History

Absinthe

-A History in Green.

Absinthe

Introduction

The mystery and mythology which surround absinthe are unparalleled amongst spirits. Absinthe held such sway over public consciousness that it was banned throughout the world for the better part of 100 years. As an alcoholic beverage, absinthe is not dissimilar from its sister spirits, the pastis or anisette, albeit arguably a much finer product when distilled by a skilled hand. However, the true allure of absinthe lies only in part measure with the spirit itself; rather, the absintheur finds through the louche an inheritance of bohemia, rebellion, subversion and individuality. It is this heritage which one engages with when one pours a dose of absinthe – absinthe as the green muse, the poet’s third eye, la fee verte… it is a distillation of many more than herbs alone. The world of the absintheur, with it’s spoons, glasses, carafes, fountains, and other miscellanea is 19th century in origin, however even after almost a century of suppression and ignorance, absinthe appreciation and absintheur culture is once again flourishing, in small pockets, across the globe. It is the legacy left by the great absinthe-makers and absintheurs of the ‘belle epoch’ which we in the 21st century engage with and build upon into the future. Absinthe drinking is not a whimsical exercise in nostalgia, however we modern absinthe drinkers are keenly aware of the role which history plays in our chosen passion, and we celebrate what the totality of absinthe culture can offer us in this digital age. Even in the 19th century absinthe was a global phenomenon – travelling wherever the absintheur chose to take it, and in the atmosphere of expansion and wanderlust which marked the second half of the 19th century, absinthe culture travelled widely indeed.

In the Beginning

Pontarlier

Absinthe as we know it today began life in the late 18th century, in the Val de Travers region of Switzerland. According to the oft-repeated legend it was a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire who first produced a commercial form of absinthe, a distilled patent medicine of Artemisia absinthium (Grand Wormwood) and other herbs touted as a tonic and cure-all thought particularly effective against intestinal parasites (which, it would seem, is not entirely untrue). It was Dr. Ordinaire’s product which is purported to have been bought by a Major Dubied from the Henriod Sisters of Couvet in Switzerland sometime before 1797, with an eye to selling absinthe as a recreational aperitif rather than just a medicinal tonic. According to one variant on the tale, upon his death Ordinaire bequeathed the absinthe formula to his housekeeper who then sold it to the Henriod sisters. This being said, it is possible that it was the Henriod sisters who were producing absinthe in the beginning, and that Ordinaire did nothing more than market it more widely, however the ultimate truth of the matter eludes us even today. What is accepted is that it was at this time absinthe attracted the nickname “La Fée Verte” – “The Green Fairy”, the first hint that the drink had taken on a mythic appeal in addition to it’s physical one, possibly associated with it’s original ‘medicinal’ reputation. Dubied began producing absinthe with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod, who subsequently set up the Pernod Fils absinthe distilling company in Pontarlier, France around 1805. Soon after this, possibly as a result of friction in the family, or possibly as an exercise in diversification Dubied returned to Switzerland and his own business, along with son Marcellin, now named Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet.

History now shows that it was Pernod who succeeded in business, possibly due in part to lower tariffs and customs duties in France, however the success of absinthe in France was largely thanks to soldiers returning from Algeria and other parts of North Africa during the 1840s. Absinthe was given to the French troops as a fever preventative, but it appears that the soldiers developed a taste for the drink, and famously brought their love of the new-found tipple home to their countrymen, who quickly adopted the custom… giving Pernod Fils had an immediate and eager customer base. Henris-Louis’ youngest son Louis took over and expanded the business, buying a large tract of land in Pontarlier by the Doubs river. In turn, Louis’s sons Fritz and Louis-Alfred inherited the business from their father, and with some financial assistance, continued to expand. Dubied Père et Fils transferred to a cousin, Fritz Duval, meanwhile Pernod’s eldest son Edouard has begun producion of absinthe under his own name in 1827, his son Edouard II starting his own company in or around 1897.

Absinthe had firmly caught on in the public consciousness by the mid-19th century, and as is evident from the number of distilleries in operation, the blossoming of absinthe culture had begun in earnest. Indeed, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the Pernod family were the pinnacle of the absinthe world, as brands such as Jules Pernod, Legler Pernod, Jules Pernot, Emile Pernot, Pierrot and Gemp Pernod emerged in an attempt to ride on the coattails of the founding distilleries. However over time unassociated brands of absinthe began to emerge, such as Cusenier’s Oxygénée (another absinthe marketed with a ‘medicinal’ or fortifying reputation), Absinthe Terminus, Absinthe C.F. Berger, Absinthe Suisse, Premier Fils, Junod, Absinthe H. Bazinet, Absinthe Dornier-Tuller, Absinthe Lanquetin Fils, Absinthe Georges Putois, Kübler & Romang and a host of other, smaller distilleries of varying quality and output.

The Absinthe Boom

L’heure verte at a Parisian bistrot

L’heure Verte” – ‘The Green Hour’

During the latter part of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th century absinthe manufacture expanded and became a global entity. In America Butterfly Absinthe emerged, as did New Orleans own Herbsaint, a pastis with a name that plays on the French pronunciation of ‘absinthe’. Spain’s Absinthe Pernod S.A. Tarragona inherited their business from Edouard Pernod, and continued in production well beyond the absinthe prohibition which affected the majority of Western Europe, ceasing production only in 1938 when amalgamated into the larger Pernod company. Absinthe Bregante began production in Corsica, Italy and E. Albado began absinthe production in Cuba (it is believed that Albado absinthe was the absinthe favoured by Hemmingway during the 1930s).

Picasso

Pablo Picasso, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’, 1901

It was also during this period that absinthe was adopted en masse by the artists, poets, performers and ‘underground’ intelligencia of European centres, most notably Paris, due in part to its ready availability and relatively low price, however absinthe was increasingly touted as the “green muse” and “the poet’s third eye”, reputed to have an intoxicating effect above and beyond that of its alcohol content. The assertion that absinthe drinking produces ‘secondary effects’ is highly contentious even today, however some modern researchers who support the existence of secondary effects, such as Ted Breaux, claim this is not a product of thujone ingestion (thujone being the infamous terpene found in wormwood which has long been falsely asserted as the ‘active’ ingredient in absinthe). Rather, they assert it is a product of the tension created by the combination of herbs found in absinthe, some stimulants, others sedatives, which leads to a more ‘lucid’ experience of intoxication and creating a sense of disconnectedness with the physical body. This argument suggests that depending on the formulation one absinthe may produce a secondary effect where another does not, and this is dependent on the distillation technique, as well as the presence and ratio of herbs such as anise, fennell and hyssop along with wormwood. Having said this, there is a strong movement amongst contemporary drinkers which dismisses secondary effects as literary fantasy and argues that it is the alcohol, not the wormwood, which produces intoxication from absinthe drinking. In this case, the court has been out on the issue for a very long time.

muse1.jpg

Absinthe: The ‘Green Muse’

Absinthe was so popular through the late 19th century that a mutually-agreed upon scale of quality emerged which most, though not all, absinthe houses subscribed to. This quality scale was divided most often into five tiers; “Absinthe Suisse”, the highest and finest quality absinthe, though not necessarily Swiss in origin, rather manufactured in the Swiss tradition. Second to this was “Absinthe Superieure”, followed by “Absinthe Fine”, “Demi-Fine” and lastly “Absinthe Ordinaire”. These rankings were based on the integrity of ingredients and, above all, alcohol content. An Absinthe Suisse was between approximately 65% and 75% alcohol and utilizing only whole herbs in the distillation process, where an Absinthe Ordinaire would be around 45% alcohol content and was likely to be artificially coloured and flavoured – occasionally by less than optimal ingredients such as heavy metals and cold-mixed essential oils. It is these less desirable absinthes which, being far cheaper than their Superieure and Suisse counterparts (such as Pernod and Oxygénée) were drank in much larger quantities by the poor and the alcoholic. This, more than any other factor had a deciding hand in the reputation which absinthe would go on to acquire, thanks also in part to the efforts of disgruntled wine-makers and Christian alcohol prohibition groups.

Absinthe in Australia

Paris House

The Paris House, Sydney c.1915

Until very recently, the history of absinthe in Australia has largely gone unrecorded. The work of contemporary absinthe researchers such as Gaye Valtilla, Jonathan Carfax and Robert Maxwell have uncovered key details relating to absinthe in 19th century Australia, however this research is ongoing and the whole picture is definitely not apparent as of yet. Major museums and archival institutions in Australia such as Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum have reported that they hold no absinthe-related material in their archives, and assuming that no objects have been miscatalogued this assertion must be taken at face value. However, it has recently been proven that absinthe was indeed being imported into Australia during the 19th century, particularly as several bottles of pre-ban absinthe have recently surfaced in the country with very strong provenance.

Though in Great Britain absinthe drinking was not as widespread as was the practice in France, it did occur, and thanks to the very public tastes of those associated with the aesthetic and decadent movements of the 1880s and 1890s such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Ernest Dowson, absinthe received significant British media attention and, by the end of the century, had garnered a dedicated following in the Mother Country. The 19th century was a period of great expansion and colonial influence for Great Britain, and was the time when England had “dominion over palm and pine” with an Empire on which “the sun never set”. Free settlers and convicts alike had emulated the styles and tastes of English society since the first transport to New South Wales in 1788, as was reflected in choices in tableware and textile patterns, interior design, fashion, food and behaviour . By the mid 19th century, though there was an acknowledged “colonial lag”, meaning styles and fads took longer to reach Antipodean shores, anything en vogue in London would eventually surface in Sydney, then travel to the other centres of Australia. Moreover, the east coast of Australia was a hub of inter-Pacific trade, and so trade and exchange with French protectorates and territories such as Tahiti (a known, regular point of importation of Pernod Fils) and Vanuatu took place on a daily basis. With this as a backdrop, it is unsurprising to learn that absinthe eventually made its way to Sydney. What is surprising is when this took place.

From a mention of absinthe and anisette importation in an early issue of the Sydney Herald (the forerunner to the Sydney Morning Herald), it is known that absinthe was being imported into Sydney as early as 1841. However, as this advertisement appears in the year which the Herald was founded (taking over from the earlier Sydney Gazette), it is possible that earlier accounts of absinthe in the colony do exist, however these as still to be investigated. Though this early date is intriguing, the majority of our current knowledge of absinthe in Australia comes from print advertisements from the late 19th century, particularly those which appear in the only French language broadsheet of the day, Le Courrier Australien. An advertisement from 30 April 1892 for Maurice Segur, importer and “sole agent” for Marie Brizard & Roger of 80 Pitt St Sydney lists the various spirits and wines which the company imports to Sydney, however special mention is made at the bottom of the advertisement, advising that Segur offers “(i)mportation directe de la Grande-Chartreuse, Benedictine, Absinthe Pernod, Vermouth, Noeilly-Prat, etc., etc.” This advertisement runs until July of 1892, at which point the text changes to indicate Brizard & Roger are importing “Pernot fils”. Whether this is a typo or indicative of a change in distillery is unclear, however the latter is more likely the case. It is possible that Pernod sourced a new importer or increased their charges, necessitating a change to Pernot.

segur1.jpg

Segur’s advertisement from Le Courrier Australien featuring ‘Absinthe Pernod’

segur2.jpg

The revised advertisement listing ‘Pernot fils’

It is also known that the Paris House restaurant, bistrot and bar, established in 1890 (on the site of the former law School of the University of Sydney at 173 Phillip St, run by a Mr. O. Desneaux according to the 1891 rates assessment) was the place to be seen for the intelligencia and society doyens of late 19th century Sydney. The Paris House often held receptions and dinners in honour of artists and performers, such as visiting ballet dancer Adeline Genee, director Hugh Ward and actor/producer/writer Oscar Asche. As the Paris House’s name suggests, it was the seat of French culture and dining in Sydney during the late 19th and early 20th century, and this, combined with the known availability of absinthe in Sydney, infers quite strongly that absinthe would have been offered in the bistrot on the ground floor of not in the restaraunt itself, which was run by a M. Gaston Lievain from Lille. According to the 1902 rates assessment for the property Lievain was in charge of 16 rooms over three floors, many of these private rooms, and the top floor was sponsored by the Moet champagne house, so, although no current evidence at hand places absinthe at the Paris House, it is highly likely that la fee verte was readily available.

The most tantalising thread in the hunt for absinthe in Australia comes from what is being termed the “Oxy” cache, a collection of antique spirits which surfaced in rural Tasmania, at The Bush Inn in New Norfolk, an inn which once hosted Dame Nellie Melba and is one of the oldest continually licenced pubs in Australia (if not the oldest, as they contentiously claim), its lease dating back to 1815. When renovation work was recently conducted on the cellar of the property, a bricked-up section of the cellar was discovered, and inside owners discovered 9 bottles of 19th century French spirits, which included 3 full, well-preserved bottles of pre-ban absinthe, 2 of Edouard Pernod and one Pernod Fils (which was likely imported via London – see pic). David Nathan-Maister of Oxygenee Ltd was contacted by the owner of the hotel who then sent the bottles on to Nathan-Maister for sale (Absinthe.com.au will soon feature an interview with David Nathan-Maister regarding this find and potential future finds, so stay tuned).

bush-inn-1890s.jpg

The Bush Inn, Tasmania, c.1890 (pic: Bush Inn)

french-cache-1.jpg

The “Oxy” cache – the 3 absinthes are centre frame (pic: David Nathan-Maister)

french-cache-ii-close.jpg

The Oxy absinthes (pic: David Nathan-Maister)

pernod-backlabel.jpg

The English language back label of the Pernod Fils bottle from the Oxy Cache (pic: David Nathan-Maister)

Though there are still many lacunas to be investigated and gaps to be filled, it is clear that absinthe did indeed leave a footprint in 19th century Australia. Moreover, the lack of knowledge regarding pre-ban Australian absinthe culture is not due to a lack of such culture having existed; rather, it would appear that this speaks to a lack of academic attention to the subject. This is heartening to the absinthe researcher, as there are still threads to unpick and leads to follow, and la fee verte willing – there may well be another unknown cache somewhere just waiting to surface.

La Mort de la Fee Verte

Ultimately, absinthe fell victim to its own popularity. Through the latter 19th century absinthe manufacture exploded, and many less-reputable absinthe makers utilized grain alcohol, far cheaper than grape alcohol. This meant absinthe was extremely cheap to manufacture and sell, thus increasing its popularity and, ultimately, usurping wine as the chosen escape of the French working classes. To make matters worse French vintners were in the grips of an industry-wide crisis, as two different types of infestation decimated vineyards across Europe. This made wine even more expensive to produce and market, furthering the popularity of absinthe amongst drinkers. When the wine industry began to pick up at the turn of the 20th century vintners smelt blood, and went on a dedicated campaign to win back their target audience by vocally campaigning against absinthe, as they saw it to be an inferior and ‘unnatural’ product compared to wine. Regardless of this, it is fair to say that absinthe of very poor quality was being imbibed by the poor and destitute as an escape from reality, and this increase in chronic alcoholism amongst the French underclasses had a deciding hand in the outcome of what is now known as The Ban.

l_absinthe-c_est-la-mort-cc_64kb.jpg

Early 20th Century anti-absinthe propaganda

By the 1860s, the term ‘absinthism’ had begun to emerge. This physical and mental ailment, it was claimed, came about as a direct result of the ingestion of not only alcohol in general, but absinthe in particular. The theory of absinthism was made popular by a Dr. Valentin Magnan of the Saint-Anne Asylum in Paris, who claimed that:

“In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature… the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed.”

Though Magnan claimed these were the horrendous traits brought about by absinthe and absinthe alone, his research was fatally flawed and it is now regarded that the symptoms he described belong not to ‘absinthism’ but to alcoholism in general, regardless of the form that alcohol takes. The possibility that many chronic drinkers were also imbibing heavy metals and synthetic colourants and flavours may also have contributed to the state of these alcoholics, however it is clear that it was the alcohol, not wormwood, which was largely to blame. Though this may be the case, at the time Magnan’s work concocting the myth of absinthism was eagerly accepted and touted by the popular press of the day as scientific fact. By the last decade of the 19th century absinthe had become the main target of not only disgruntled vintners, but abolitionist groups, most notably the Ligue National Contre L’Alcoolisme or the ‘Croix Bleue’ as they became known. In 1907 the Blue Cross gathered 400,000 signatures on a petition to ban absinthe, arguing that absinthe drinking led to insanity, criminality, tuberculosis and epilepsy, having “killed thousands of French people”. The fatal blow to absinthe is widely believed to have been the 1905 murder by labourer and chronic alcoholic Jean Lanfray of his pregnant wife and two children after a severe drinking binge which, though including two ounces of absinthe, also included a long list of other alcoholic drinks. It is reported that:

Lanfray consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. He returned home drunk with his father, and drank another coffee with brandy. He then got into an argument with his wife, and asked his wife to polish his shoes for him. When she refused, Lanfray retrieved a rifle and shot her once in the head, killing her instantly, causing his father to flee. His four-year-old daughter, Rose, heard the noise and ran into the room, where Lanfray shot and killed her and his two-year-old daughter, Blanche. He then shot himself in the jaw and carried Blanche’s body to the garden, where he collapsed.

Finally, after extreme pressure from a misinformed public, absinthe was officially made illegal in Belgium and Brazil in 1906, in Holland in 1908, in Switzerland in 1910, in the USA in 1912 and, finally, in France during the first horrific blush of WWI in 1915. It would seem that the green fairy had been thoroughly and finally expunged. Not so. Though the majority of absinthe manufacturers either switched to producing pastis, such as the Pernod pastis we know today, there were parts of the world, such as Spain, where the ban was never enforced. As a result, Pernod’s operations in Tarragona produced absinthe through to the 1960s and, in the Val de Travers, where absinthe was first born, the illicit distillation of La Bleue absinthe, a home-distilled Absinthe Suiss, continued right up to the present day (indeed, absinthe was never functionally banned in the United Kingdom either, nor was it made illegal in parts of southern and eastern Europe). Though absinthe disappeared from the public consciousness, the green fairy was far from dead. To be continued.

Robert Oct 25th 2007 10:05 am No Comments yet Trackback URI

Comments are closed.