Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Getting the Banned Back Together
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Ten years ago I was sitting in a Brooklyn bar when a friend casually mentioned that you could, once again, buy absinthe in America. It had been banned for 100 years.
To me, there was nothing casual about the news. I was a dedicated (annoying, my wife might say) wormwood enthusiast with one ironclad law: if I’m in a country that serves absinthe, I drink it. Of course, this makes for some awkward meals; in Budapest, my absinthe and goulash lunch was pretty hard to get down.
So, my friend and I hopped off our barstools, walked to a French bar down the street, and ordered a few glasses of the Green Fairy. He was right. I could drink all the absinthe I wanted, and the nearest vendor was only four blocks away. He was wrong about one thing, though.
Technically, the drink was never illegal.
The story of absinthe is long and intriguing but shrouded in myth. To begin with, it’s not poisonous or even hallucinogenic, and it won’t kickstart your painting career. Absinthe does have a high alcohol content, 110-150 proof in most cases. That’s what causes people to act strange and unpredictable—not some mystical property of wormwood.
Absinthe is a distilled spirit made from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), green anise, sweet fennel and a range of other herbs and botanicals, which can include hyssop, calamus root, angelica, coriander, veronica, peppermint, lemon peel, melissa and licorice root. Although sometimes called a liqueur, it’s not. Liqueurs are bottled with sugar, and absinthe is not. Unless it’s made very badly. Absinthe is a spirit. Specifically, it’s an aperitif, something to sip before a meal. Sip is the operative word. Guzzling leads to missing ears and poor art sales.
Long before absinthe was an alcoholic tipple, its primary ingredient—wormwood—had been added to tonics and medicine. It was used as an herbal remedy in ancient Egypt, cited in the Ebers Papyrus c. 1550 BCE. Classical Greek physicians prescribed wormwood as a cure-all. In fact, the word absinthe comes from the Greek word “apsinthion,” meaning “undrinkable” because wormwood, on its own, has such a strong, bitter taste.
There are competing schools of thought about who invented modern absinthe, but most agree that the honor goes to the excellently – and rhymingly – named Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. In 1792, he fled the ongoing revolution in his native France and took refuge in the alpine hamlet of Couvet in Western Switzerland. After inadvertently discovering a patch of wormwood, Ordinaire began experimenting with the herb, in the effort to create a natural curative. Aware of wormwood’s unpleasant taste, he augmented the brew with spices and herbs. By trial and error Ordinaire came up with a potent, yet very palatable, mixture.
According to some reports, Ordinaire’s formula was later used by the Henriod sisters, who lived nearby (others claim they’d been making it for years). They created their own medical elixir and, in 1797, sold the recipe to Major Dubied, visiting from France. In 1797 Dubied’s son Marcellin and his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, opened the world’s first absinthe distillery in Switzerland. A few years later they opened a second one in France, Maison Pernod Fils, one of the world’s most popular and well-known brands of absinthe for over 100 years.
The drink soon became even more popular in France than its native Switzerland. By mid-century absinthe was issued to troops as a malaria deterrent, and it was the most fashionable drink in Paris. By 1900 the French were gulping down 36 million liters of absinthe per year. There were over 30,000 cafés in Paris and by 5:00 pm, “the green hour,” patrons would line up to drink absinthe. Writers, artists and bohemians were especially enchanted by the drink, to which they attributed supernatural properties. French newspapers claimed you could smell anise for several miles outside Paris.
The party ended in 1905. Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, got up one day and poured himself an early-morning absinthe. Later, he drank a little cognac, wine and crème de menthe. That night, he went back home and, after an argument about un-polished shoes, murdered his pregnant wife and two children with a shotgun. In reality, this had nothing to do with absinthe and everything to do with mental illness and acute alcoholism. However, the winemakers of France were a powerful lobby. They had, for many years, harbored a deep resentment because brisk sales of absinthe cut into their profits.
Absinthe hysteria quickly swept the world. Physicians and psychiatrists were found, or perhaps bought, to certify that absinthe was a dangerous and volatile substance that was literally driving people insane. Because of specious medical reports and intense political pressure from winemakers, absinthe was soon banned throughout America, most of Europe and even parts of Africa and South America.
After 100 years, in 2007, the absinthe ban was lifted in the United States. At least that’s what they say. I was able to procure a glass at my local bar, right? And it was real absinthe, not some cheap knock-off? Yes and no. As with all things absinthe, the truth is clouded by myth.
Yes, 10 years ago authentic absinthe was once again freely available and completely legal in the US. But no, it had never actually been banned in the first place.
In 2007 American distillers began making absinthe and distributors began importing the drink from Europe. Why? It was pointed out, to federal alcohol regulators, that absinthe was already legal. The guidelines, which had seemingly banned absinthe, had merely regulated the amount of thujone—the active ingredient in wormwood—that it could contain. Thujone is an organic compound that’s dangerous if ingested in large quantities. The anti-absinthe lobby had been placated by this seemingly reasonable measure. However, contemporary research shows that absinthe never had more than trace elements of thujone.
In the end, the ban was never lifted because it had never existed. The only change was that politicians and government regulators became informed about the true nature of the law, and the spirits industry went back to work.
Taste & Color
Wormwood smells aromatic but tastes quite bitter. The flavor of absinthe is primarily from anise, which tastes like black licorice. Absinthe isn’t the only spirit that contains wormwood or anise—vermouth, aquavit, arak, ouzo, pastis and besk all have one or the other. To be considered authentic, absinthe must contain both substances but no sugar, sweeteners or artificial coloring.
After absinthe is distilled, the result is clear and colorless. Premium absinthes are sometimes left in this state and sold as blanche, but typically the spirit is finished by warming and adding herbs or botanicals; chlorophyll is released from these plants, which makes the liquid turn green. There’s also a colorless variety known as bleue, which hails from Switzerland. The preference for transparent absinthe dates back to homebrew produced during the ban—a bright green drink was simply too difficult to conceal from authorities.
In Paris during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, drinking absinthe was practically mandatory for artists, like wearing unusual clothing and not picking up the check. Painters, musicians and sculptors were all devotees. Picasso, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Satie, Gaugin, Degas, Munch. Just take a look at their paintings, letters and biographies—they’re all filled with absinthe.
Writers, too. Joyce, Hemingway, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Jarry, Strindberg, Zola, Proust, Rimbaud, Poe, Byron, Maupassant, Wilde and Aleister Crowley were all serious enthusiasts.
Baudelaire’s poem “Poison” is an encomium to absinthe. Neither wine nor opium, he writes
equals the poison welling up
in your eyes that shows me
my poor soul reversed
my dreams throng to drink
at those green distorting pools.
Rimbaud used absinthe as a means to reveal a second layer of reality and to draw inspiration from its chaos and “disordering of the senses.” Hemingway designed his own signature cocktail for a book on celebrity drinks. His recipe for Death in the Afternoon:
Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne slowly until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.
Maupassant’s characters often binge on absinthe. In “A Queer Night in Paris” a bland official winds up at an artist’s party and drinks so much that he dances with a chair and wakes up naked in a stranger’s bed. For each of these writers and artists, absinthe was much more than a drink—it was a shortcut to ecstasy and inspiration.
Absinthe has once again become a popular spirit. I’ve sipped it in Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and all over North America. Now I live in Washington, DC where several local bars serve absinthe and use it in their signature cocktails. There are dedicated absinthe bars and a craft distillery, just an hour away, that makes the best absinthe I’ve ever tasted.
Today you can buy absinthe online or procure it from your local liquor store. We’ve come a long way since Dr. Ordinaire began selling his wormwood pick-me-up. It’s also a long way from fin de siècle Paris, where artists and writers crammed the cafés of Paris to wile away the evening.
There are many spirits and liqueurs flavored with fennel, anise or caraway—ouzo, arak, Galliano, akvavit, schnapps, Jaeger, anisette, Pernod, sambuca, pastis, Unicum, Pacharan, ad infinitum. However, none has the taste, history or mythology of good old absinthe. Just one sip makes you feel warm, tingly and transported. You don’t have to be a painter, poet or novelist to enjoy the robust kick or the complex interplay of botanicals. Let’s raise a glass to 10 years of legal absinthe, sort of.