. This hallucinogenic drink was first introduced to France in the 1840s and eventually developed a wicked reputation. While some people consider the drink a symbol of liberation and creativity, others believe it to be a symbol of madness and despair instead. Regardless, in our absinthe history 101 lesson, you may realize that the drink was influential in more ways than one. Like our rehab in Boston, you may find that the tale of the Green Fairy is not as whimsical as it sounds.
Absinthe became especially popular during France’s Belle Èpoque, or “Beautiful Era,” from 1871 through 1914. It was a time when creatives and artists who resided in Paris ruled under the control of the Green Fairy. Absinthe is a highly alcoholic beverage that received its mythical and devious reputation as a result of its hallucinogenic effects. Wormwood, one of its various ingredients, is responsible for the hallucinations people may experience after drinking large amounts of absinthe. This alcoholic beverage had a horrible reputation in Europe and was believed to have driven Vincent van Gogh mad and even instigated Ernest Hemingway’s work.
In the era where Paris was a hub for some of history’s greatest creative minds, absinthe seemed to be in the middle of it all. Even well-known author Oscar Wilde wrote of absinthe, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”1 But to best understand how this drink got its reputation, let’s start at the beginning.
The history of absinthe started in 1792 when a French doctor living in Switzerland called Pierre Ordinaire created the drink. Dr. Ordinaire created this drink with the intent for it to be used as an alcoholic elixir. It was sold as a medicine meant to cure ailments like epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches, and stomach worms. He made it by distilling from a bitter-tasting herb called Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. In ancient Greece and Egypt, people used wormwood to alleviate menstrual cramps and fevers. The main chemical compound in wormwood is thujone, which is responsible for the hallucinations and other spiritual or magical events that people claimed to have experienced after drinking absinthe. Many people claimed that absinthe enhanced perception, creativity, and the ability to “see beyond."
There was a specific way that people would drink absinthe. A special slotted spoon holding sugar cubes would sit on top of a glass filled with absinthe. The glass would then be placed under a foundation, and water would slowly drip over the sugar until it dissolved. The most memorable feature of this drink is its green shade that appears to almost glow. Though absinthe can be colorless, the chlorophyll in wormwood makes it green.
Despite how common the drink was during this period, it wasn’t until 1797 that commercial production of absinthe began. A man named Major Daniel Henri Dubied bought a recipe from Dr. Ordinaire and began manufacturing the drink in the town of Couvet in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. Dubied added flavors like warm anise and sweet fennel to the drink, transforming the concoction from medicine to a drink people started to like. Dubied specifically sold it as an apéritif, which is an alcoholic drink that’s meant to be drunk before a meal.
French demand for absinthe grew, so much so that a factory was built in Pontarlier, France, and began production in 1805. Absinthe’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1840s, during which it was given to French troops to prevent malaria. The high demand for this drink among soldiers ensured its presence in bistros, local bars, restaurants, and cabarets in Paris. By the time the 1860s rolled around, the five o’clock happy hour was better known as l'heure verte or "the green hour” in France. The use of absinthe continued to spread across Paris and was most favored among the aristocrats and middle-class. However, the Green Fairy was most favored by France’s most creative and artistic minds and was believed to be the source of inspiration for some of the world’s most famous pieces of art and literature.
Vincent van Gogh painted the image of the drink on a table at a café in 1887, appropriately titling it, “Café Table With Absinthe.” An absinthe cocktail was created and named after Ernest Hemingway’s book Death in the Afternoon, which involves a jigger of absinthe and cold champagne mixed until it looks milky. Absinthe continued to flow through Paris as time passed. Mass production of it in the 1880s caused prices to drop, making it more accessible to all social classes. The production of absinthe increased up to 125,000 liters in 1896. By 1876, the French were consuming 1,550,000 liters of absinthe, and between 1875 and 1913, the annual per capita consumption of absinthe in France increased by 15%.2
By 1908, the French were consuming around 15,500,000 liters of absinthe, which increased to 23,949,200 in 1913, equating to 60 liters per person.2 Absinthe continued to flow throughout France, inspiring artists like Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. In 1914, artist Pablo Picasso created a series of six sculptures called "Glass of Absinthe," a work that depicted an image of the drink decorated with an absinthe spoon. However, by the 1870s, the drink that originated as medicine eventually became associated with murder, social disorders, and drug use.
The drink was eventually banned, with works like Edgar Degas’ 1876 painting “L’Absinthe” portraying a woman drearily slumped over her glass of absinthe solidifying the dangers of the substance. Eventually, the prohibition of this liquor was written into law in different countries. In 1912, the United States banned absinthe, followed by France in 1915.
Today, absinthe laws differ from country to country. Absinthe is legal in the U.S., Canada, British Columbia, and the European Union. Most of the focus is on thujone levels in absinthe. Thujone is the chemical component responsible for absinthe’s effects. The amount of thujone that’s permitted in absinthe varies. In the U.S., for example, absinthe can’t contain more than 10 milligrams of thujone, or it would be illegal. Countries like Australia and the European Union allow up to 35 milligrams of thujone in absinthe.
Although much of the backlash absinthe received in the 1800s and 1900s was political, the drink is dangerous, especially when consumed in large quantities. Additionally, any reasoning behind the prohibition of absinthe a few hundred years back doesn’t mean the drink is safe. Any type of alcoholic drink can produce immediate side effects, such as sedation, impaired judgment, and loss of consciousness. When consumed in large doses, alcohol can also cause dehydration and blackout.
Moreover, no matter what you call it, alcohol is addictive. Chronic drinking can eventually result in addiction. Many who have developed alcoholism have had to receive alcohol treatment to physically recover and learn how to abstain on their own. While our version of absinthe history 101 depicts the drink at its peak, it’s important to remember that it’s still addictive and physically harmful.