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The History of Absinthe

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

There is probably no alcoholic beverage so misunderstood, yet so mythologized, as Absinthe. After all Absinthe is, at its core, simply a wormwood based liquor with a high proof of alcohol. Why all the hubub? Certainly the baggage that the drink carries is as impressive as it is misguided, but the real questions to me are:

- Where did Absinthe come from?
- Why does Absinthe have the reputation that it does?

The two questions are inextricably tied together.

Wormwood infused drinks were hardly a new invention when either Dr. Pierre Oridinaire or the Henroid Sister introduced Absinthe in Couvet Switzerland in 1792. Folks during the Renaissance drank wormwood wine. Samuel Pepys is documented to have imbibed wormwood beer. Pliny the elder noted that Chariot race winners were given drinks laced with wormwood in order to remind the winners that every victory has its bitter side. So when Absinthe was introduced, it wasn’t like wormwood was an unknown entity.

After the Absinthe took off, especially since being mass produced by Pernod, it was given to French troops in North Africa to help stave off malaria. When the soldiers came home, they looked up the drink in the various salons and cafes that they frequented. From there it jumped to the middle class who further popularized the drink.

1870 say the start of 30 years of blight on the wine industry of France. The vineyards were devastated by a bug known as Phylloxera attacked the vinyards and devastated the popular industry. Wine became both scarce. When a high demand product becomes scarce, it becomes very expensive. What better to take the place of wine than absinthe? The golden age of Absinthe can be considered to occur between 1870 and 1900.

Initially, ettiquette required that a person was to have only one drink of Absinthe a day. To have more than one was seen as a bit of a faux pas. But when absinthe jumped from the middle class to the working class, women, and then the Bohemians, all claims to absinthe ettiquette were ignored and then forgotten. When the Aesthetic/Decadence movement adopted the drink as the liquor of choice, public opinion against the drink began to change. As many of the writers associated with the Aesthetic/Decadence movement were influenced by the Gothic period of the early 19th century, many present day “goths” have also adopted the drink and helped revive absinthe’s popularity. But that is a topic for a different post.

Both the Bohemians and the Aestheticists were the counter-culture of the day. Many of the names surrounding these movements (such as Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlain, Edvard Munch, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire) partook, not just of Absinthe, but of many unregulated substances, including opium, cocaine and ether. Some not only imbibed these substances, but outright abused them.

As with any counter-culture, there is societal pushback. One only need to consider the mainstream perception of “hippies” as well as their opinions on marijuana to see the correlation.

When the wine industry came back from their pox,, they clearly saw Absinthe as a threat to their industry. The winemakers partnered with the temperance movement to prove that absinthe was responisble for turning good people bad, even to the point of insanity. Their arguments were helped along by the public downfalls of noted absinthe drinkers Wilde (absinthe causes homosexuality!) and Verlain (absinthe causes homosexuality and violence!).

When an alcoholic by the name of Jean Lanfray killed his wife and children and it was discovered that he had drunk absinthe on the day of the murder (ignoring the fact that he had also drunk creme de menthe, seven glasses of wine, cognac, brandy and another liter of wine during the same day), absinthe’s days where numbered. It was soon banned throughout a fair amount of Europe.

This ban only added to the mythology of absinthe, creating the illusion that it turned men into murderous criminals.

Absinthe has the reputation it does because of its ties to the counter culture movement of the late 19th century and it’s subsequent ban. It has a reputation that has been built upon by artists and movie makers as a drink that has something “a little more”. The reality is that absinthe is simply another alcoholic beverage. It’s unique, to be sure, but so are a multitude of other liquors. For me, now the question is “will absinthe every grow beyond its reputation”?

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