Forget everything you heard about Absinthe. Whether it’s how it drove people mad, made them hallucinate tulips on their legs (we’re looking at you Oscar Wilde) or drove them to cut off their ear (that’s you, Van Gogh). Maybe you heard about the mysterious muse-like effect it had on the artists of the Belle Époque or was it about the Swiss man who killed his family after a particularly heavy night with the green fairy. The colourful liquid has a colourful hue and an even more colourful past and in celebration of National Absinthe Day, we’re taking a look at the legendary aromatic drink that came to symbolise extreme decadence.
Created by a French doctor in Switzerland as an all-encompassing cure for a myriad of ailments, from flatulence to anemia. Named after Artemisia absinthium, also known as wormwood, the herbal aperitif also contains the liquorice-like flavours of anise and fennel. Its vivid green tinge comes from steeping the distillate with additional herbs like mint, hyssop and chamomile. It is during this process the chlorophyll is extracted from the herbs, into the distillate - and voila, the famous green.
Following the popularity of the doctor's illusive wormwood potion, Henri-Louis Pernod, creator of the Pernod empire, opened a distillery in Pontarlier, France, where absinthe would go on to gain its international reputation as the drink of choice for artists, writers, and intellectuals. So many in fact that in Paris, 5 o'clock was known as The Green Hour, a happy hour when cafes filled with patrons of the arts; sipping glasses of the verdant liquor. It is said that absinthe during this time created visions and dream-like states that filtered into artistic works, shaping symbolism, surrealism, modernism, impressionism, post-impressionism and cubism and many of the world’s finest creatives like Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh to name a few have laid their creativity at the door of absinthe.
But this increase in popularity brought with it increases in ‘absinthism’, a disease thought to be brought about by thujone, a chemical compound in wormwood that was pinned as causing absinthe’s ‘supposed’ psychedelic effects.
The chief symptoms of absinthism were violent behaviour and psychedelic hallucination – certainly not your average bottle of spirit! – as well as spasms and, in some cases, death. This led to conservatives of the day, who saw absinthe as dangerous and immoral, succeeding in getting it banned in several countries.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the thujone or the wormwood that was the cause of absinthism. Thujone can be dangerous - excessive amounts can result in convulsions and renal failure - however, in the Belle Epoque-era absinthe only contained minute amounts of the chemical. Instead, as many sorry booze tales from this era can be, it was traced to distillers cutting costs. Many absinthe producers simply switched to cheaper, industrial-grade alcohol and added toxic copper salt to get that famous green colour. So, it wasn’t the absinthism that was killing people, it was the fact that they were being slowly poisoned by chemicals…admittedly, it doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So there you have it, there’s nothing more illicit or bewitching about absinthe than the fact that when drunk to excess - it can turn you a little loopy. But, it is said, if you get the right night and the right light - and you watch your glass of absinthe louche (the milky cloud that kicks up when water hits the spirit) - you might just begin to understand why artists like Rimbaud and Verlaine found inspiration in the stuff. And you start to understand why some might think it contained a little bit of black magic, too. And the final tip - friends don’t let friends burn absinthe, so none of the lighting a sugar cube on fire nonsense, please.