Absinthe, I adore you, truly!
It seems, when I drink you,
I inhale the young forest’s soul,
During the beautiful green season.
Your perfume diconcerts me
And in your opalescence
I see the full heavens of yore,
As through an open door.
What matter, O refuge of the damned!
That you in a vain paradise be,
If you appease my need;
And if, before I enter the door,
You make me put up with life,
By accustoming me to death.
The Americans celebrated National Absinthe Day this week. On March 5th 2007, Absinthe became legal to purchase for the first time since 1912.
I was working in Bristol when Absinth first started making a comeback. The group Black Box Recorder, who, after touring in the Czech Republic did a bit of research and were able to confirm that Absinth(e) had never been banned in Britain. After the majority of producers in Europe fell under prohibition, our supply dwindled and its popularity eventually waned.
They started importing Hill’s Absinth (70% ABV) and began the ball rolling in a series of legal challenges to help overturn the ban on Absinthe in many countries around the World. Shortly after the introduction of Hill’s, Sebor Absinth (55% ABV) also hit the back bar fuelling a new craze for this misunderstood spirit.
Interest from the public centred largely on three main factors namely it’s perception at being banned and its higher strength over the other products on the shelves and it ‘s legendary hallucinogenic powers. There was also the Bohemian ritual serve – mimicking heroin cooking, a teaspoon of sugar was dipped into the glass of absinth, lit and left to burn until the sugar caramelised. The molten sugar was then stirred into the glass of absinth whilst water was added to the correct/preferred level. This theatre flourished in the newly emerging style bars who were about to revolutionise cocktail drinking in Britain and the World.
in 2000, following on from the success of Hill’s, the company importing it worked with Marie Claude Delahaye, founder of the Musée de l’Absinthe to reproduce an authentic French-Style Absinthe, quite different and (arguably superior in flavour) from the Eastern European Bohemian styles which would see Absinthe production recommence despite it was still illegal to be sold or consumed in France.
With the French style of Absinthe, the focus of the ritual serve was based on the slotted spoon, sugar cube and water flask/fountain which dominated the Parisian café culture of the late 19th century and embraced by the poets and painters of the time.
So how did Absinthe gain it’s ferocious reputation?
The most important ingredient in Absinthe is Wormwood – it is from that which we derive the name (Artemisia absinthium) Wormwood has been used in potions and medicines as far back as records go. Other ingredients include mugwort, angelica, anise, balm mint and hyssop.
Absinthe was served to French soldiers fighting in Algeria from the 1830’s as a malaria preventative. It was they who popularised the drink upon their return to France.
When the great phylloxera blight hit the French vineyards, many Absinthe producers switched to using beet or grain-based alcohols which were much cheaper and as the price of wine rose, Absinthe became much cheaper by comparison.
The French government had a blanket taxation on bottles of alcohol which did not take into account the concentration of alcohol. Absinthe was bottled at a higher strength so it could be diluted to taste by the consumer thus keeping it a cheap alternative to regular wines.
In the same vein as the Gin craze in Britain in the 17th Century, an addiction to Absinthe and rampant alcoholism spread throughout society. That, combined with the legend that the wormwood was a cause of insanity, gave the Temperance Movement ammunition to start pushing for a ban on alcohol. A total ban was heavily resisted by the wine producers who suggested, and supported a ban on the main culprit – Absinthe.
French prohibition had been bolstered by the banning of Absinthe in Switzerland in 1908. On 28th August 1905, farmer Jean Lanfray shot dead his pregnant wife and two daughters after becoming enraged at her refusal to wax his boots. As a matter of routine, Lanfray would consume strong alcohol from the moment he awoke to going to bed and his daily intake was reckoned to be six quarts of wine as well as copious amounts of marc and brandy.
But it was the two glasses of Absinthe which drew the most headlines and was quickly adopted by his defence team at his trial saying it was the Absinthe which was responsible for the madness which caused him to react so violently. This was echoed by the Mayor of Commugny who declared Absinthe was “the principle cause for a series of bloody crimes in our country” a petition calling for a ban was signed and in 1907, a referendum was held. 23,062 people voted for, and 16,032 voted against a ban on the production and sale of Absinthe in Switzerland.
Other countries followed suit and seeing how much money was saved in Russia by banning vodka, in the early days of the first World war, the French government capitulated and the Green Fairy was sacrificed.
A few countries in Europe repealed their ban on Absinthe following the opening of the EU trade barriers in 1992, others eventually bowed to pressure from persistent lobbying. Germany repealed in 1991, Italy in 1992, Belgium and Switzerland in 2005 and America in 2007 on the 7th March.
France finally followed suit in 2011.
In 2003, I created a cocktail which I used as part of the competition to be awarder Bartender of the Year by FLVR Magazine.
It was called French Rock n Roll after the title of one of the tracks on Black Box Recorder’s second album
French Rock n Roll
30ml La Fée Parisienne
20ml Crème de Pêche
25ml fresh lemon juice
10ml Monin Pistachio Syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
dash egg white (because one egg is un œuf!)
Shake it very well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with a star anise.
*please note, this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of absinthe – I’d be writing it for days otherwise. The blue and red pictures are just to look pretty and are not to represent any ‘real’ Absinthes