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A Guide To Absinthe

Most educated people have read about absinthe, but very few of them have ever tasted the real thing. That’s not surprising, since genuine absinthe has been illegal for a hundred years in the majority of nations where it was most popular. In fact, this month marks the centennial anniversary of that official ban in Switzerland on October 7, 1910.

I bring up the absinthe prohibition not just because it’s a timely, but also because it’s a perfect example of the type of beverage story I plan to chronicle at the Bizzy Life. There is an interesting business angle on this ban that no one remembers today.

The history of la fée verte – the green fairy – as absinthe was called in its heyday, goes much further back. Purportedly a family recipe that dates to the 13th century, absinthe was first formulated in the area near Couvet, Switzerland, or perhaps nearby Pontarlier in the Doubs, nestled in the wooded foothills of the Jura Mountains of France.

If you know about absinthe, you likely think of it as the muse of the bohemian community of the Belle Époch. Scores of absinthe-inspired posters by Toulouse-Lautrec certainly reinforce that image. But the influence of absinthe on the artistic community has continued unbroken despite this ban. Van Gogh, Degas, Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson are just some of the notable artists with absinthe fixations.

Part of the attraction to absinthe is, of course, it’s own mystique. Like opium, cocaine and cannabis, absinthe has the three key elements that make it a compelling intoxicant. It has a ritual preparation that requires special tools, it has been touted for its medicinal value, and its ban is shrouded in a lurid history.

Absinthe was originally one of many herb-infused distilled beverages with the dominant licorice flavor popular in France. The unique ingredient in absinthe, however, is wormwood bark. This imparts a narcotic substance called thujone, which is a member of the turpine family. This may account for why an absinthe addict like Van Gogh drank his paint thinner when he could not afford his preferred beverage. However, the absinthe brands available in the U.S. today cannot contain any thujone; and thus are not really absinthe at all.

While popular in the Belle Époch, mass consumption of absinthe was launched by a botanical accident. In the late 19th century the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe, and virtually all those of France. Absinthe drinking rose to fill the void in wine production. All social classes then drank absinthe, not just bohemians. In fact, in the 1860?s the 5 o’clock cocktail hour was cristened l’heure verte, (the green hour) in honor of the drink. By 1910, some 36 million liters of absinthe were consumed in France annually.

Once the wine industry recuperated somewhat from the years lost to phylloxera, they fought to regain market share. And they fought dirty. The French winemakers’ associations created an unholy alliance – with the temperance movement and the religious right.  They argued thus: “Wouldn’t wine – the beverage of Jesus – be a lesser evil than a distilled beverage like absinthe?” Together, this alliance mounted a marketing campaign that claimed absinthe had taken thousands of lives, had caused men to murder their families, and would be the ruin the next generation.

Sensationalism and yellow journalism also played a part. A particularly graphic set of domestic murders, committed by a Swiss laborer named Jean Lanfray in 1905, was laid at the feet of the green fairy; in spite of the fact that Lanfray was a hopeless alcoholic who drank whatever he could get. All of Europe read about this crime, and absinthe’s fate was sealed. One by one, the nations of Europe banned the green fairy and clever promoters had won the biggest product marketing coup ever seen – until the Volstead Act led to the 18th amendment of the constitution and the prohibition of all intoxicating beverages in the United States in 1919.

Suggestion for more reading: Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III

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