Absinthe Bourgeois advertisement
Absinthe drinking has an interesting history, both romantic and disturbing. Artemisia absinthium L, or wormwood, has been used medicinally since Greek times but its popularity really started when the Pernod family distilleries opened in the early 1800s. Its use by French soldiers in Africa further popularized the drink when they brought it back to France. The spirit contains botanicals including herbs, wormwood and anise. The drink is usually a beautiful green though it can be clear. It came to be known as la fée verte in French, or the green fairy. And the usual hours of drinking it from 5 to 7 was called l’heure verte, or the green hour. (Happy hour, anyone?)
It became a fashionable drink in 19th and early 20th century cafés of Paris, imbibed by bohemians, artists, and poets and was considered acceptable for women to drink. Degas, Manet, and Picasso painted absinthe drinkers, and Oscar Wilde was said to have drunk it. Vincent Van Gogh may have cut off his ear in an absinthe haze.
Still Life with Absinthe, Vincent Van Gogh, Paris, 1887. Image from NLM/NIH.
Absinthe Drinker, by Jacques Boyer, Paris, 1911. Photo from ParisEnImages
Un buveur d’absinthe sur la terrasse d’un café.Anonymous, 1895. Musée historique de Lausanne
According to AbsintheOnline, “production grew so much that it became cheaper than wine. Between 1876 and 1900 the annual consumption in France had rocketed from 1,000,000 litres to a staggering 21,000,000 litres.” The wine blight, grape phylloxera, destroyed vineyards, making wine very expensive, so everyday people turned to absinthe.
Absinthe Berthelot, Henri Thiriet, 1895 ©Photo Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris
The dark side of absinthe drinking was the alleged terrible side effects, including hallucinations and seizures. A chemical element of wormwood, thujone, was blamed for the nasty side effects but present day research has shown that it would take a huge quantity of absinthe to cause side effects from the small amounts of thujone in it. Current thought is that because absinthe’s deleterious effects were plain old alcoholism. Absinthe has a high alcohol content from 45 – 75% and is supposed to be diluted with water but I can imagine some people just decide(d) to drink it straight.
Part of the fun of drinking absinthe is the ritual. The process is to put absinthe in a glass, then put a sugar cube on top of a special slotted spoon, and slowly pour cold water over the sugar cube. The drink turns from green to opaque white, quite fun to watch. I tried absinthe in Prague a number of years ago – it was missing the whole ritual and I wasn’t very impresssed. Sugar packets? Not very romantic. But I recently tried it again with some dear friends at the Picnic House. A pretty glass, an absinthe spoon, and good company made the experience much better than the first time. I felt very tipsy – was it the absinthe, or the suggestiveness of a magic elixiir? I actually don’t think it matters; I really enjoyed it. No green fairies visited me but maybe next time…
Absinthe glasses and spoons, Gérard Roucaute © Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – Inventaire général
Absinthe at the Picnic House, Portland
Uninspired absinthe ritual in Prague
Absinthism: a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impact. Padosch SA, Lachenmeier DW, Kröner LU – Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy (2006)
Absinthe: The Revival of The “Green Fairy”
History of Absinth, DistillNation