Though the history of wormwood-infused liquor extends back to the days of the Egyptian empire, the credit for what we now know as one of the most infamous beverages, absinthe, goes to a French doctor, Pierre Ordinaire. Dr. Ordinaire retreated from the French Revolution to settle in the small Swiss town of Couvet. While in Couvet, Dr. Ordinaire crafted a drinkable concoction using local herbs mixed with Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, to produce an emerald green elixir rumored to cure everything from flatulence to anemia. Legend has it that Ordinaire passed down his absinthe recipe his deathbed. Five years later, Henri-Louis Pernod, father of the Pernod brand, opened his first absinthe distillery in Switzerland. In response to the popularity of Dr. Ordinaire’s wormwood potion, Pernod soon opened a larger distillery in Pontarlier, France, where absinthe would gain its international reputation as the drink of choice for artists, writers, and intellectuals.
Despite the common association between Bohemians and absinthe, the drink was especially democratic. In the 1840’s, French soldiers were given absinthe as a field treatment for malaria. The troops returned with a taste for absinthe at a time where mass production had dramatically reduced the cost of making and distributing the highly specialized drink. Furthermore, there was a massive wine shortage in France during the latter half of the 19th century, which caused absinthe to grow, almost by default, into its role as France’s most fashionable drink. In French cafes, 5 p.m. (known to Americans as the start of “happy hour”) become known as l’heure verte, or “the green hour,” signaling the onward flow of emerald absinthe into the later hours of the evening. By 1910, absinthe was by all measures the drink of choice in France, consumed at far greater rates than wine or any other liquor.
While the French love affair with la fee verte (“the green lady,” a popular nickname for absinthe) grew, the drink’s notoriety and consumption spread throughout Europe. Spanish drinkers took a liking to absinthe, and the nation is the only one never to have banned the beverage. The American city of New Orleans also holds a strong connection to absinthe. The Old Absinthe house is one of New Orleans’ most prominent historical landmarks, situated as it is on the town’s main thoroughfare, Bourbon Street. The Old Absinthe house – originally called the Absinthe Room – opened in the 1870’s by a Spanish bartender named Cayetano Ferrer. Ferrer honed his craft in the Catalan region of Spain, where absinthe was all the rage, and when Ferrer immigrated to America, he brought his taste for the beverage with him. By 1878, 8 million litres of absinthe had been imported to the United States.
Another absinthe hot-spot is the Czech Republic, especially in Prague. There is a famous café, the Café Slavia, which was a purveyor of absinthe of particular local renown to Prague’s artists and intellectuals. Absinthe’s introduction to Prague came much later than that of other cities; the first reference to absinthe being sold in the Czech Republic comes from the year 1888, a good decade after Cayetano Ferrer’s emigration to the United States. However, there is evidence of demand being so high in Prague that local absinthe distilleries sprouted up across the Czech Republic around the turn of the 20th century.
However, with the dawn of France’s Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) of peace and progress in the time prior to World War I, public opinion of absinthe soured due to harmful testimonials and scandal. Ultimately, despite its vogue status, the reputation of absinthe and its drinkers changed from reverence to disgust. Belgium, Braizil, the Netherlands, and even Switzerland, where the modern recipe for absinthe is said to have been created, all banned the drink in the early 1900’s, followed by the United States in 1912. France, the epicenter of absinthe culture, formally banned the sale and production of absinthe in 1915.
Among the misfortunes leading to absinthe’s sharp decline in consumption was the 1901 Pernod plant fire. The distillery, opened in 1797 in Pontarlier, France by Henri-Louis Pernod, caught fire after a lightning strike. The absinthe shortage was compounded by the supposed role absinthe played in certain human tragedies. Where only little more than a century earlier, absinthe was said to have cured countless ailments, the drink was now considered the cause for countless more. Epilepsy, tuberculosis, and madness were the rumored effects of the drink at the turn of the 20th century. The flashpoint for absinthe’s demise was the case of a Swiss man, Jean Lanfray, who murdered his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. Though police later revealed that Lanfray, a laborer, was a drunk – the morning of the murders he had swallowed more wine and hard liquor than most people can stomach in a week’s time – his intake of absinthe was singled out as the sole cause for his insanity. The ensuing moral panic led to absinthe drinkers being seen as dangerous addicts as opposed to fashionable intellectuals, and the near worldwide ban on the emerald substance was enough to keep absinthe out of the public consciousness for decades to come.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that absinthe resurfaced out of rumor and speculation. Wormwood, one of the root ingredients of absinthe, was found to have curative properties known to French soldiers as far back as the 1840’s, as scientists found proof that wormwood is an effective suppressant of malaria. Absinthe was once again on the cultural map, and opportunistic distillers looked for loopholes in order to produce and distribute the drink once again. The largest loophole existed in the law of the United Kingdom, where absinthe was never all that popular, and as such, never banned. Imports and sale of absinthe increased steadily through the 1990’s, but the brands being sold –Bohemian, or Czech branded absinthe – were considered to be a lesser product to the original Swiss and French recipes.
Another legal loophole was found in the cradle of absinthe, as France’s legislation outlawing la fee verte allowed bottlers and importers to re-label their product for sale in that country. Liquors clearly labeled as absinthe were still banned, but “wormwood based liquers” were not. The substance was essentially the same as absinthe, it just could not be labeled as such. Another interesting point about French law: though consumption and purchase of absinthe was outlawed in the 1915 ban, production was never outlawed and, according to some sources, never truly ceased. However, the true resurgence of French absinthe came in the year 2000, when the first bottles of absinthe marked with the given name La Fée Absinthe were sold in France and abroad. The brand claimed to be the first to distill and bottle absinthe in France since the 1915 ban, and worldwide curiosity had an outlet in what was billed as the genuine article, French absinthe.
The early 2000s saw the repeal of absinthe bans around the world, just a century after the bans were put in place, and a little over two centuries after the modern recipe was popularized. In 2005, Switzerland repealed its ban, once again making absinthe legal in its country of origin, and as of 2007, at least two brands of absinthe were being legally bought and sold in the United States.
The modern history of absinthe is relatively brief but extremely interesting.