Cocktail Journals - Editor's Letter - October 2014

The Haunted History of Absinthe

Infused into the magical elixirs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Wormwood is perhaps the most understood, and for a time, least understood ingredient in what could arguably be the most infamous beverage in all of history. Absinthe.

Though known to Egyptian tonics and the Absintheium drinks of Rome, the true infamy of Wormwood, or “Artemisia Absintheium”, was born in the hysteria of early 19th century France, and culminated in the ghastly murders of a Swiss man’s pregnant wife and two children. The curse of “the Green Lady” or “the Green Fairy” had claimed yet another hapless soul.

But, prior to the murders of Jean Lanfray’s family members (by his own hand), and before the scourge of Europe ripped through the bohemian artisan galleries, there was Pierre Ordinaire… a simple French doctor, fleeing the horrors of the French Revolution.

In 1792, Dr Pierre Ordinaire had settled in the small town of Couvet in Switzerland where he began manufacturing the first Absinthe, or “La Fée Verte” – “The Green Fairy”… a nickname that would haunt the mysterious libation into the annals of history. Pierre’s potion was known to cure everything from gout to epilepsy. On his deathbed, Dr. Ordinaire passed along his secret recipe, which was later purchased and put into mass production by Pernod Fils Absinthe Company in 1805.

Absinthe soon found favor in the devastated ranks of the French army. By 1840, Absinthe (for its Wormwood content and unusually high proof) was distributed to French soldiers suffering from malaria and dysentery. Eventually spiking their wine rations with Absinthe, the soldiers brought home with them a taste for the unique flavor of “a green”. Civilians soon followed suit as Absinthe charmed the social elite, eventually finding its way into the glass of commoners, artists and poets. It wasn’t long before the ghostly mist of Absinthe lofted across the cafés and parlors of Paris… ushering in l’heure verte, the “green hour”.

This is where the mystery and the legend truly begin… in the Absinthe houses and social gatherings of the bohemian subculture. The “mad genius” imparted to the indulger of Absinthe was well known and celebrated in the circles of writers, thinkers and artists of every kind. Its hallucinogenic, magical properties were thought to tug at the creative genius of the tortured artist, while slowly seducing them into an Absinthe-minded stupor that was unlike any other liquor. Notable Absinthe drinkers of the time read like a who’s who of artists and the literary world.  Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant and Vincent Van Gogh were all infamous Absinthe converts.

By the mid 1800s, the Great French Wine Blight had brought wine production to a virtual standstill in a country known for its wine production and consumption. Foreign parasites had ravaged the vineyards of France for over a decade. Soldiers, who had used Absinthe as a remedy for numerous aliments, were now drinking it for pleasure and as a substitute in the absence of wine. As the French vineyards recovered and began to sell wine again, they soon found that Absinthe had become popular with the French people, posing a threat to their historical dominance as the Parisian drink of choice.

The temperance movement was now in full swing, and wine makers jumped on the bandwagon, looking for any chance to give the green fairy a black eye and reclaim their market share. Coupled with an ever growing distain for Absinthe drinkers, and an overall feeling of decay in French health and culture, the green fairy was becoming the “green demon” in the eyes of many. Famous paintings from the time, such as, L’Absinthe, Le Buveur d’Absinthe and Maignan’s Green Muse, portrayed the tortured soul of the Absinthe drinker and helped to turn the court of public opinion away from the romantic vision of artistic inspiration and towards the social scourge associated with addicts.   

As the turn of the 20th century approached, the mythology of Absinthe began to become its undoing. With the onset of France’s Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) the death knell began to ring, all but ending the hundred year reign of Absinthe. By the time of the 1905 murders of Jean Lanfray’s family, Absinthe had become the root of all evil and responsible for a plethora of ills the world over. Many countries began to ban the manufacture, sale and consumption of Absinthe, including its purported birthplace of Switzerland. The United States followed suit in 1912 and France, once considered the epicenter of Absinthe, drew the final curtain on the green fairy in 1915. Fading into lore, Absinthe went underground. Lying dormant for nearly one hundred years, the mythology grew as the years trickled by.

Eventually, the green fairy began to awake from her long slumber. It was the 1990s, and much had changed. Scientific evidence and rational reasoning began to emerge. Entrepreneurs of the spirits industry started to rally against the prehistoric rationales of a bygone era. It was time for the green fairy to spread her wings once more. Bans of the ancient elixir began to lift and the genie was out of the bottle again.


Happy Halloween



Editor’s Letter – October 2014
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