It went from “the green fairy” to “the green devil” in the span of a century. The history of absinthe is a wild ride, with its meteoric rise throughout Europe before a devastating downfall. Today, some of the myths surrounding this libation have been dispelled. But absinthe still remains one of the most esoteric and perplexing spirits on any bar cart.
Absinthe is made by distilling a neutral spirit with macerated herbs and spices. They include fennel, anise, and (perhaps most notably) wormwood. These particular botanicals give absinthe its trademark bitter licorice flavor. Before bottling, it is infused with fresh herbs. This provides the electric green color that gave absinthe its nickname, “the green fairy.”
It’s a high-proof, highly distinctive liquor, in both taste and appearance. And it has a controversial, almost mystical past.
Similar to the origins of many spirits, the history of absinthe begins with medicinal uses. The discovery of wormwood’s digestive relief can be traced to ancient Egypt. And recipes for wormwood-infused wine for the same purpose can be linked back to Classical Greece, the time of Hippocrates.
The “oil of Artemisia,” as elixirs of wormwood is also known, lived in relative pharmacological obscurity until the French Revolution. French doctor Pierre Ordinaire fled to Switzerland to escape the fighting. There, he worked to improve the bitter taste of wormwood by distilling it with a variety of botanicals and sugar. In his Couvet home, Ordinaire tinkered with various local herbs and spices. His goal? A palatable drink that would relieve everything from stomachaches to malaria.
History of absinthe begins with medicinal uses
He named his finished recipe “absinthe” after wormwood’s Latin name, Artemisia absinthium. Other French loyalists who had also escaped to Switzerland enjoyed the small quantities he made until his death in 1792. A few years later the recipe was passed to Henri-Louis Pernod, who began commercial production of the fée verte, as it was called locally. Thus, modern absinthe was born.
With the French Revolution over, Pernod moved production just over the border into France (likely to avoid paying import fees). Over the coming years, absinthe’s popularity grew to such cultural heights among the working classes that 5:00 became known as l'heure verte, or “the green hour.” The drink was referred to as “the green fairy,” a moniker that persists to this day.
During this version of happy hour, laborers and artists alike would gather at their local bar. There, they would drink absinthe, and discuss politics, art, and society. Notable absinthe enthusiasts include Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Degas, among many other artists and intellectuals. Van Gogh and Degas painted depictions of absinthe, and author Ernest Hemingway once described it as “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.”
It was a time of thought expansion and flowing absinthe throughout Western Europe. This attracted a lot of attention–some of it to absinthe’s own detriment.
A few things happened as absinthe became more popular. First, the French wine industry was suffering. A vine pest had devastated much of Europe’s wine production. And as French wineries tried to recover, they set their sights on their biggest competition: absinthe.
In addition, in an attempt to cash in on the absinthe craze, unscrupulous moonshiners sold a cheap bathtub “absinthe.” It was colored green with copper salts. They were poisoning their customers.
Little distinction was made between real-deal absinthe and the deadly knockoff. This was particularly true when it came to politicians sympathetic to the rising Temperance movement. The French wine industry latched onto a narrative about the dangers of absinthe and the media happily followed. Anti-alcohol activists and religious clergy jumped on the bandwagon. Before long, any drunken fights, illnesses, and deaths were attributed to “absinthism.”
“Absinthism,” we now know, is not an actual affliction. But at the end of the 19th century, many people felt like it was the root of all problems. Wormwood contains a compound called thujone. It can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and sleeplessness if taken in large quantities.
At the time, people blamed these symptoms as well as violent tendencies (including murder) on the wormwood in absinthe. In reality, the quantities required for thujone to cause these adverse effects are so great that alcohol poisoning would set in first. (Thujone is also found in sage and tarragon.)
The tipping point was in 1905, when Swiss laborer Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. He had reportedly been drinking all sorts of beverages that day. This included large quantities of wine, but the media and police latched onto his absinthe consumption. They called his deeds “The Absinthe Murders.”
Out of fear of raving lunatics and in a wave of support for the growing Temperance movement, countries began banning absinthe one by one. America banned the spirit in 1912. American Prohibition wouldn’t be enacted for another seven years, but this ban laid the groundwork.
For decades following the bans, the only legal absinthe distilleries existed in Spain. (It was the one country that never outlawed the green fairy.) America experimented with alcohol prohibition for thirteen years before realizing its economic toll. Many historians believe that between 1920 and 1933, the drinking habits of Americans didn’t change that much, despite the ban on alcohol.
Laws and public beliefs surrounding alcohol became more lax through the 20th century. And many countries revisited their stance on absinthe. Many Europeans could remember their parents’ affection for absinthe and wanted to experience it. Slowly, absinthe’s popularity increased in the 1990s as various countries decided to lift the ban. One hundred years after the Lanfrey murders, Switzerland lifted its ban. The United States was among the last to do so, reintroducing absinthe in 2007. Interestingly, it was France that was the last holdout, waiting until 2011 to lift the ban.
While absinthe is legal again in the United States, it isn’t without some caveats. Producers cannot allude to any hallucinogenic properties. They must also restrict the thujone levels to less than 10 parts per million. For this reason, there is a limited import of absinthe to the United States. However, there are plenty of great absinthes to try.
Traditional Way of Drinking Absinthe
Before diving into various brands of absinthe, it’s important to discuss the traditional way to drink it. You can buy special absinthe glassware – these have a reservoir at the base of the glass meant to hold about an ounce of the spirit. The main part of the glass is for cold water. Absinthe is most often enjoyed diluted with four to six ounces of ice-cold water. The water is traditionally dripped over a cube of sugar resting on a flat, slotted spoon.
Water is an important element of the drink. It transforms the electric green color to a luminescent, almost milky chartreuse. This ritual–and the opalescent change in appearance–is referred to as la louche. It releases the aromatics in the absinthe and tones down the alcohol.
Pernod, the original commercial brand, is available in the United States. Lesser-known (but no less delicious) absinthes include:
Which green fairy will you try first?