The Early Years
Absinthe takes its name from Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood, known in French as ‘Grande absinthe’. This ingredient of the liquor absinthe also contains the molecule thujone, which supposedly accounts for its alleged mind-altering properties. Wormwood infusions had been known as a medicine as far back as Greek times however it was not until around 1792 that the alcoholic elixir was supposedly created. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland, distilled the wormwood plant in alcohol with anise, hyssop, lemon balm, and other local herbs. According to popular legend, Ordinaire actually obtained his recipe from the local Henriod sisters, who had been making an ‘elixir d’absynthe’ to treat illnesses for years.The tonic, quite powerful at around 72% alcohol, was locally heralded as a medical cure-all. The recipe was in turn passed on to a Major Dubied, whose son-in-law was Henri-Louis Pernod. Whatever the truth behind its origins, absinthe stopped being a local curiosity and started on its route to becoming an international phenomenon in 1797 with the foundation of their distillery in Couvet, Switzerland. In 1805, the famous Pernod Fils distillery expanded and opened in Pontarlier, France to avoid customs taxes between Switzerland and France. By 1905, there were hundreds of distilleries in all corners of France producing absinthe, with over 40 distilleries operating across the Swiss border in the French Jura region, 22 of which were located within the town of Pontarlier, itself producing 7,000,000 litres a year from 151 stills. The success of the highly regarded Pontarlier brands brought many imitators and profiteers soon introduced cheaper, adulterated and even poisonous imitations onto the market that were in turn partially responsible for the reputation that absinthe gained for causing delirium and madness in those who drank it.
The 19th Century boom years
Absinthe gained in popularity from its use in North Africa during the French campaigns of the 1840s as a disease preventative and water purifier. The French soldiers brought their taste for the herbal beverage back to the cafés of Paris. Here it became a fashionable drink of the bourgeoisie, so much so that the time between 5.00 pm and 7.00 pm became known as “l’heure verte” (the Green Hour), and absinthe soon became the most popular aperitif in France. From the mid 19th century onwards absinthe became associated with bohemian Paris and featured frequently in the paintings of such artists as Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso. When they were not painting it, they were drinking it in large quantities, joined by contemporary poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine – who practically made a career out of it. Absinthe production grew so much that it became cheaper than wine. Between 1876 and 1900 the annual consumption in France had rocketed from 1,000,000 litres to a staggering 21,000,000 litres. As well as Pontarlier, production was also centred in Montpellier, Lyon and Nimes with each area producing absinthe with a distinctive and regional character. It is no exaggeration to compare the impact of banning absinthe to the effect that the banning of Scotch whisky would have on Scotland.
The decline and fall
So, if absinthe was so popular, why was it banned? There were a number of reasons. It got caught up in the temperance movement that was sweeping Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and became the scapegoat for all alcohol; findings were published showing that thujone was a neurotoxin in extremely large quantities (albeit more than was found in even 150 glasses of absinthe!) which caused convulsions and death in laboratory animals. Pressure also came from the wine producers who saw its popularity as a threat to their sales, which had been badly hit by the spread of the phylloxera louse that destroyed most of France’s vineyards by 1890. Another nail was driven in the coffin with the lurid ‘Absinthe Murder’ which took place in Switzerland in 1905 when one monsieur Lanfray shot his entire family after drinking absinthe. The fact that he had also consumed several litres of wine and a considerable amount of brandy was overlooked by the prohibitionists and by 1910 absinthe was banned in Switzerland. The constant bad press from across the Atlantic and an anti-absinthe novel titled “Wormwood, a Drama of Paris” penned by Marie Corelli (who could be considered the Belle Époque Danielle Steele), caused a furor in the United States. Absinthe was mostly consumed in ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago and New York and the scandalous stories that spread across the American heartland prompted its banning nationwide in 1912. Finally, in 1915, absinthe was banned in France, but it took a military order to do it. Contrary to popular belief, absinthe was never banned in the United Kingdom, Spain, or Portugal.
The 20th Century revival
After the ban things went quiet for a while. Although Pernod continued to produce absinthe in Tarragona, Spain, sales volumes were low and the company ceased production in the 1960s. Forms of absinthe continued in production sporadically in Spain and Portugal but the drink never regained its former popularity. Interest in absinthe was renewed in the late 1990s when various high-alcohol green spirits produced in the Czech republic and labelled as absinth(e) became available in the UK and were marketed with dubious historical links and even more dubious claims for mind altering qualities. It was around this time that the directors of Liqueurs de France decided that enough was enough. They had tasted pre-ban French absinthe and they knew that these so-called absinthes were nothing like the real thing. So in 2002 they commissioned the distillery of Les Fils d’Emile Pernot in Pontarlier to ressurect their pre-ban brand of absinthe (originally called Emile Pernot but renamed Un Emile) and would import it into the UK. At that time the sale of absinthe was still banned in France so they needed special permission to make it and it had to be exported under customs’ seal. In the summer of 2002 the first traditional absinthe from Pontarlier became available in the UK and this was quickly followed by a Verte and a Blanche from the Paul Devoille distillery in Fougerolles (the Enigma brands). In early 2004 they met up with Ted Breaux who was trying to find a commercial distillery where he could produce his Jade range of absinthes. After a few false starts they introduced him to Franck Choisne at Combier and the first Jade products, Nouvelle Orleans and Suisse verte, were released in July 2004. LDF released Jade Edouard in February 2005 and PF1901 arrived in November 2006. In 2005 LDF also made their first release of Blanche Traditionelle Absinthe “Brut d’Alambic” the first ever still strength absinthe, created at the Matter-Luginbühl distillery in Switzerland.