In the long history of alcohol, few distilled beverages have achieved the notoriety of absinthe. Light green in color and exceedingly potent (110-144 proof), absinthe, also known as the “Green Fairy,” became popular in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, especially with the belle-époque bohemian population. Impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet were familiar with the spirit, each famously capturing absinthe drinkers on canvas. Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe were avid consumers.
Alas, these heady days of absinthe weren’t to last—by 1915 the drink was banned in the U.S. and most of Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. So, what accounts for such an abrupt about-face?
Although some recipes call for additional herbs and flowers, absinthe traditionally is made from anise and fennel, both of the parsley family, and wormwood, a bitter, aromatic shrub. These three basics components are then soaked in alcohol and distilled. Because it has such a high alcohol content, absinthe is often diluted with water, usually by placing a sugar cube on top of a slotted spoon, the spoon over a glass filled with absinthe, and then pouring ice water over the sugar cube so both water and sugar mix with the alcohol.
First appearing in Switzerland in the 18th century, absinthe saw a surge in popularity in the 1840s when the French military prescribed it to protect its troops from malaria. Not surprisingly, the soldiers returned home craving the stuff, and by the 1860s it had become so popular that 5 p.m. became known at bars, bistros and cafes as l'heure verte ("the green hour").
Falling Out of Favor
Slowly but surely, though, a cloud of controversy began to descend upon the popular spirit. First, the French wine industry, concerned that absinthe was taking too much market share, began a smear campaign—absinthe, they wrongly contended, was a poison. About the same time, no doubt because of its association with Paris’ “degenerate” artist and writer population, absinthe was targeted by social conservatives and prohibition movements.
According to author Barnaby Conrad III, in his 1988 book, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, one absinthe critic claimed, “[It] makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
Certainly this misconception wasn’t helped when Oscar Wilde, on a three-day absinthe bender, noted that he hallucinated “flowers, tulips, lilies and roses” springing from the sawdust-covered floor and making “a garden in the café.” Nor did the rumor that Van Gogh chopped off his ear while drunk on the spirit help the cause.
However, the final nail in the proverbial coffin was driven in 1905 when a Swiss farmer, Jean Lanfray, murdered his family and tried to kill himself after drinking (among many other things) absinthe. Soon thereafter, a petition banning the spirit began to circulate, eventually signed by more than 82,000. In 1908, Swiss voters approved an official ban. The U.S. and France soon followed suit.
Misconceptions about absinthe continue to this day, with many believing the spirit—or, more specifically, the chemical thujone, which occurs naturally in wormwood—causes hallucinations. This is incorrect—not only is there very little thujone left in absinthe after distillation, but, as noted by Julia Layton, in her article, “Does absinthe really cause hallucinations?”: “a person drinking absinthe would die from alcohol poisoning long before he or she were affected by the thujone. And there is no evidence at all that thujone can cause hallucinations, even in high doses.”
Layton goes on to note “any absinthe-related deaths can most likely be attributed to alcoholism, alcohol poisoning or drinking the cheap stuff, which, like moonshine, can have poisonous additives in it.”
In the 1990s, British importer BBH Spirits, upon discovering that the UK had never officially banned absinthe, began to import the spirit from the Czech Republic. Once back on the beverage alcohol map, its popularity surged and pressure to lift the bans in other countries soon followed. The U.S. opened its borders to the “Green Fairy” in 2007, France in 2011. There are now nearly 200 brands of absinthe produced more than a dozen countries.
This is a boon for bartenders, of course, yet another interesting ingredient from which to make cutting-edge cocktails. Among the many absinthe-based drinks they can wow their clientele with:
• "The Sun Also Rises" (a Hemingway daiquiri with a spoonful of absinthe)
• "Sleepy Hollow" (a smoky combination of absinthe and mescal)
• "Corpse Reviver No. 2" (gin and absinthe = refreshing, delicious and dangerous)
• "The Green Beast" (a powerful lime and absinthe punch)
And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, "Death in the Afternoon," a concoction invented back in 1935 by none other than Ernest Hemingway when asked to provide a cocktail recipe for a celebrity mixology book. His instructions?
"Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."
Cutting-edge cocktails and unique spirits will be one of the many interesting and timely beverage alcohol-related topics at the all-new BAR Management Conference at BAR 17, the beverage alcohol industry’s premier annual gathering, May 21-22, 2017, in Chicago, IL. The BAR Management Conference offers bar professionals access to an array of lectures and workshops intended to explore bar trends, pain points and best practices towards profitability. For more information, visit Restaurant.org/BAR.