Absinthe was an unwitting casualty of early celebrity endorsement – Hemingway; decadent movement writers and artists like Rimbaud and Toulouse-Lautrec; sculptor Modigliani (who succumbed to substance abuse); Vincent van Gogh (with bouts of mental illness) and the brilliant Irishman Oscar Wilde – apparently all regularly fraternised with la Fée verte or the green fairy, Absinthe’s most infamous pseudonym among Parisian artists and writers.
It is likely that this association with bohemian culture is what made social conservatives oppose the use of the botanical spirit and lobby for prohibition. Part of their ludicrous argument was that the green fairy was hallucinogenic. Hello what? Hallucinogens can give users an altered sense of reality, which surely has making of a muse, if only of the last (or first) resort for struggling artists. Having flirted with la Fée verte, for example, Wilde described a phantom sensation of having tulips brush against his legs after leaving a bar at closing time.
Leaves of the wormwood plant do indeed contain thujone, believed to be a hallucinogen, and it has been suggested that there are similarities to THC, the active ingredient in dagga, but this was disproved as recently as 1999. Its hallucinogen reputation was also probably fuelled by the preparation and drinking methods not too dissimilar to some drug use. These include specially designed slotted sppons, flaming absinthe and absinthe fountains. It is now more widely believed that absinthe’s hallucinogenic effects were due to the poisonous adulterants being added to cheaper versions of the drink in the 19th century.
A revival of absinthe began in the mid 1990s and is now being produced in a number of countries.
Here’s a list of some strange and interesting facts about “The worlds of most dangerous beverage”
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops to prevent malaria. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe with them. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular that, by the 1860s, the hour from 5 pm was called l’heure verte (the green hour) in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets.
New Orleans has a profound cultural association with absinthe, and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar, located on Bourbon Street, was frequented by many famous people, including Mark Twain, Franklin Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley and Frank Sinatra.
Early in the 20th Century, the prohibition of absinthe was written into the Swiss constitution and prohibition followed in Belgium, Brazil, Netherlands, and the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.
South Africa’s own field of dreams
Absinthe is available in South Africa from jorgensen’s. Their Field of Dreams Absinthe, a full wormwood traditional absinthe made to a recipe dating 1871, is R400 per bottle, with only 450 bottles produced each year. www.jd7.co.za.
By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in much of Europe. A revival of absinthe begun in the 1990s, following the adoption of modern European Union food and beverage laws that removed long standing barriers to its production and sale.
Henry-Louis Pernod, originally in partnership with his father-in-law Major Dubied, who got the recipe either from Dr Ordinaire or the Henriod sisters both of Couvet, Switzerland, went on to establish Pernod, one of the most famous French absinthe (and other) brands.
Directions for Ernest Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail are as follows; “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.”
Chemist, historian and absinthe distiller Ted Breaux has claimed that the alleged secondary effects of absinthe may be caused by the fact that some of the herbal compounds in the drink act as stimulants, while others act as sedatives, creating an overall lucid effect of awakening.
In the 1990s, upon realising the UK had never formally banned absinthe, British importer BBH Spirits began to import Hill’s Absinthe from the Czech Republic, which sparked a modern resurgence in absinthe’s popularity. In 2000, La Fée Absinthe became the first commercial absinthe distilled and bottled in France since the 1914 ban.
The prohibition of absinthe in France would eventually lead to the popularity of pastis, and to a lesser extent, ouzo, and other anise- flavoured spirits that do not contain (now innocent) wormwood. Other countries with anise-flavoured spirits include Middle Eastern arak, Colombian aguardiente, Greek ouzo, Bulgarian mastika, German Jägermeister, Italian sambuca, Peruvian and Spanish anís, Mexican Xtabentún and Turkish rakı.
By Jonathan Snashall (@wholebunchpress)
Published in Playboy South Africa August 2012