Absenta a drink wrapped in legend

Absinthe has always been surrounded by a halo of mystery. She was the drink of bohemians and artists like Degas, who even immortalized her in one of her paintings. The “green fairy”, as some called it, was a drink that invited oblivion and that, according to others, could even lead to madness.

The origins of absinthe are somewhat unclear. Some experts point out that it is actually a derivative of the spiced wines of the Greeks, while there are those who assure that it is a medicinal distillate based on wormwood, fennel and anise, a combination of herbs that in medical treatises In medieval times it was known as “The Holy Trinity”. 

However, the story that is taken as true is much more prosaic. According to this version, it was the creation, at the end of the 18th century, of a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire, who found the original recipe in the Couvet convent, located on the French-Swiss border. Originally, it was a medicinal tonic called “Wormwood Extract” and was used to treat fevers and stomach pains suffered by French soldiers in the trenches.

Its production was still in the hands of the nuns of the convent and it was only produced in that area of ​​France called Val de Travers, until in 1797, Major Dubied bought the formula from the nuns, who continued to collect royalties for the drink for many years. and created his own brand “Dubied Père et Fils”. 

Over the next few years, absinthe established itself as a social drink and grew in popularity. Its success was so great that a second distillery took over the recipe, Maison Pernod Fils, which quickly became the best absinthe in the world, to the point that in cabarets all over Europe, the brand replaced the drink and the people didn’t ask for an absinthe, but a Pernod Fils.

By the mid-19th century, absinthe was already being sold throughout Europe and had become the most popular drink in France. In fact, it was so popular that the cabarets of Paris held their own Heure Verte every day at five in the afternoon, that is: their green hour in which only absinthe was consumed. 

The Absinthe Ritual

The consumption of absinthe also had its own rituals, in the cabarets and bars they had small fountains with very cold water or with ice, so that the clients could mix the absinthe with the sugar —which was necessary to balance the bitter taste of the absinthe—. 

At that time, special glasses were made for absinthe, which had a circular space, called a reservoir, at the bottom to pour the pure absinthe. And narrow, flat, perforated spoons were also made, on which a lump of sugar was held, which, according to tradition, could be dipped in absinthe and burned, or just dipped in water and diluted.

To prepare the absinthe, the round part of the glass had to be filled with the liquor and then the spoon rested on the edge. A lump of sugar was placed on the flat, perforated part, and very cold water was poured over it. When the lump was soaked, it mixed with the absinthe which, in contact with water, turned a lighter, milkier colour.

The Green Fairy

Absinthe fascinated artists and bohemians throughout Europe. Oscar Wilde said that after the first glass one can see things as one would like them to be. Many of these artists assured that the green liquid helped them to be inspired, coming to capture their passion for this drink in many of their works.

In 1910, more than 36 million bottles of absinthe were sold in France alone. That same year, the liqueur would be banned in Switzerland and just five years later it would also be banned in France. Little by little, absinthe was banned throughout the world and a kind of curse fell on it, since it was branded as the devil’s drink, as they thought it led to madness.

Initially, both the hallucinations that some suffered, as well as these states of madness, were attributed to thujone, an essential oil that releases wormwood and is used during the production of absinthe. Although it is true that thujone is harmful, it does not cause hallucinations, but rather seizures and kidney failure. Also, the concentration of thujone in absinthe, both vintage and modern, is too low to cause harmful effects in the body.

In reality, the ban on absinthe had much more to do with pressure from the big European wine producers than with alleged hallucinations. In the late 19th and early 20th century, absinthe was by far the most popular drink, so winemakers, who were beginning to feel heavy financial losses, commissioned medical studies showing that absinthe was dangerous and poisonous.

Furthermore, in 1905, Jean Lanfray, a Swiss family man, murdered his entire family and, according to his own testimony, he did so under the influence of absinthe. Although the truth is that in addition to absinthe he had drunk wine, mint cream, brandy and cognac, so in reality he was so drunk that he could have suffered some kind of hallucination, but not because of the absinthe, but because of the excess of alcohol.

All this joined the civil movements against alcohol, which were already beginning to emerge in the US, where a few years later they would lead to the Volstead Law or Dry Law. In France these movements achieved the prohibition of absinthe, while in other parts of Europe such as England, Portugal and Spain, they never caught on and absinthe was never banned.

More recent studies have shown that absinthe has no harmful properties, is not toxic – unless consumed in large quantities – and does not cause hallucinations. The problems associated with this drink have much more to do with its high alcohol content, which usually exceeds 80 degrees, than with its properties. It is precisely due to that high graduation, which is usually taken mixed with water, since otherwise it is too strong.

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