The Green Fairy Flies High

Absinthe, the drink of 19th-century slackers and ne’er-do-wells, had a moment a few years ago. Newly celebrated in the United States after a 97-year-old ban was lifted, the emerald-hued drink wasted no time in becoming the beverage du jour in neon-lit lounges with thumping house music. It took no time at all for a new generation to learn to dance with the Green Fairy, as the drink was known in its heyday.

No mere fashion or fad, absinthe is still having that moment. The storied drink continues to inspire a fascination among discerning drinkers. Today, nearly a century after it was scuttled from American liquor cabinets and 2,000 years after its inception, absinthe has settled into place at contemporary speakeasies as well as neighborhood restaurants and is once again a household term, if not a household stash. But it took a rather boisterous ride to get there.

Absinthe’s earliest incarnation was an elixir consisting of nothing more than wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) steeped in alcohol. The bitter herb’s etymology—Artemisia is a nod to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and of all things wild, and the Latin absinthium is derived from the Greek word absinthion for “undrinkable”—tells us quite a lot about what the ancients thought of this bitter concoction. Its original use was, perhaps not surprisingly, purely pharmaceutical, a panacea of sorts. The mathematician and scientist Pythagoras prescribed the potion, as did the writer Pliny the Elder.

Fast forward to the late 1700’s. In the intervening one and a half millennia since absinthe’s birth, the bitter beverage with anise overtones quietly evolved to be one of a class of digestifs, an after-dinner liqueur of sorts intended to stimulate the flow of gastric juices. Like many “medicinal” liqueurs of the current era, absinthe drew upon an assortment of bitter but aromatic botanicals such as anise, chamomile, coriander, dittany, hyssop, lemon balm, parsley, spinach, and sweet flag. Yet unlike the rest of these modestly intoxicating sips, absinthe was fueled with high-powered octane—136 proof, compared to the more modest 40 proof of most digestifs.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its alcoholic content, absinthe was once again promoted for medicinal purposes, this time by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French expatriate living in Switzerland. Ordinaire generously bequeathed the recipe to Henri Dubied, the father-in-law of Henri-Louis Pernod, who quickly became the most ardent and prestigious purveyor of absinthe. Needless to say, absinthe experienced a resurgence. By 1834, the fervor for the strangely opalescent green drink was so profound—and Pernod so successful—that the company hired Gustave Eiffel, the engineering wizard responsible for the namesake tower that symbolizes all things French, to design the huge iron-vaulted Combier Distillery in the Loire Valley.

It wasn’t just absinthe’s powers of intoxication that made it compelling. The bitter potation’s primary ingredient was wormwood, which in turn contained the compound terpene thujone, a purported hallucinogenic that was rumored to heighten clarity, increase perception, and foster astounding creativity. Little wonder, then, that by the close of the 19th century, pale-green absinthe was not only the most popular drink among high-society in Paris, but among the ragtag groups of bohemian poets and painters of the Rive Gauche, among them Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Ernest Hemingway. The artists often portrayed the drinkers and the drink in their works, while writers extolled the mind-expanding qualities of their muse in words.

Although absinthe was pretty tame by comparison to modern mind-altering drugs such as LSD and mescaline, it was nonetheless the 19th century’s boldest leap into altered states. In 1872, a French newspaper quoted a doctor who had subjected himself to absinthe—purely for purposes of research, of course. “The most curious thing about this transformation,” he explained, “is that all sensations are perceived by all the senses at once. My own impression is that I am breathing sounds and hearing colors, that scents produce a sensation of lightness or of weight, roughness or smoothness, as if I were touching them with my fingers.” He prescribed small doses.

The Green Fairy was, for good reason, summoned only after it was diluted with water and a soupçon of sugar. A special spoon was required, the neck of which had a distinctive kink that allowed it to rest on the edge of a pedestal glass without danger of slipping. The bowl of the spoon was nearly flat and decoratively perforated. Once the spoon was set in place, a lump of sugar was placed on the perforated bowl. Ice water was slowly poured atop the sugar, only to drip slowly, mesmerizingly, into the emerald-green absinthe below, causing the liquid to take on its characteristic cloudy appearance. Known as “surprising the spirit,” this act was repeated until the spirit was diluted three to five times over. The ritual, not something that could be rushed, no doubt lent much to absinthe’s mystique.

Absinthe’s powerhouse gut punch—some would say rotgut— made it the earliest casualty of the prohibition movement seething at the beginning of the 20th century. Belgium was the first country to ban absinthe, followed by Switzerland, Holland, and the United States. It was eventually outlawed everywhere except England, France, and Spain (where the brands Absenta and Ojen have been sold continuously for decades).

Not surprisingly, absinthe-like beverages tried to lay claim to absinthe’s fan base. Among the many replacements were Pernod and pastis, which contained most of the herbs found in the original absinthe recipe, save for wormwood—and, hence, no offending terpene thujone. Ouzo, Greece’s pseudo-absinthe, was drunk like the original—diluted with water—except it turned milky white instead of green. And vermouth, which contains a close relative of wormwood known as mugwort, drew attention not as something to brandish over a martini but as a proper drink all of its own. Mugwort was also a component of several other beverages both bitter and bittersweet, among them Amaretto, Altvater, Benedictine, Campari, green Chartreuse, and Fernet Branca.

The Combier Distillery recently began producing absinthe again, anticipating heightened interest following the ban. It was not disappointed. Bottles of what was once contraband flew off American liquor shelves in 2007, the first time any absinthe had been sold stateside—at least legally—since Prohibition.

Of course, today’s absinthe drinkers consider old-fashioned traditions, such as the absinthe drip, through post-modern eyes. Just as this younger generation reformulated its parents’ cocktails into newer, hipper versions, it’s made absinthe into a newer, hipper ingredient. Today’s mind-bending cocktail menus are far more likely to feature absinthe as an undertone, with concoctions such as gin, Lillet blanc, Cointreau, and lemon with a simple absinthe rinse, or even a few drops of the emerald alcohol floated on top of just about anything. Two millenia after its inception, absinthe is still going strong.

Perhaps the hippest of these new—or newly rediscovered—cocktails is one that tips its hat to Hemingway. He reportedly invented the iconic drink Death in the Afternoon not by pouring absinthe into water or wine, but something a little more lively. “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.”

References
Allen, Gary. The Herbalist in the Kitchen. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Conrad, Barnaby III. Absinthe, History in a Bottle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.

Lanier, Doris. Absinthe, the Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century: A History of the Hallucinogenic Drug and its Effect on Artists and Writers in Europe and the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1995.

Article © 2010 Gary Allen. All rights reserved.

About Gary Allen

Our food history editor, Gary Allen, teaches food writing and various food and culture courses at Empire State College, has been vice-president, newsletter editor and webmaster for the Association for the Study of Food and Society. His books include The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and the anthology Human Cuisine.
His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, a volume in The Edible Series of Reaktion Press, will be published in May 2012. He’s currently at work on another book for the same series—on sausage. Visit him at his website, On the Table, and blog, Just Served.

Comments
Comments
  1. Greg Bulmash says:

    My experimenting with recreational hallucinogens ended with college graduation, but they were fun. I’ve always been curious about the green fairy’s ability to bend reality. Is it true?

    • Greg,

      I wouldn’t count on it. My own experience with some pretty potent home-made absinthe (stronger than the ones on the market these days) had — beyond the effect of alcohol — only a slight numbing effect. Not exactly a party in a bottle. However, if you like bitter flavors (and I do), wormwood will be right up your alley.

  2. Gary, Very nice article. I appreciate the depth of research it seems you did while writing it. I only have a few minor quibbles. I think they come from the use of outdated resources more than lack of effort though.

    Conrad’s book is one of the best I’ve read on absinthe, but even he was incorrect on several points, mainly because the information was not available yet in 1988.

    So, let’s take a look at some of the issues:
    1) “Absinthe,” the drink that came to fame during the Belle Epoque has not been around for 2000 years. Yes, there have been many many many drinks and tinctures have used Artemisia Absinthium (Wormwood) for millenia, but they are not absinthe. Part of the misperception is that the French word for Wormwood is the same as the drink: Absinthe. So some of it is lost in translation. The drink itself, the one that rose to its height during the Belle Epoque, then was subsequently banned, has only been around since the mid to late 1700s. Many drinks have absinthe (wormwood) as an ingredient, but aren’t actually absinthe (the drink). Here are a few off of the top of my head: Amaros (a class of bitter spirit), Bitters, Vermouth (actually is the German word for Wormwood), Pelinkovac, Unicum, and Zwak.

    2) To be a bit anal: Absinthe is traditionally considered an aperitif, not digestif. However, it’s not abnormal to be served either way.

    3) While in its unprepared state, yes, absinthe is “high-octane.” However, when properly prepared, it is about as strong as a glass of wine.

    4) “It was nonetheless the 19th century’s boldest leap into altered states.” Make no mistake, there were plenty of mind altering drugs during this time period. Absinthe itself was never billed as mind altering by anyone other than prohibitionists and those who were fighting to get absinthe banned. Thujone, the terpene you mentioned, has no recreational potential whatsoever. Its effects include seizures and renal failure. Nothing fun. That said, studies have shown that there isn’t nearly enough thujone in pre-prohibition or post-legalization absinthe to cause deliterious effects. You’d die many times over of alcohol poisoning well before you were affected by thujone.

    Below is a quote by the Medical Journal, The Lancet in 1868:
    “For our own part, we have never been convinced that there is anything in the symptoms of acute or chronic absinthism as they are described, essentially different from those of acute or chronic alcoholism which has been produced by the imbibition of innumerable drams of any spirit.

    “We have repeatedly seen the whole train of symptoms, which are now so much talked of, produced by the constant drinking of brandy or rum. As for hallucinations, there is nothing more common. At any rate, it will take a good deal of very solid and precise evidence to convince us that the trifling amount of essence of wormwood contained in the liquor called absinthe, adds any considerable poisonous power to the natural influence of some 20 or 30 ounces per diem of a highly concentrated alcohol”

    Of interesting note: the majority of studies cited by critics which seem to implicate absinthe were not performed by testing absinthe itself, but used pure thujone or wormwood oil, without distillation and without considering the minuscule amounts actually present in the absinthe after distillation.

    5) Spain. Absenta isn’t a brand of absinthe. It’s the Spanish word for absinthe. Also, Ojen is an anise-based liqueur, not an absinthe.

    6)” Today’s mind-bending cocktail menus “—Absinthe has been considered a cocktail ingredient almost as long as absinthe has been produced. The Savoy cocktail book contains more than 100 recipes calling for absinthe.

    OK, I think that’s pretty much all of the issues I have.

    Thank you for your time and consideration. I appologize for the lengthy comment.

    Brian Robinson
    Review Editor
    The Wormwood Society

    • Thanks, Brian — for the kind words and updates. I’ll try to responde to some of your comments:

      1. That 2000-year remark is really about wormwood-flavored alcoholic beverages, not “absinthe” per se, you’re right about that.

      2. re: aperitifs/digestifs. What absinthe has in common with digestifs is its bitterness. And, yes, it is drunk before meals as well as after …and, historically, by folks who were not likely to be purchasing any other sustenance!

      3. Certainly, the classic water-through-the-sugar-lump method reduces the alcohol to more manageable levels. Of course during absinthe’s heyday, people who REALLY wanted to get drunk went in for ether.

      4. The demi-monde would have been familiar with hashish and opium (the latter in the form of laudanum) — but artistic types believed that absinthe altered their perceptions in significant ways. Whether it actually did so is a very different question. People believe all kinds of things that aren’t so (such as the mind-bending effects of adding aspirin to coca cola, or “mellow yellow,” AKA smoking dried banana peels).

      As for the alcohol/thujone intoxication info — I covered all that in the entry I wrote on Wormwood in my book, The Herbalist in the Kitchen. We decided not to include it here due to its technical nature — but it’s completely in agreement with the issues you addressed.

      5. Thanks for the clarification.

      6. Of course absinthe has been used in cocktails for some time… I was just pointing out that it has been rediscovered by a new generation of mixologists.

      • Just a couple of responses:

        From #2 – Many aperetifs are bitter, such as Campari, Quinquina, Vermouths, etc.

        From #3 – True. Yet only those who were abusing alcohol were drinking it straight. There were literally millions of people drinking absinthe correctly each day. It’s where we got the term Happy Hour from. Originally it was The Green Hour, but after absinthe was banned, it transitioned to Happy Hour.

        From #4 – While some artists did mention that absinthe created a different experience, I argue the fact that it was a widespread phenomenon, moreso than their musings of other spirits. I have a database of literally hundreds of quotations of artists, poets, etc making many of the same claims about beer, wine, gin, etc etc.

        Funny enough, one of the most often quoted ‘experiences’ that was attributed to Oscar Wilde (feeling the tulips brush against his leg as he left the Cafe Royale), was never actually said by him at all! It was part of an entertaining tale written by a woman more than 30 years after the alleged event took place.

        See here: http://www.oxygenee.com/absinthe-effect/secondaries.html

        Everything else was spot on!

        Cheers!

        • Brian,

          Just curious: was the alleged Oscar Wilde quote the famous “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder”?

          I wonder if he holds the record for memorable quotes not actually made (I know of at least two Wilde dying remarks that weren’t).

        • No, that was a different one. The passage I’m talking about is:

          “The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.

          One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and began to pile the chairs on the tables.

          ‘Time to go, Sir,’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor. ’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must
          go now, Sir.’

          ‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.

          ‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.

          ‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt the heavy tulip heads brushing against my shins.”

          ——
          It’s been used hundreds of times as an argument for absinthe causing hallucinations. If only people knew he never wrote it!

  3. Gary, I loved reading this. There were lots of things I didn’t know, including but not at all limited to points raised by Brian of the Wormwood Society. I had to laugh at the name “Pierre Ordinaire,” because of course there is nothing more ordinary than a Frenchman named Pierre! I’m very partial to anise-flavored drinks (my favorite being ouzo; I’m of Greek heritage and therefore obligated), but haven’t taken much to Absinthe so far. But there is a bottle in our cabinet, and I love those perforated flat “spoons,” so perhaps you, via Mr. Hemingway, have convinced me to give it a spin again. It’s good to have a reason to drink less-expensive champagne every now and then (I never tamper with the good stuff). Thanks for another interesting article.

    • Thanks, Allison! I’m also a big fan of all things anisic — ouzo, sambucca, anisette, pastis, etc.

      Also, there’re lots of good things to do with lesser champagnes, besides mixing with orange juice, peach juice, or cassis: try adding syrup made from elderberry blossoms, or — when the weather gets a bit warmer — pouring it over Italian lemon ice. (it’s a wonderful upgrade of slushies that I learned from Francine Segan.)

  4. Greg Rogers says:

    A lot of downtown bars in Los Angeles have embraced the new Absinthe trend including First & Hope that has the fountains and vintage glassware to go along with some of the latest Absinthe being produced

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