From the latin, Artemisia Absinthium. No other drink has managed to acquire such a fearsome reputation. In 1792, Dr Pierre Ordinaire wrote a recipe for a drink containing a variety of essential oils, including an extract of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The undiluted product contained anywhere between 60 - 85% alcohol, and the obvious effect of this potency was compounded by the presence of a chemical in the wormwood, called thujone. There have been various studies of this peculiar substance over the years, and it is generally agreed that it does possess certain psychoactive qualities. Whether these manifest themselves after one sip of the drink or not until one has become a hardened enthusiast is somewhat contentious, but it is safe to say that the intoxication the drink encourages is certainly unusual.
Pernod Opens First Absinthe Distillery:
Henri-Louis Pernod opened the first Absinthe distillery in Switzerland and then moved to a larger one in Pontarlier, France in 1805. For the average Frenchman, most days started with a drink and ended with l'heure verte (the green hour), as one or two or more were taken for it's aperitif properties. It is interesting to note that it also has aphrodisiac and narcotic properties. Authors and artists were proponents for inducing creativity. It's popularity soared from 1880 onward through advertisements touting it as being healthful. It was exported to New Orleans and reached the same acclaim in the United States. It was one of the few drinks considered ladylike and women freely enjoyed it in the coffee houses where it was most commonly served. Victorian era men however, found women freely enjoying absinthe distasteful!
The Culture Connection:
Towards the end of the 19th century, absinthe had found favour with the artistic community in Europe, and it is their colourful if shocking legacy that is responsible for the reputation of the drink today. Gauguin and Van Gogh are probably the two most famous absinthists.
Gauguin's diary reports how, when under the influence of La Fee Verte (the green fairy, a curiously affectionate term for absinthe at the time) Van Gogh chased him down the street brandishing a razor, until Gauguin managed to stare him out. Later that night, Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear.
Other notable fans included Degas, whose L'Absinthe (pictured) is probably the best known painting of absinthe drinkers, featuring as it does a man and woman sitting in a cafe, looking distinctly the worse for wear, the poet Rimbaud who shot his lover and fellow absinthist Verlaine under the influence and Hemmingway, whose writing perhaps sums up best the devil-may-care bravura that regular drinking encouraged, "Got tight last night on absinthe. Did knife tricks."
The Reputation and the Ban:
In 1905, Jean Lanfray who was very intoxicated, murdered his wife. He supposedly only had two glasses of Absinthe but none the less, his trial became known as the "Absinthe Murder". Prohibition movements were underway. Absinthe was singled out as the maddening culprit and became synonymous with alcohol. Experiments started to be conducted often by injecting large doses of the oil of wormwood into animals. Absinthism was named as a disease. On July 25th, 1912, the Department of Agriculture issued Food Inspection 147, which banned Absinthe in America, and finally France followed in 1915. Absinthe was banned across most of Europe at the start of the 20th century after connections were made between consumption and mental illness. After this point, absinthe was made wormwood-free, and brands such as Pernod (named after the founder of one of the original absinthe distilleries) hit the scene. It was not until 1990 that a Czech distiller, Radomil Hill began production of the genuine article again. Hill's Absinth is the market-leading brand, and the one you are most likely to encounter, either as a cocktail ingredient or served in the Czech style (see below).
Absinthe is clearly here to stay - its adoption by notable mixologists such as Dick Bradsell and Douglas Ankrah have guaranteed its credibility, and a new wave of celebrity imbibers including Johnny Depp (who apparently fuelled his performance in Sleepy Hollow with the stuff), Eminem and Damien Hirst will no doubt play their part in the second Absinthe Age.
Just remember the words of Emile Zola when you're considering your third glass of the evening, "Boche had known a joiner who had stripped himself stark naked in the Rue Saint-Martin and died doing the polka - he was an absinthe drinker."
Traditional Czech Serve:
Put one shot of Absinthe in a tumbler. Dip a teaspoon of sugar into the Absinthe and absorb the spirit into the sugar. Then, holding the spoon above the glass, set it alight and let it burn until it begins to caramelise. When the flame has calmed down, stir the spoon into the glass - taking care not to set light to the contents, and stir until dissolved. Add an equal measure of water and ice - Enjoy!