Posted by: Jessie | January 4, 2010

Absinthe Series: Intro and History


Many famous people used to drink at The Old Absinthe House, New Orleans, LA

Last year Eric and I went to New Orleans for a few days during the holidays.  While we were there we visited the Absinthe Museum and the Old Absinthe House.   What history!  What mystique!  I’ve fallen in love with Absinthe.

In honor of last year’s trip I’m writing about Absinthe this week.  This is my opportunity to go on and on and on about Absinthe without having to see the bored look on your face!  Ha!

Most of the conversations I get into about Absinthe starts with someone says “Of course you can’t get real Absinthe.  I mean, you can, but it doesn’t have the active ingredient in it, ’cause that’s illegal.  It’s been banned in every country.”  If that’s what you were about to say, I would have to tell you that your information is outdated.  When the European Union came about the European countries had to agree on their laws.  The ban on Absinthe came into question.  It was illegal everywhere except Spain.  Spain said they were not going to make it illegal, since there was no scientific proof that it was bad for you.  The other countries thought Spain made a good point, so they lifted the ban.

“So, if there is no proof that it is bad for you, why was it banned?” you may ask.  Well…  that is a long story.  We’d better start at the beginning.

Modern Absinthe was originally developed by Pierre Ordinaire.  He fled from France during the revolution and settled in Switzerland.  There he became the country doctor.  He wanted to formulate a digestive tonic from local medicinal herbs.  The herb artemisia absinthium  was already famous for its medicinal properties, but it tasted so awful that nobody wanted to take it.  Mr. Ordinaire solved this problem by distillation.  He was able to develop a tasty beverage with Absinthium as one of its many herbal ingredients.

In 1805 Major Dubied, Marcelin Dubied, and Henri-Louis Pernod got together and, using Pierre Ordinaire’s recipe, erected the Maison Pernod Fils absinthe distillery in Pontarlier, France.  With the birth of the industrial age absinthe became more popular.  It was relatively inexpensive and was reputed to have curative powers, so it was a logical libation of choice for the growing population of the working poor people.  In the 1840’s the French Army doctors prescribed official rations of absinthe to soldiers for the prevention of fevers and treatment of dysentery.  Army surgeons believed it could even be used to disinfect drinking water.  The French Army carried their absinthe around the Europe.

As time went on, absinthe became popular with the Bohemians of Paris, writers, poets, and artists.  From Paris it spread to London and New Orleans.  Famous people would gather in Absinthe Houses to talk and drink.   Some famous absinthe drinkers are Ernest Hemingway, Edouard Manet, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Aleister Crowley, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, etc.  They liked it because they could drink, but the herbs in the absinthe prevented them from feeling drowsy and kept them relatively clear-headed.  So they could still work even when they were drunk.

In order to meet the popularity, some cheap imitations of absinthe became available.  Some producers were putting copper sulfite into it to make it green instead of using natural chlorophyl.  Copper sulfate was later discovered to cause hallucinations, erratic mood swings, convulsions, tremors, tic disorders, and blindness.  Since absinthe was often upwards of 140 proof, it was much stronger than the usual wine.  People who drank too much absinthe were diagnosed with absinthism.  This was probably simple alcoholism, but that had never been defined.  Absinthe addicts were advised to quit drinking absinthe and only drink wine, which was thought to be harmless.

In the meantime, there was trouble for the wine producers of France.   Root mites were killing the grapes.  With the shortage of wine, more people were drinking absinthe.  Absinthe was close to becoming the national drink of France.  This scared the wine producers and they began to lobby against absinthe.  Opiates and cocaine were also becoming popular.  In opposition to this, Temperance movements sprang up in both Europe and the United States.  In 1905, after a couple of drunken men, in different parts of Switzerland murdered their wives, a ban was placed on Absinthe in Switzerland.   Within 15 years it was banned in much of the world.

This, however, was not the end of absinthe.  Many absinthe producers removed the wormwood from their recipe, added sugar, and reduced the strength of the alcohol to only 80 proof.  Pernod, Pastis, and Herbsaint are survivors.

After the ban was lifted in Europe absinthe became more and more widely produced.  One producer in particular began lobbying the US government to lift the ban in the United States.  It was finally lifted in 2007, and Lucid became the first absinthe legally available in the United States.  Now there are several brands available, many produced right here in the US.

Want more info?  Check out this video on YouTube.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5aeNxd_z_c

Old absinthe ad

Current absinthe ad

Other articles on absinthe: Lucid, with review and recipes.  St. George, La Clandestine, Jade Nouvelle Orleans, Corsair Red, Vieux Carre, Pernod,

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Responses

  1. Bravo! I’ve been an avid absinthe drinker for ten years and came across your post. You got everything right. Absinthe is, in my humble opinion, the Necatar of the Gods. A good quality absinthe is heaven to drink. The effect is unlike any other alcohol. You feel the effects of the high proof alcohol, but are at the same time quite lucid (hence the name of Ted Breaux’s US version of his highly esteemed Jade absinthes) Oh, and there’s nothing boring at all about absinthe. It has the history and mystique of no other alcohol. Well done!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I agree, the effect is different from other alcohols. I will share my first experience with absinthe in my next post.

      ~Jessie

  2. Hey! Regarding those murders eventually leading to the banning of absinthe–that was in SWITZERLAND, not in Sweden! And absinthe was never banned in Sweden! Please correct this. (For your information: Sweden is the major Scandinavian country in the north, whereas Switzerland is wedged in between Germany, France, Austria and Italy in the heart of the European continent.)

    • Oops! Thank you for catching my error. I have made the correction.

      ~Jessie


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