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Absinthe History

The World's Most Notorious Drink!




Absinthe was the drink of choice among artist and writers in the mid to late19th century. It inspired poets and appeared in works by Pablo Picasso (left) and Vincent Van Gogh (right). It was drank by the scandalous playwright Oscar Wilde, the eccentric Toulouse-Lautrec, the poets Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe, and the famous 20th century author Ernest Hemingway, just to mention a few.

From the late 1850s to the mid 1870s, grape phylloxera had destroyed two-thirds of the vineyards on the continent of Europe. The price of wine skyrocketed and was soon in short supply. The Aristocrats bought and consumed what was available, leaving the middle-class "la bourgeoisie" of artisans and tradesmen searching for a cheaper alternative. Absinthe was already growing in popularity and was a perfect alternative, being a distilled spirit, it was much stronger than wine and had a mysterious effect that heightened the senses and stimulated creativity. By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply, making it perfect for the emerging Bohemian culture growing in Europe.

In the cafés and cabarets of Paris, the drinking of absinthe became so popular that the hour of 5 p.m. was known as "L'Heure Verte", the Green Hour.

van gogh painting of absinthe glass and carafe
picasso painting of absinthe lady

As its popularity grew, so did public hysteria over its mysterious effects and drunkenness. Absinthe was the subject of many studies into alcoholism, at the time it was referred to as Absinthism. Its use was even considered a one-way ticket to the insane asylum. In August 1905, Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer and known absinthe drinker, shot his entire family. The story made headlines around Europe, proclaiming that he was under the influence of absinthe, and ignored the fact that he had consumed several bottles of wine and other spirits during the course of his day. It was eventually banned in many countries around the world. Commercial production in Switzerland ended around 1910, and in 1914 for France. The Pernod plant (pictured below) at Pontarlier in France was sold on December 31,1917 after 110 years of production. The Pernod plant served as a field hospital during World War I, and was sold by the Société Veil-Picard & Compagnie to Nestlé, the chocolate company.

According to history, or perhaps myth, the elixir of wormwood was orginally developed by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1789. He was a French doctor who was living in the Suisse town of Couvet, in the Canton of Neuchâtel. The doctor was in self-exile due to political reasons from the Franche-Comté region. It was said that he discovered the plant wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) while traveling in the Val-de-Travers. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to create his 136 proof elixir, which he employed in his treatment of the sick and retched. After many claims of miraculous healing powers, it became a panacea or cure-all. It was eventually nicknamed, "la Fée Verte", which means the Green Fairy.

It was believed that Dr.Ordinaire bequeathed his recipe to Mademoiselle Grand-Pierre, who supposedly sold it to two sisters named Henroid in Couvet. However, historical information suggest that the Henroid sisters were making the distilled elixir before the Doctor arrived in the area. The doctor is credited with being one of the first to promote la Fée Verte.

The Henroid sisters exploited the elixir commercially. They offered samples of the elixir to be sold in nearby pharmacies. In 1797, they sold their recipe to a Frenchman named Major Dubied. In that same year, the Major's daughter "Emilie" married Henri-Louis Pernod. The Major, his son Marcellin, and Pernod built the first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet under the name of "Dubied Père et Fils", which begin producing the first commercial absinthe in 1798.

In 1805 Pernod opened a larger factory across the border on the main street in Pontarlier France under the corporate name of "Maison Pernod Fils". One of the reasons for the move was to avoid the high import taxes at the nearby French border. The main street facility operated two stills producing approximately 16 liters of absinthe per day. As popularity grew, Pernods youngest son, "Louis" purchased 36,000 square meters of land on the banks of Doubs River to build a second factory. The second factory produced more than 400 liters of absinthe per day. By the mid 1850s, the plant had grown to produce 20,000 liters per day. At the height of production, they produced 30,000 liters per day and distributed absinthe to many ports around the world.

vintage pernod absinthe bottle
pernod absinthe factory
Quality of product contributed to the tremendous success of Pernod. Original Pernod Fils absinthe was distilled from wine, also known as the "proof-spirit". Even when the French vineyards suffered from Phylloxera, limiting the availability of wine, Pernod resisted the temptation of using alternative materials such as beets, grains, and potatoes to produce his proof-spirit. Pernod was also very active in monitoring all aspects of production, including the selection of raw materials such as grand wormwood, melissa, and fennel. The Pernod factory reputation for cleanliness was impeccable.

Absinthe is a drink that contains a high-level of alcohol, typically 68%. The most important ingredient of Absinthe is the herb wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium); it is what sets it apart from other drinks and is how it acquired its name. The essential oils in wormwood contains the chemical Thujone, which is a toxin when taken in large amounts. Thujone is said to be responsible for Absinthe's mysterious effects. Other ingredients include; green anise, fennel, coriander, roman wormwood, hyssop, angelica root, calamis root, star anise, licorice root, lemon balm, dittany, and sweet flag. Absinthe is most often described as having the flavor of liquorice, with a bitter after taste.

Traditionally, Absinthe is prepared by pouring cold water over a cube of sugar resting on a slotted spoon (see photo below left). The cold water dissolves the sugar while diluting the green Absinthe. The sugar helps to mask the bitterness of the absinthium and other oils. As the cold water mixed with the absinthe, it clouds (see photo below right) to an opalescent white with a tint of green or yellow, this effect is called the, "louche", pronounced "loosh". The louche occures when the essential oils are not able to disperse in the water, therefore creating a clouding effect. The mix ratio is according to preference, usually 3 - 5 parts water to 1 part absinthe.


absinthe glass with sugar cube resting on an absinthe spoon
absinthe filled glass showing opalescence louche
After adding water, the "louche"
Green absinthe before adding water.

A very special acknowledgement to Pierre-Andre Delachaux, the renowned Absinthe Historian from Val-de-Travers in Suisse, for his work to preserve the tradition of absinthe in the Suisse valley where it was created. Absinthe has been a part of the Val-de-Travers for 200 years. It was rumored that farmers produced it for local consumption since its ban in the early 1900s.

We would like to thank Marie-Claude Delahaye - Historian, Author, and Curator of the Absinthe Museum for her continuous efforts to preserve the history of Absinthe.

Special thanks to T.A. Breaux, Chemist and Absinthe Historian for his technical review.

Special thanks to Barnary Conrad III, for his wonderful book "Absinthe - History in a Bottle".

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