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The history of absinthe, the once forbidden drink

Banned for almost 100 years, believed to induce madness in those who drank it, absinthe is making a come back. Invented by a French doctor, the highly alcoholic drink has a colourful history.

What is absinthe and where does it come from?

A certain Dr. Ordinaire (you couldn’t make that up) fleeing the guillotines of the French Revolution, settled across the border in Couvet, Switzerland. He adapted a local herbal folk remedy to cure patients, and, on his death-bed, passed on the secret recipe. Fast forward five years and we find Henri-Louis Pernod, father of the brand still in existence today, opening a distillery in Couvet, then, in 1805, to dodge the excise-men, a bigger one over the border in Pontarlier, France. The Doc’s wormwood potion, now called Absinthe, was proving very successful and soon Pernod was churning out 25,000 litres a year. Before long there were 22 distilleries utilising the locally-harvested plant – Artemisia absinthium – which, with the addition of imported Spanish aniseed, gave the drink its emerald-green hue.

French soldiers fighting in Algeria had been given the medicine as an anti-malarial treatment and brought a taste for the 73° alcohol back home. Mass-production cut prices, and a disastrous wine harvest propelled absinthe to the top of the French drinks charts.

Why is absinthe called the “Green Fairy”

Enter la Fée Verte…the Green Fairy. Named for the swirling emerald opalescence triggered by the addition of iced water to the neat liquid, both the working class and wealthy bourgeoisie consumed 36 million litres a year.

A stroll through Montmartre at 5.00pm in the 1860s would have revealed tables with men and women, often alone, contemplating their glasses of the spirit. This was the l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour, origin of our ‘Happy Hour’. A single absinthe was tolerated by the waiters. Drinkers solved that problem by moving to another, and another and another…

A closer look, perhaps, at the café tables, and we spot the poet Rimbaud and his lover, fellow poet Verlaine, both devotees of absinthe. His artistic life ended as abruptly as his relationship with Verlaine, who in a fit of drunken madness, shot the young Rimbaud.

Here we might encounter Guy de Maupassant, writer of ‘A Queer Night in Paris’ which tells of a provincial at an artist’s party who drinks so much absinthe that he tries to waltz with a chair, falls to the ground in a stupor, and wakes up naked in a strange bed.

Does absinthe really cause hallucination?

Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Degas, Gauguin… none were strangers to la Fée Verte and her tempting powers. Symbolist Alfred Jarry rode his bicycle with his face painted green in celebration of the joys of absinthe. Van Gogh drank it to excess.

The Green Fairy’s effects were being felt in society, much as cannabis is today. High in alcohol, cheap, seductive, reputedly hallucinogenic, it was blamed for epilepsy, tuberculosis, crime and madness. In 1905 in Switzerland a man killed his family, caused it was claimed, buy drinking absinthe. Public morality was outraged, bans followed: Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Switzerland in the early 1900s, the U.S. in 1912, and in France, unequivocal epicentre of absinthe culture, in 1915.

It turned out that the killer had  been drinking since he woke up the morning he committed his foul deeds, and the day before that and the day before that – supposedly without sleep. Years later, it’s agreed that any strong drink would have the same effect.

Two World Wars followed, the Green Fairy was dead and forgotten. Or was she?

Absinthe is back and legal – find out more about it’s resurrection and where to drink absinthe in France…

Michael Cranmer is an award-winning freelance travel writer and photographer. He spends most of the winter up mountains writing about, his primary passion – skiing – but also manages to sample less strenuous outings.

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