Absinthe is alcohol infused with herbs, the defining ingredient being the herb wormwood (artemisa absinthium) from which the drink gets its name. The main active ingredient of wormwood is called thujone, which is chemically similar to THC.
Wormwood has a long history of use as both a medicinal and recreational herb. The ancient Egyptians used it against internal parasites, and the name “wormwood” may refer to this deworming property. Pythagoras recommended wormwood soaked in wine to aid childbirth, while Hippocrates prescribed the herb for rheumatism, anemia and menstrual pains.
In the mid-1500’s, London distilleries were steeping dried wormwood leaves in equal parts wine and water. The resulting “wormwood ale” was popular among the working classes, and Samuel Pepys even describes drinking it in his famous diary.
The first true absinthe recipe was created in 1792 by Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor who had settled in western Switzerland. Ordinaire prepared his own remedies, and he knew that the local residents had been gathering wormwood and distilling it with anise and other herbs for centuries. So he experimented with wormwood elixirs, finally creating a recipe that included anise, hyssop, dittan, sweet flag, melissa, and varying amounts of coriander, veronica, chamomile, parsley, and even spinach.
Dr Ordinaire’s emerald green concoction quickly became popular as a cure-all, and was nicknamed La F?e Verte (the Green Fairy). Legend has it that Ordinaire passed his secret recipe to two sisters on his deathbed, who in turn left it to a visiting Frenchman, whose son-in-law was Henry-Louis Pernod. Pernod was destined to bring absinthe to the world.
In 1797 Henry-Louis Pernod opened an absinthe distillery in Switzerland, and the drink proved so popular that in 1805 he opened a larger distillery in Pontarlier, France. Pernod modified Ordinaire’s recipe, using aniseed, fennel, hyssop and lemonbalm along with lesser amounts of angelica, dittany, juniper, nutmeg and veronica. These ingredients were macerated and soaked with wormwood plants, creating a distilled mixture which was diluted with alcohol.
Absinthe received a huge boost during the Algerian War (1844-47), as all French soldiers were issued absinthe rations, used to disinfect their drinking water. The soldiers developed a taste for the anise flavour, and continued drinking absinthe back in France. The drink became even more popular, and by Pernod’s death in 1850 his empire was established and his name was synonymous with absinthe.
Many competitive factories opened near Pernod’s plant, and Pontarlier became the world’s absinthe capital. Pernod’s competitors used variant recipes, some cashing in on the absinthe craze by scrimping on the ingredients. For instance, the drink’s emerald green color is supposed to come from the chlorophyll in the plants, but some manufacturers used toxic substances like copper sulfate, turmeric and aniline green. Antimony chloride was sometimes used to ensure the drink became cloudy when added to water.
Variations on absinthe also became popular. Drinks like pernod and ricard are essentially absinthe without the wormwood. Vermouth is made from the flowering heads of wormwood, and even takes its name from the german word for wormwood ? wermuth.
Absinthe was especially popular among the literary and artistic set, and devoted drinkers included Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Dowson, George Sand, Samuel Coleridge and Ernest Hemingway, among others.
Most of these artists included absinthe in their work, immortalizing the drink either in painting or prose. Degas painted L’Absinthe, and both Picasso and Manet made paintings titled The Absinthe Drinker. Picasso created numerous other absinthe-related works, including Woman Drinking Absinthe and a painted bronze sculpture called Glass of Absinthe. Hemingway referred to absinthe in books like Death In The Afternoon and For Whom The Bell Tolls. Wilde rhetorically asked “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” and Dowson wittily remarked “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.”
In America absinthe was also popular. The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans’ French Quarter was frequented by celebrities like Walt Whitman, William Thackeray, Aaron Burr and President William Taft. The most popular drink was the absinthe frapp?, and the bar featured marble fountains with brass faucets which dripped cool water, drop by drop, over the sugar cubes perched above the glasses.
Yet as the world moved towards World War I absinthe started getting a bad reputation. In 1905 Swiss citizen Jean Lanfray killed his wife “while drunk on many liqueurs, especially absinthe.” Within two months of his sensational trial and conviction absinthe had been banned in the state of Vaud, and by 1908 the Swiss federal Constitution had been modified to specifically ban absinthe.
Absinthe was also blamed for France’s rising levels of alcoholism and caused fears about the ability to conscript men for war. France’s powerful wine industry also pushed for the ban on absinthe as a means of eliminating the competition. It was claimed that half of France’s insane asylum population were “absinthe addicts.” In 1907 the US magazine Harper’s called absinthe “the green curse of France.” Absinthe’s association with the bohemian lifestyle only served to increase fears about the liqueur.
In 1912 the USA banned absinthe, and in 1915 the drink was forbidden in France and Belgium as a “war measure.” Absinthe’s heyday was over, although it remained legal in many nations, including Spain, the Czech Republic, Britain, Japan and Canada.
In 1998 a British company called Green Bohemia began importing absinthe from the Czech Republic, and now Hill’s Absinth (they spell it without the final ‘e’) is the prime drink for hip Brits.
In Bohemian Paris, absinthe was traditionally poured over a perforated spoonful of sugar into a glass of water. The liqueur then slowly turned an opaque white as the essential oils precipitated out of the alcoholic solution. In modern England, the drink is usually served after being ignited with a spoon of flaming, absinthe-soaked sugar, then doused with water.
The reintroduction of absinthe to the British mainstream wasn’t totally without incident. There was something of a media frenzy, and the government said they would “keep an eye on it.” Green Bohemia has been doing great business without serious problems for a full year.
At Cannabis Culture we ordered some absinthe from Sebor Absinth in the Czech Republic. Sebor is the only company we could find willing to ship to Canada, and our discreetly-packaged order arrived promptly and without incident.
We ordered two glass bottles and a “Czech sipping pipe” ? a small glass on a stand, with an attached straw to facilitate sipping the powerful drink.
Most of our taste-testers commented on the “licorice” flavour, although it was likely the anise and fennel they actually tasted. The drink has a bitter aftertaste, and at 55% alcohol it’s got a bite as well. A few sips numb the lips, leaving a tingling taste on the tip of the tongue.
Sebor uses his own variation on the ancient absinthe recipe, including chamomile, coriander, mint, lemon balm and other herbs “which are Sebor’s secret.”
The buzz is quite enjoyable. Although the alcohol definitely plays a big role in the intoxication, there is an added, dreamy quality which is presumably the effects of the wormwood. The high is different than that from pot, although there is a propensity towards relaxed conversation, free-association and mellow dreaminess.
As a special gift, Cannabis Culture is offering our one remaining flask of absinthe to a lucky reader (we drank the other one). Just send us a short letter or postcard explaining why you are the most worthy to get the bottle, and where and how you plan on drinking the stuff. We’ll arbitrarily pick the one we like the best and send you a bottle of green magic.
? Sebor Absinth is at: seborabsinth.hypermart.net
? Green Bohemia and Hill’s Absinth is at: www.absinth.co.uk
? The book Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Jones III is a great resource. www.modbooks.com/absinthe