by Jamie Kiffel
© '97 - 2003
This article may not be reprinted in whole or in part
without express permission of the author.
Rev, 8:10, 11: "And the third angel sounded, and a great star, burning like a lamp, fell from Heaven, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and fountains of water; and the name of the star is called Absinthe: and the third part of the waters were turned into absinthe; and many of the people died from the waters, because they were bitter"(translation from "Absinthe and the Drink Demon").
"The Prohibitionist must always be a person of no moral character; for he cannot even conceive of the possibility of a man capable of resisting temptation"(Aleister Crowley, The Green Goddess).
Absinthe is not easy to find. For the truly determined, it is not impossible to locate, but pursuing the elusive liqueur will undoubtedly take the hunter through myriad unexpected detours, into tiny, European villages where only certain people dare to admit any knowledge of the drink. The hunter must be prepared to endure more than a few raised eyebrows, offended or even angry glances, and even incarceration. In fact, if the hunter is not looking for the drink, but merely for information written on the subject of this legendary, green liqueur, he or she must also be ready to do some serious sleuthing. Although a vast amount of literature, art, and scientific study was devoted to the apéritif during its heyday at the turn of the century, writings about absinthe all but evaporated following the drink's nearly worldwide banishment by the opening of 1915. Why was this drink, once called the king of apéritifs in Paris, so deliberately and effectively subverted, to the point that even today it remains taboo? My own search through the annals of absinthe literature, commentary, and art let me on winding and convoluted paths in pursuit of the answer to this question. I have discovered that it is impossible to speculate on an answer without deeply entwining oneself in the long, green fingers of absinthe's culture and history.
As with most aspects of absinthe, even its components are elusive. Doris Lanier describes the drink briefly as a "bitter potent drink, with. . .the leaves of the plant wormwood with plants such as angelica root, fennel, coriander, hyssop, and marjoram and. . .anise for flavor"(Lanier vii). Patrick Dunne and Charles L. Mackie include mint and spinach in the recipe ("probably for color")(Dunne 70). Richard Neill adds juniper and nutmeg(Neill 9). Even the experts cannot agree on the precise contents of the drink because it was produced by competing brands, each of which fought to make theirs the most tasty and unusual. The varied, herbal contents of the drink added to its mysterious and cultivated aura, and it is possible that companies did not reveal the contents of their particular potions so as to foster mystery. Of course, tastiness is relative, for all the writers I read agree that the liqueur is not a mouth-watering delicacy. Rather, a drinker might do well to have inactive taste buds. One taster explains that absinthe "tastes like Nyquil and looks like Scope"(Steinmetz A2); another quips, "I have never drunk Vosene shampoo before, but it must be pretty close to this"(Neill 9), while yet another writer proclaims that absinthe "tastes just like cough medicine"(Knox). Absinthe tastes this way thanks to two components: wormwood, which is so bitter than it was once mixed with wine and given to Olympic winners to remind them of the bitterness of defeat, and alcohol, which comprises up to 80% of absinthe. Fittingly, wormwood's proper name, Artemisia absinthium, comes from the Greek word "apsinthion, which means "undrinkable"(Snow). Ironically, the Russian word for wormwood is "chernobyl." It is as if absinthe's shockingly bitter, and arguably poisonous identity, were preordained.
Absinthe was allegedly invented by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1792, as an all-purpose remedy(Conrad 87). Used as a cure-all, it was nicknamed "La Fée Verte" ("The Green Fairy"), and this name stuck throughout absinthe's heyday. Artemisia absinthium was "from early biblical days. . .used in medicine and magic. . .to rouse a languid appetite and stimulate digestion"(Gibbons 45). It treated "epilepsy, gout, drunkenness, kidney stones, colic, headaches"(Lanier vii) and worms. It is particularly ironic that absinthe treated drunkenness, for it was also added to wine "to make it more intoxicating"(Gibbons 42). The name "La Fée Verte" itself carries some irony, for its fairy connotations were originally more along the lines of the tooth fairy, working as a helpful tonic, while by the time absinthe had reached its peak, the fairy was associated more with magic and mythically sly, intoxicating female figures . Whether or not absinthe began as an innocent health drink, this long history of magical associations with wormwood and its powers to alter dispositions surely worked to popularize Dr. Ordinaire's concoction, and to later heighten absinthe's popularity and mystical appeal.
Dr. Ordinaire's formula may or may not have been original, but he probably first aroused the interest in absinthe that caused a gentleman named Major Dubied to purchase the recipe from the sisters Henriod at the beginning of the 19th century (it is uncertain how the sisters obtained this recipe). By 1805, the Pernod-Fils absinthe company was set up in Pontarlier, France, run by Dubied's son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. The popularity of the drink spread further as it was used as a fever preventative by French troops fighting in Algeria from 1844-1847(Conrad 90). When the troops returned to France, they brought with them their taste for the anisette drink. Thus, Pernod profited from the war. The Handy Book of Curious Information describes the wartime use of absinthe slightly differently, suggesting that the troops were given the drink "to recruit exhausted strength." Doris Lanier writes that absinthe was also used by soldiers to alleviate dysentery (Lanier vii). The confusion over the use of absinthe and what it actually cures is a chronic problem in literature concerning the drink, and is notable in light of absinthe's eventual banishment: if users and historians cannot get their facts straight, how could lawgivers possibly make well-informed decisions?
Absinthe hit its peak during the years from 1880-1914. This time period is considered to be the "great collective binge"(Lanier 1) for absinthe. At this time, absinthe was a symbol of inspiration and daring, was associated with the artistic life, and was even used as an aphrodisiac(Lanier 46). The French consumed far more absinthe than any other country, and absinthe drinking was "one of the special marks of Paris in the 1890s, causing generations afterwards to refer to absinthe as "the drink of Parisian abandon""(Lanier 10). Clearly, absinthe was closely associated with the free and easy life. In 1874 alone, France consumed 700,000 litres of absinthe, but by 1910, this figure had exploded to 36,000,000 liters of absinthe per year(Conrad 115). It was also exported to New Orleans, where it quickly became extremely popular, but Americans' enjoyment of The Green Fairy was cut short when United States health officials imposed a ban on the drink in 1912. This ban followed the examples set by Holland, Belgium, Brazil, and other countries(Lanier 10). France was last to ban, finally prohibiting absinthe after a long series of debates, in 1915. Still, the drink remained so popular that it was continued to be sold (sometimes in disguised form, one of the more unusual being in hair tonic bottles) as late as the 1920's and 1930's(Lanier 10).
The reasons behind absinthe's immense popularity are key to understanding why it was finally banned. After all, why would anyone be seduced by the green vapors of a noxious substance that reeks of anise and bites at the tastebuds with virulent bitterness? To begin, theabsintheur's love affair with the drink began with an interesting courtship: the drink was taken in a very precise way. A perforated spoon, long, flat and similar to a spatula with baroque cut-outs, was first suspended over a tall glass filled with a shot of syrupy, green absinthe which was poured to meet an etched line. A cube of sugar was placed atop the spoon, and then, daintily, water was dripped over the spoon and allowed to fall in beads into the drink. Each drip turned the drink yellowish and opaline (which is another of absinthe's nicknames). The sugar cut the absinthe's bitterness, while the method was interesting to watch and to perform. Seeing the drink change colors, drip by drip, surely resembled alchemy. The New Orleans Old Absinthe House, now closed but once a center of absinthe culture, was famous for its absinthe fountain which dripped water into the imbibers' glasses. The ritualistic nature of absinthe, and the way it brought people together into a group of those who know how to use the drink, surely made it appealing.
Absinthe was also drunk in a variety of ways, as absintheurs personalized it to their taste. Toulouse-Lautrec made a special concoction called atremblement de terre (earthquake), which combined absinthe and cognac(Conrad 55). Absinthe could be served with red or white wine instead of water(Conrad 55), or drunk straight by purists (and by show-offs). Being introduced to the culture was something like being introduced into a secret society, and many drinkers who were repulsed by their first meeting with The Green Fairy hid their emotions and continued to drink, enjoying acceptance into the exclusive absinthe set and slowly learning to like (and possibly to become reliant on) the drink. Even as recently as 1996, a writer for the Wall Street Journal described the lengthy process of absinthe-drinking at a bar in Prague (the Czech Republic is one of the few remaining places where absinthe is still legal and plentiful; when Communist rule was abolished in 1990, the Czech people were wary of any restrictions that reminded them of Communist controls, and so absinthe, once banned by the Communists, was once again legalized). This writer "drips tiny balls of flaming sugar into his glass of absinthe. . .He claims the technique increases absinthe's hallucinatory power by raising its temperature"(Steinmetz A4).
Absinthe's alleged narcotic effects are a major reason for its popularity. Whether or not these effects are genuine, the expectation for them surely comes from wormwood's history as a magical, curing herb. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (an absinthe-lover himself) writes of an absinthe-drinker who states, "One cap of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month"(Conrad 137). This description is similar to those made by heroin addicts and cocaine addicts describing their drugs: the drink is all-encompassing and more enthralling than the most beautiful reality. Lanier notes that the drink was reputed to cause "an effect similar to that of opium or cocaine"(23). Oscar Wilde, another absinthe enthusiast, explains, "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"(Conrad vii-ix). Wilde goes on to explain how, during this third stage, he imagined tulips and simultaneously felt them brushing against his shins. These stages of drug intoxication closely resemble those which David Lenson attributes to cocaine in On Drugs(120). Finding the third, hallucinogenic stage seems to be a deliberate act, much as it is with cocaine, or with meditation. In both cases, the intoxication is very real, but it is still uncertain how much is attributable to the drug and how much comes from the drinker's expectation for it.
Although many drinkers swore that an absinthe intoxication was nothing like an alcohol intoxication, we must not ignore the fact that, at up to 160 proof, absinthe was a very cheap and easy way to get drunk fast. This was especially significant during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), for the scarcity of food and heat at the time made alcohol very appealing(Lanier 18). Conversely, "in the cheerful atmosphere of recovery that followed the Franco-Prussian War, l'heure verte ("the green hour") became an established daily event"(Arnold, Absinthe 114). Because of a generally increased liberal attitude in France and relaxed policies for opening cabarets and cafés in France during the 1860s, almost 366,000 existed in Paris by 1869(Lanier 20), and 5 p.m. signified l'heure verte in almost every one. The cafés were an extremely popular place to socialize, since most of Paris' citizens were living in squalor and poverty(Lanier 20). By the 1870s, it became common practice to preface a meal with a cheap aperitif, and of 1500 available liqueurs, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk(Lanier 22).
Absinthe was not always inexpensive, however. Originally, it was an expensive luxury reserved largely for the upper-class and for rich artists. It is perhaps notable that when absinthe was expensive, it also received few complaints, much in the way that cocaine went from being a curious, upper-class symbol of wealth, to being damned as an inner-city "problem" once crack cocaine became available to the lower classes. Absinthe's drop in price came in the mid-1870s, when a wine shortage emerged as a result of phylloxera (plant lice) attacking the vineyards. As the price of wine rose drastically, absinthe manufacturers turned to inexpensive grain alcohol rather than wine alcohol. Suddenly, absinthe was so inexpensive that anyone could afford it. The competing absinthe brands fueled the fire of interest in their product with advertisements that insisted that the drink could be used as a healthy, herbal tonic(Arnold 113). One famous absinthe advertising poster pictures a fat, almost sardonically grinning man pointing at his absinthe accompanied by the caption, "For Good Health!" It is hard not to laugh at this, in light of the prohibition arguments that were soon to follow.