Australia’s First Absinthe?

Australia’s first Absinthe?

And while we have much respect to Michael and Alla Ward & the fine people at Tamborine Mountain Distillery – it isn’t the one manufactured by them.

Although curiously it is an absinthe produced in Queensland. In 1878 to be exact.

In an article in The Brisbane Courier, Thursday 22 August 1878, a competition report of the Queensland Intercolonial Exhibition is provided. It was a busy day, with between eight and nine thousand attendees, with over 400 pounds taken at the gate. Many new an interesting wonders are being exhibited – the inner workings of torpedos, the unbeatable strength of the diamond drill that could power through the hardest stone, explosive demonstrations of ordinance mines the local park, cattle, sheep, fine arts, Hibernian bands, and that new fang-dangled invention called electricity, which to the crowds astonishment could power lighting!

Perhaps most importantly for antipodean absintheurs…

Spirits of wine and colonial rum were shown by the Milton Distillery Co. and there was a sample of rum from Hewitt & Co of Mackay; the only other exhibits in this class were absinthe from Bertheau of Bundaberg and white spirit from Quinlan, Gray and Co.

Who was Bertheau?

Here we need to refer to the 1878 Edition of Pugh’s Queensland Alamanac, Law Calender, Directory, Coast Guide and Gazetteer.

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In the Bundaberg Directory we find direct reference to a Bertheau – listed as C.Z Bertheau, Cordial Manufacturer.  Being in the trade of flavours and cordials it makes sense that his knowledge could well extend into the realm of flavoured spirits manufacturer. But what additional evidence have we of this?

Looking back to the 9 December 1863 edition of The Courier we can find reference to an application by Charles Zachariah Bertheau for a licence for the Alliance Hotel, Spring Hill, which was granted. The Alliance Hotel stands today as one of Brisbane’s oldest surviving drinking establishments, built operating since 1864 – which is safe to say our potential early Australian absintheur was the father of this particular establishment, having the license granted the previous year.

Charles Bertheau obviously knew a thing or two about alcohol. That he knew something about its production is also true, but it seems his business acumen may have been wanting. In a notice in The Courier, 19 February 1864, Charles Zachary Berthaeu, Licenced Victualler, transfered his entire estate and effects to creditors Edward Fagan, William Wilson and Armand Hanniger, possibly staving off bankruptcy,

By why absinthe, that most French of drinks, seemingly alien to Australian culture of the period?

Bertheau is a French name, and in fact likely a Huguenot (French Calvanist) family name. That Charles Bertheau may not have been a native of Australia is suggested in an advertisment in The Brisbane Courier, Saturday 28 November, 1881.


C.Z Bertheau


Begs to inform the Public of Queensland that he imports, direct from Burgundy and Bordeaux, WINES selected by his Brother and Nephews living in the localities, purchasing from growers in bulk, as the vignerons never bottle these Wines. These Wines are recommended by the medical faculty as the best restorative tonics for weak constitutions, old and young.

Thus emerges a true early French connection.

Charles also had a wife, Mary Ann. The role of Mary Ann, as it turns out, may be more important the more we investigate.

At the Queensland International Exhibition in 1879 we find a new reference to absinthe and the Bertheau’s in The Brisbane Courier, 11 October.

The contribution as part of the International Exhibition were made not by Charles, but by Mary. Much like Mt Tamborine’s Michael and Alla, partners in life and in artisan liqueur pursuits – their predecessors of over 100 years ago were a husband and wife team who brought Australia quite possibly one of the first home grown absinthes.

But this raises more questions. Was this Bertheau Absinthe ever commercially produced or merely a showpiece? From where in Bundaberg did Bertheau operate? Is there evidence of a distillery – or being a cordial manufacturer, is it more likely the absinthe is one based on the formulation of flavoured essences?

It however wouldn’t be a tale of absinthe without a tale of descent into madness.

Charles Zacharie Bertheau is on record as being admitted, alongside his wife Mary Ann, to a mental asylum some time around the 1890’s according to the Mental Asylum Records of Queensland.

There is much more to this story to be discovered and told. We have taken great pleasure in being able to uncover the first chapter.

Jonathan Oct 19th 2008 11:27 pm Culture,History,Huh?,News,People No Comments yet Trackback URI

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