city where she and Paris would become synonymous.

Absinthe remained popular with the military after they returned from the north of Africa, and it gained popularity among artists and eventually the middle class, and by La Belle Époque it was world famous and France’s national drink.

In the cafés of Paris and New Orleans, and all across the drinking world, waiters and bartenders served up glasses of absinthe to their patrons, and the absinthe drinkers would follow a special ritual to prepare their drinks. Absinthe, almost never drunk neat, was diluted with three to five parts water to every one part absinthe. Absinthe can range from 90-140 proof, so diluting it with water not only opens up the aromatics and allows the drinker to taste the intricate flavors at play, but it also dilutes the alcohol just enough so that it doesn’t burn through your digestive system like acid and cause immediate intoxication. Wine connoisseur George Saintsbury said of absinthe, “Nobody but the kind of lunatic whom it was supposed to produce, and who may be destined for lunacy, would drink it ‘neat'”.

Because absinthe and water are different densities, the water must be added steadily like preparing an emulsion. To assist this process, elaborate and beautiful dripping contraptions were devised. Absinthe fountains—elegant tabletop towers of ice water with spigots for slow dripping—were popular for groups to gather round, and absinthe brouilleurs were drippers for individual use that sat directly on top of the glasses of café-goers. Some brouilleurs even sported see-saw mechanisms that water would drip onto while it tick-tocked over a glass of absinthe—a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to draw out anticipation with a hypnotic metronome.

Absinthe was often prepared with sugar as well, though controversially so (some feel sugar’s sole purpose is to mask the taste of bad absinthe). A sugar cube would be placed atop a slotted spoon and water would be dripped through the sugar cube until it dissolved through the spoon. Absinthe spoons were added to the growing list of absinthiana that drinkers used to show off their passion. Some where made to look like the Eiffel Tower, while others where designed to resemble a twig of wormwood. Other accessories included topettes (ribbed vials used to dose out absinthe) and absinthe saucers (ceramic coasters that patrons stacked to keep track of their running tab).

Of course these all came about after the craze was in effect. But before the fountains and brouilleurs and spoons and special absinthe glasses, waiters perfected their slow pours by carafe. A cartoon by Léonce Burret from 1901 depicts a happy waiter with a carafe of ice water standing tippy-toed atop a tower of books (which balances on top of a chair, which stands atop a table) all in the quest to get high enough over a glass of absinthe to achieve the perfect slow drip. One French writer is noted for quipping, “absinthe should never be rushed any more than you would want to rush a good woman“.

In one of the most famous art nouveau posters for Absinthe Robette, a red-haired goddess holds forth a glass of absinthe as fantastic plumes—reminiscent of a louching absinthe—pillar behind her. In a poster for J Édouard Pernot Absinthe, a dapper gentleman stares lecherously at his lady friend as she sips at her absinthe. Most absinthe posters depicted glamorous gay ladies or enchanting nymphs absolutely jovial over their glasses of absinthe.

The Aroma

After the louche—or after it has “given up the green fairy” as the legend calls it—the drink also gains an ethereal quality. Initially, it’s the overwhelming scent of licorice that hits you (and which may turn off some drinkers), but if you allow the aura to swell around you, you may enter a synesthetic experience where every flower, herb and seed is reborn right there before you like a trip into the pensieve.

Pablo Picasso, Degas, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Rimboud, Baudelaire, and Aleister Crowley among many, many others became famous for their consumption of absinthe. Those artists who lived in the cafés of Paris could not help but put absinthe in their paintings and poems and stories. In Albert Maignan’s “The Green Muse”, a floating woman wrapped in green caresses the head of a man who, by the expression on his face, has found himself in a state of overwhelming, euphoric, sudden awareness. In Viktor Oliva’s “Absinthe Drinker”, a café-goer sits pensively over a glass of absinthe as an curvy green nude—flickering between realms—reclines on the table beside him.

Not every artist portrayed absinthe romantically, though. Edouard Manet’s 1859 portrait of a ragged street man posing beside a glass of green liquid, titled “The Absinthe Drinker”, depicted a particular side of culture that not everyone was willing to admit existed. In Edgar Degas’s “L’Absinthe”, a dazed, frumpy woman sits in a dusty café next to a shabby man, with an inconspicuous glass of absinthe on the table in front of her. Critics called the sketch disgusting, uncouth, and of the woman, whorish.

Oscar Wilde, the man of many witticisms, said of absinthe, “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.”

The Finish

I raise my glass to crazed artists, dead poets, beautiful fairies and countryside alchemists, and I take a swig. The bitter alcohol is mellowed by sugar water, the fiery bite around my throat soothed by the fennel and anise and minty-sweet herbs….

In the early 1900s, after French winemakers got back on their feet, they found it much more difficult to compete in a market flooded with absinthe, and so after teaming up with those in the temperance movement, a virtual smear campaign was started against absinthe:

The green fairy—who resembles Liberty herself—is burned at the stake just like those sorceresses of Couvet who first summoned her. A bleeding green fairy is stabbed with a cross as a grim priest holds the Bible over her body. “L’Absinthe C’est La Mort” says the macabre skull: This Absinthe is Death! The Grim Reaper himself pours a drink of the wicked libation for a country peasant named Jean Lanfey. Lanfey infamously went on to murder his pregnant wife and two children.

Absinthe, as the most popular alcoholic beverage at the time, was targeted as the cause of all general alcoholic behavior. Whenever someone suffered from alcohol poisoning, every time a drunken man beat his wife, every time a sexually transmitted disease was passed from one loose lover to another, absinthe was called into question. It didn’t help that cheaply made absinthes—sometimes made from pure grain alcohol mixed with questionable green coloring—became representative of all absinthes.

Soon, pseudoscientific evidence showed that a compound in wormwood called thujone was toxic and deadly. Dr Valentin Magnan, the Fredric Wertham of Absinthe, was a French psychiatrist who conducted experiments on animals involving lethal doses of thujone. He found that thujone caused severe convulsions in mice resulting in death and bizarre, hallucinogenic behavior in dogs which ultimately lead to—you guessed it—death. The final nail in the coffin was when Dr Magnan declared absinthe as the cause of the decline of French culture. Heaven forbid.

It didn’t take long for absinthe to be banned around the world: In 1910 it was banned in Switzerland. In 1912 it was banned in the United States. And finally in 1914, at the start of the Great War, it was banned in France.

The Secondary Effects

After finishing, I don’t find myself in any hallucinogenic stupor or fantastic reverie. I am left unvisited by that green spectre come to lure me to the land where creativity comes from. I don’t get high.

In 2007, absinthe became legal again the United States, though the only law to change was a law allowing the sale of products called absinthe. Technically absinthe has been legal in the United States since at least the 1960s, perhaps even the 1930s. The United States along with the European Union regulate certain products containing thujone, with the United States allowing thujone levels of 10 mg/l. In the European Union, levels of up to 35 mg/l are allowed. Other herbs containing thujone, such as sage and oregano, are not regulated. Though absinthe’s thujone content was the reason for its initial banning, pre-ban absinthes are not known to contain any more thujone than is legal in the United States.

Since shortly before its ‘legalization’, bottles of absinthe with a radiation green glow (usually referred to as absinth) have entered the market, often served with flaming sugar cubes for no particular reason. With over a century of bubbling myth, absinthe has become the irresistible taboo appealing to the subculture of glow sticks, hallucinogenics, sex and danger. Popular brands sport labels adorned with pop figures like Marilyn Manson, Van Gogh (sans ear), and tawdry green ladies with come-hither eyes.

Absinthe purists sometimes regard anything sold as ‘absinth’ (also known as ‘bohemian absinth’ and typically haling from the Czech Republic) as knockoffs tainting the good name of classic absinthe. Often (but not always) these products boast unrealistically high thujone content levels. Though thujone is known to cause convulsions, the amounts necessary to have any effect would be so large that an absinthe drinker would be more likely to die of alcohol poisoning before the thujone could take effect. To be fair, not all Czech absinths are poor quality (the Czech actually released one of the first ‘authentic’ post-ban absinthes), but with such an influx of bullshit in the market, some find it safest to avoid them altogether.

Absinthe referred to as absinth is sometimes said to be the marker of a knockoff, but this is incorrect. Absinth is just how central and eastern Europeans spell absinthe—absinthe is the French spelling, and absenta is the Spanish spelling. Unfortunately, there’s no need to change the name because, legally, pretty much anything can be called absinthe (except, of course, in Switzerland).

Many modern drinkers come to absinthe with the expectation that they will get high, that they will hallucinate, that something great will happen to their minds that the government wants to hide from them. But while many absinthe lovers concur that there are ‘secondary effects’, these effects are often described as a buzz with a sense of clarity, a crispness in the air or a straddling of the line between intoxication and sobriety.

I, myself, have found that the secondary effects are what you bring to the glass. If you want to get high, you will. If you want to enter the world of turn-of-the-century bohemian Paris, the green fairy will guide you there. Or if you just want to enjoy a fine spirit with peculiar rituals and a mythic legend, then absinthe can provide that for you too.