“Ah! the Green Goddess! What is the fascination that makes her so adorable and so terrible?”—Aleister Crowley
Absinthe arrived at its station as the toast of the Belle Epoche by a roundabout route. Though there is some controversy as to its lineage, most historians agree the modern version of absinthe can be traced back to the modest Swiss laboratory of Pierre Ordinaire, a resourceful French doctor who’d fled to Switzerland in the wake of the French Revolution. In 1792 he combined local herbs, wormwood, anise, fennel and hyssop among others, in an alcohol base. He prescribed and sold the 136 proof concoction as a cure-all medicinal tonic. It soon garnered the nickname the la Fee Verte (the Green Faerie) due to its translucent hue and the strange effect it had on its imbibers. The doctor’s only proof that it worked as a health tonic was his patients kept coming back for it, and the way Pierre figured it, the customer was always right.
It remained a local remedy for small-town ailments until Henri-Louis Pernod, founder of the famed Pernod Fils distillery, acquired the recipe by a fortuitous marriage and began producing large quantities of absinthe in 1797 in Switzerland, before moving to a larger French facility in 1805.
It didn’t catch on as something you’d confidently order in a café until it was issued to French soldiers fighting Muslim insurgents in Algeria in the 1840s. They used it to spike their canteen water and claimed it was grand for warding off tropical fever, dysentery, harmful bacteria and “to recruit exhausted strength.” When the boys came marching home, victoriously, I might add, they apparently brought their fear of fever and germs back to France, where they found it was also good for warding off sobriety and the ennui of civilian life.
The intellectual elite of Paris soon became enchanted—some say enslaved—by the Faerie’s strange charms. The potent liquor’s reputation and use spread rapidly among artists, writers and professional café habitués, who claimed it raised their perceptions and consciousness, allowing them to turn out more inspired work.
But what set apart humble absinthe, the product of a small Swiss village, from the many and varied liqueurs, brandies and liquors of the time? Glad you asked.
Secrets of the Faerie
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.” —Oscar Wilde
The power and attraction of absinthe lies in its inherent contradictions. Though fortified with a formidable measure of alcohol, a depressant, it is also infused with powerful herbal stimulants, creating a psychic tug of war in the mind of the imbiber. Alcohol relaxes inhibitions and invites in new ideas, and the stimulants allow you to logically process the new data.
Foremost of the stimulants is thujone, the psychoactive chemical at the heart of the herb wormwood, which, along with anisette, gives absinthe its bitter, black liquorish taste. While once thought to instigate simular reactions as marijuana’s THC, recent research suggests it modulates the neurotransmitter GABAA, which plays a vital role in cognitive thought. Subsequently, absinthe provides a level of clarity not usually associated with alcoholic drinks, and what artist worth his beret could pass that up?
The Cult of the Wormwood
“Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” —Wilde
With the promise of inspiration, clarity and a hell of a drunk, it was no wonder it became the darling of the auteur gang. And what a gang. To say absinthe was the major influence and inspiration of the Impressionist Movement is not such an outrageous claim when you consider most of the movement’s pioneers and stars swore fealty to the liquor. Manet, Rimbaud, Jarry, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso were all heavy users, and if asked, they would tell you they needed the narcotic properties of absinthe to get out of their head enough to render art that had never even been thought of by more conventional artists. Lautrec carried his supply in a hollow cane, Jarry paid homage by painting himself green, Verlaine’s presumptuous manner of saying hello became, “I take sugar with it!” Van Gogh was probably the most prolific user, not to mention the most outside his head: when he couldn’t get a hold of a bottle he’d sometimes drink turpentine as a substitute. It inspired his latter paintings as much as smack inspired Burroughs’s fiction. It also inspired him to cut his ear off.
The literati of the time found absinthe useful as well. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Poe, Wilde, Mary Shelly (she wrote Frankenstein while in the Faerie’s grips), and later, Hemingway, Somerset Maugham and Jack London were all enthusiastic disciples of the la Fee Verte. Hemingway wrote a large body of his work under the faerie’s influence, and it’s no wonder his short stories and novels are steeped in the stuff. His characters ordered it by the bottle and drank it for entertainment, enlightenment, and sometimes as a makeshift barrier between the presence and memories of war and women they wished to forget.
“One cup of it,” Robert Jordan, the protagonist in For Whom The Bell Tolls mused, “took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month.” Jordan always kept a flask of absinthe in his pocket in case he forgot to pick up the paper on the way home.
Hemingway took his first taste while visiting Spain in 1920. He fell head-over-heels in love with the Faerie, continued the habit in Paris (though it was illegal at the time), then carried the practice home to the U.S. He smuggled bottles from Spain and Cuba and kept it by his typewriter as a means of instant inspiration.
Strange Rituals and Green Hours
“The absinthe made everything seem better. I drank it without sugar in the dripping glass, and it was pleasantly bitter. I poured the water directly into it and stirred it instead of letting it drip. I stirred the ice around with a spoon in the brownish, cloudy mixture. I was very drunk. I was drunker than I ever remembered having been.” —Ernest Hemingway
Without question, absinthe owed a great deal of its popularity to the elaborate ritual that goes along with drinking it. Because of its high proof and bitter taste (the Greek word for absinthe translates into “undrinkable”) it had to be diluted and sweetened to make it palatable to the average drinker. And who would have guessed the hassle of making a drink drinkable would become a stroke of marketing genius? Here’s the traditional method:
First you pour roughly three ounces of absinthe into a heavy parfait-style stemmed glass. A perforated spoon (sometimes very elaborately so) is set upon the rim of the glass and on the spoon is placed a cube of sugar. Ice-cold water is ever so slowly dripped from a glass carafe designed specifically for that purpose, onto the cube. The sugar dissolves and you continue pouring until the ratio of water to absinthe is two to five parts, depending upon your taste and fortitude. The emerald liquor releases a floral bouquet and clouds into a pale opalescent green or yellow right before your eyes, filling you with a sense of creation and mystery. The clouding effect is called la louche (pronounced loosh) and occurs because the herbal oils are not soluble in water. Give the mix a spin with the spoon and drink like you dripped—slowly.
If that’s not dramatic enough for you, some aficionados like to dip the sugar cube in the absinthe and set it aflame, allowing the sugar to caramelize. A testament to its proof, absinthe is very flammable and burns with a pleasing blue hue.
Any drink with that kind of presentation is bound to impress. Even those who are revolted by the taste are likely to be silenced by the sheer spectacle of the event. There is a certain sense of superiority that goes along with the ritual: while the peasants in the corner merely pour their booze in a glass and lap it down like wild animals, we, the smart people, the insiders in the know, are engaging in nothing less than alcoholic alchemy!
This spectacle helped create a social phenomenon that became known as l’heure verte, the green hour. The yokels watched the hipster elite exercise the ritual and soon enough everyone wanted in on it.
The Faerie Spreads Its Wings
“The most delicate, the most precarious adornment, to be drunk on the magic of that herb from the glaciers, absinthe! But only to lie down afterward in shit!” —Arthur Rimbaud
The only problem was the price. Initially it was only monied socialites and artists who could afford absinthe. Capitalism hates a vacuum, however, and a plethora of distilleries popped up almost overnight. To keep prices low and profits high, they eschewed the superior distilled wine base Pernod used and switched to cheaper grain and potato alcohol. They cranked it out as fast as they could and still the demand rose.
The expansion of absinthe was further aided by a severe wine shortage that swept France, the consequence of a grape blight that had decimated the nation’s vineyards. With the price of wine skyrocketing and the price of absinthe plunging, the bourgeois jumped in wholesale. The working class soon followed, finding the community of the green hour and powerful effects of absinthe a perfect counterweight to the mundane drudgery of the factory jobs offered by the Industrial Revolution.
Furthermore, absinthe became one of the first liquors to crack the gender barrier, much as the speakeasies did during America’s bout with prohibition. Unlike the established and conservative liquor companies, the young turks of the absinthe trade directed advertising at women. Consequently, absinthe cafes and clubs promoted a level of drinking equality previously unknown in France.
By the mid-1870s the green hour had become a daily ritual at many of Paris’ 366,000 bars and cafes. From l875 to l913 the annual consumption of absinthe per inhabitant in France increased fifteen times, by 1913 drinkers were consuming 10.5 million gallons a year. The French referred to this wild era as “the great collective binge”, for it seemed as if the entire nation was drunk on absinthe.
Soon even the hobos wanted a taste (they were probably more interested in the high proof than the cognitive benefits). To serve their smaller budgets, a vast underground of illicit bootleg stills flooded the streets with a vile version comparable in quality to the near-poisonous bathtub gin of America’s prohibition days. This evil new breed of absinthe contained solvents, wood alcohol, dyes and worse; and it was about this time dark tales of absinthe causing epileptic fits, madness and death started circulating.
Caging the Faerie
“The Prohibitionist must always be a person of no moral character; for he cannot even conceive of the possibility of a man capable of resisting temptation. Still more, he is so obsessed, like the savage, by the fear of the unknown, that he regards alcohol as a fetish, necessarily alluring and tyrannical.” —Crowley
The rapid spread of absinthe came much to the alarm of the already well-established prohibitionist movement. They hated alcohol in general, but saved their particular wrath for absinthe. For a number of reasons. First, it was a staple of bohemians and the idle rich, who seemed decadent and immoral to begin with. Second, the ritualistic nature of the drink seemed, well, sorta satanic. What’s more, the drink had the reputation of being an aphrodisiac and you know where that leads: sex. And since a lot of bums were drinking it (the cheap moonshine version of absinthe was the Thunderbird of the day) it was obviously the catalyst that made the bums act like, well, bums.
To add weight to their outrage, the temperance and religious groups sponsored a series of medical experiments that involved injecting animals with thujone and studying its diabolical effects. No tests were done on human beings, but dogs and rabbits, if injected with a massive enough dose of the chemical, would experience epileptic fits and other calamities. For a human to ingest the same amount of thujone he would have to die of alcohol poisoning many times over, but no matter. They now had their proof: absinthe was not only thoroughly immoral, but also a dangerous health risk.
Then the newspapers got into the act, especially the powerful Parisian daily La Matin. Co-opted by the prohibitionists and always hungry for a scandal, the editors made certain any crime committed while under the influence of absinthe ran as front page news, ignoring more insidious crimes committed by those who had the gall to commit their crimes stone cold sober. Much as drunk driving accidents get many times more press than those committed by sober drivers (who get in accidents forty times more often than drunks), absinthe became the media’s Judas goat.
Adding political intrigue to the general hysteria, the teetotalers, pseudo-scientists and newspaper barons were aided and abetted by, at first glance, an extremely unlikely co-conspirator: the wine makers. Though they tried to paint themselves as moralists, their motives were purely financial. The vineyards had beaten the blight by the turn of the century and were eager to recapture the turf lost to absinthe distillers. It’s akin to a financially ailing Budweiser suddenly launching a vicious media attack against Jack Daniels because hard alcohol is sinister and makes good men do terrible things, while beer makes its drinkers want to pull crying children out of burning schoolhouses.
Fall of the Faerie
“What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? The effects of its abuse are totally distinct from those of other stimulants.” —Crowley
The final nail in absinthe’s coffin was driven by a drunk Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray. In August 1905, the Swiss farmer and known absinthe drinker murdered his entire family. Though thousands of murders were committed in France each year, many much more gruesome, the story made headlines the world over. The evil Green Faerie made him do it, the newspapers trumpeted, ignoring the fact Lanfray drank, in addition to two glasses of absinthe, a crème de menthe, a cognac and soda, two bottles of wine, and two belts of brandy the day of the murders.
The crime had an inordinately powerful effect. That year over 400,000 French men and women signed a petition declaring “everywhere the green water appears, crime and insanity soon follow.”
Lanfray, and by extension, absinthe, were convicted of murder the following year. By 1910 absinthe was banned in the nation of its birth, Switzerland. Dozens of countries followed suit and France, the last holdout, declared the manufacture and consumption of absinthe illegal in 1915. The Pernod distillery was sold in 1917 after 110 years of production.
In Defense of Absinthe
“Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like absinthe, muddles it.” —Alfred Jarry
Little of the evidence used to declare absinthe a health hazard has withstood the test of time. Is thujone, in large doses, dangerous? Yes. If you give a rat the human equivalent of thousands of servings of absinthe it will cause an epileptic fit. If you eat enough Vitamin A it will kill you. The same goes for most vitamins and chemicals. The 19th Century medical studies used to condemn absinthe were skewed for political reasons and its ban was subsequently used as a stepping stone to the total prohibition of alcohol in a number of countries. The madness and seizures attributed to absinthe were more likely attributable to drinking large amounts of high proof alcohol and the caustic chemicals the bootleg absinthe distillers included in their recipes.
You’ve probably already had some experience with thujone. It’s a common ingredient in many salves, perfumes and creams. Vick’s Vap-O-Rub contains thujone, as does Absorbine Jr. Like martinis? Then you’ve probably drank thujone, as most vermouths contain a small amount.
Countries in which absinthe remained legal, such as Spain, Portugal and Czechoslovakia, report no epidemics of madness and violence attributable to its use.
As to the claims made by absinthe distillers in its tenure as a medicinal tonic, a recent study proves the French soldiers in Algeria weren’t just using it for kicks: wormwood does indeed inhibit the growth of some strains of dangerous bacteria. More recent studies also attribute a hepatoprotective effect to wormwood, which means it helps defend the liver against toxins.
The Return of the Faerie
“Let me be mad, mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world.” —Marie Corelli
Nearly a century after its near global ban, absinthe is making a dramatic comeback. Most members of the European Union now allow the sale of absinthe, with a limit of 10 milligrams of thujone per kilogram (some of the absinthes of yesteryear boasted up to six times that amount). You can buy it in grocery chains in the Czech Republic and in liquor stores in Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Japan. Bars and restaurants in Britain began serving it when they discovered it was never formally banned in the country. Activists in France are trying legalize it, claiming modern production techniques have removed the dangers that were present in 1915.
Closer to home, it recently became legal in the Canadian province of British Columbia. In the U.S., thujone is still banned, but as a food rather than a drug. You aren’t allowed to distill or commercially make absinthe, but you can legally own a bottle and even make your own so long as it isn’t distilled.
Conservative maven Martha Stewart collects antique absinthe paraphernalia, absinthe subcultures have sprung up in nearly every major city in America, and the Green Faerie has recently become a popular Hollywood plot device, making appearances as a party drug in Moulin Rouge, as an investigative tool in From Hell and as an accomplice for the wicked and wealthy in Deceiver.
At present, the nation’s law enforcement agencies don’t make any special effort to interdict small quantities entering the country for personal use. It is widely available on the Internet and many dealers are more than willing to ship to the U.S.
Which is how I got mine.
My Dance with the Faerie
“Got tight last night on absinthe. Did knife tricks.” —Hemingway
I became acquainted with the idea of absinthe from reading Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald novels as a teenager. The books didn’t describe exactly what it was, but they went into great detail about what it did to you. I came to learn it was the Lost Generation’s LSD, it was what took the book’s characters, be they writers, soldiers, artists or socialites, out of their minds and transported them to a better, smarter place.
Fanatical fan that I am of Hemingway, it was with almost obscene anticipation I awaited my bottle of absinthe. Instead of parlaying with shady characters and strange currency in some dim Eastern European alley, I parlayed with a computer and my fiancee’s credit card. I surfed to www.absintheoriginal.com, typed in my information and a scant week later a package arrived from the Czech Republic. It was so easy and undramatic I felt vaguely guilty telling friends how I got it.
I clawed open the box and there it was—Absinthe! The Green Faerie, the mystical liquor that lent Hem and Fitz special powers, the liquid light of the Lost Generation, the boon and bane of generation upon generation of artistic genius! I could scarcely believe it. I’d long used a burgundy/whiskey/coffee combination to help me write (alcohol for inspiration, coffee for structure) and here was the whole shebang in one compact, illicit package.
I dove right in. I followed the ritual described by Hemingway (I’d ordered a fancy spoon as well) and marveled at the transmutation, it was precisely as he’d described it. To complete the ritual, there was only one thing left to do.
The taste comes on with all the subtlety of a freight train, and unless you’re a fan of Pernod or anisette, it takes getting used to. Even with the sugar and ice-water dilution, the flavor is full-bore, uncompromising and, for lack of a better phrase, right up in your face. It wasn’t designed by marketing execs trying to kiss your taste bud’s collective ass. It’s not one of those new liquors that roll out every month that you can shoot, think, “That’s cool, I guess,” and move on with your life. You drink absinthe and you think, “Holy Christ, what the fuck is that?”
I drank the glass and repeated the ritual, and yeah, I’ll admit it, the ritual adds to the event, it provides the same paraphenaliac fetishism that separates the heroin addicts in the art schools from crackheads in the alley. The second glass went down easier and by the third I decided that, yes, I liked the taste of absinthe. I poured a fourth, then a fifth, because I knew to get the real effect you had to drink a lot of it. Back in the day, the hard boys drank 10 to 20 glasses a day, and, as I’ve said, back then it had a much higher thujone content.
Eight glasses in and I was starting to get drunk—and something else. If you’ve had your way with modern hallucigens like LSD and psychedelic mushrooms and expect the same out of absinthe, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The effect is much more subtle, it’s difference between being fired out of a cannon and hang gliding.
After my tenth glass I sat down to write, and that’s when I got a grip on what that difference was. I was drunk, yes, but not whiskey or wine drunk, I was drunk and clear-headed. I discovered I could write with a strange sense of cognizance when I should have been scratching unintelligible ravings on bar napkins. The alcohol wave was rolling through me, but instead of drowning, I was somehow above it, coolly observing. No hallucinations, no madness, just drunken clarity.
So there it is. Absinthe provides you with a surfboard (thujone) and a wave (alcohol) on which to ride. That is the singular appeal of absinthe over normal alcohol. While alcohol provides a valuable escape, a vacation from one’s self, if you will, absinthe offers the same journey (on a fast, high-powered aircraft, I might add) with the promise of a window seat with a superior view. For the drunkard, it’s a fast ride with a twist. For the writer? It’s the alcoholic muse on a leash.
And, yeah, I’ve got three more bottles on the way.
—Frank Kelly Rich