The return of absinthe

That which was old may not ever be entirely new again, but those who are only just becoming acquainted with absinthe soon find themselves fascinated by the myths, rumors and lurid details of this forbidden liquid from times gone by. Tales of madness, murder, and hallucinogenic experiences rivaling those of illicit drugs swirled around absinthe in 19th century Europe, and after lying dormant for nearly 100 years, whispers of the same sort returned in the late 20th century to seduce a new generation looking to romanticize its own version of fin de siècle fatalism. New myths and legends involving absinthe were added into the pantheon of already tall tales and half-truths, such that the mildly entrancing experience of preparing and enjoying a glass of absinthe was now supposed to have heightened artistic ability to a level just short of demonic inspiration. That the liquor was banned by several countries in the very early 20th century, including Switzerland (absinthe’s birthplace), the United States, and France (its primary manufacturer and consumer) only added to the mystique.

Even so, the traditional absinthe ritual comprising sugar, water, and spoons didn’t seem to be sufficiently alluring for some, and through a combination of historical revisionism and clever marketing ploys, it was introduced into popular belief that there were antique precedents for including matches, occasional opiates, and a mathematical importance for thujone. Stories of fiery rituals in the faraway bars of Amsterdam or former Czechoslovakia made their way further west, as did dubious bottles of brightly-colored “absinth,” and movies and music videos featuring ultra-stylized representations of absinthe preparation. As a result, a new interest was sparked for a liquor which had been all but entirely forgotten  in the Americas, and after years of legal wrangling, it was announced that real absinthe finally was again available here for the first time since 1912.

In the past decade or two since the problematic initial resurrection of absinthe in the public consciousness, however, came both a renaissance of true absinthe distillation, as well as a return of some of the more serious condemnations of the drink. As a new generation of folks painstakingly researched century old documents to discover how fine absinthe was made and created faithful reproductions so that modern consumers could see what it was about this green liquid which for a time had made it even more popular in France than wine, many of the same misunderstandings of absinthe, particularly with regard to what thujone’s role is in absinthe, and how significant the levels are and are not, were disseminated exponentially via the internet. Some of that was done intentionally: unscrupulous distillers were attempting to sell and justify the fake version of absinthe which they had been making since the 1990s, while at the same time some potential consumers were willfully perpetuating the Faustian fantasy of a mystical, mind-altering potion which inspired great paintings and poetry at the cost of health and sanity. Further complicating matters were that some folks were raising honest concerns based on the few medical and scientific reports made in the 19th and early 20th centuries which seemed credible. It wouldn’t be until later that modern chemistry could disprove the notion that absinthe was somehow more dangerous or drug-like than other alcoholic drinks, but even then, there were many with a vested interest in continuing to make wild claims about the effects that their brand of absinthe would conjure, and a lack of a legal definition of absinthe allows them to continue to hawk what amounts to green-dyed schnapps as absinthe (or “absinth”).

In the meantime, thanks to the availability of a number of wonderful genuine absinthes on the market today, we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ban of absinthe in the United States by louching a glass of verte or blanche. Today and in the future, instead of only talking about what absinthe is or isn’t (then and now), we’re also going to look at how it was represented by the original authorities on the subject – contemporary writers, artists, distillers and absintheurs, from absinthe’s early beginnings in 18th century Switzerland through its Belle Epoque heyday and inevitable ban in France in 1915. We’ll start with my personal favorite: L’Absinthe (or, The Absinthe Drinker), by Edgar Degas. Not only was Edgar Degar a brilliant artist in his own right, but the subjects of this particular painting include actress Ellen Andrée, as well as writer/artist/print maker Marcellin Desboutin. Curiously enough, it was extremely controversial both during its initial exhibit in 1876 and its subsequent showings in 1892 and 1893, as the subjects pictured were considered by art critics of the time to be shockingly vulgar to the point of being immoral. While their reaction may say more about classism and social prejudices of the time than anything else, the glass of absinthe in front of the woman staring off into space did not go without note. (Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution version.)

L'Absinthe (1876), by Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

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2 Comments

  1. kissthewookiee said,

    March 21, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    With the return of real absinthe, is there an underground movement to discover (and possibly auction) old/original French or Swiss reserves? Do they even exist? Thanks for the informative blog; I didn’t know absinthe was born in Switzerland. Wonder if that was Ellen Andrée’s first glass or last glass of the evening.

    • March 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      Funny you should ask that, since I recently acquired a genuine bottle of Pernod Fils absinthe from the late 1950s. Absinthe was never banned in Spain, so Pernod Fils relocated there and continued producing absinthe up until the early 1960s. With regard to preban bottles, yes, they actually do exist, but are very rare. When they are available for sale or auction, they are generally in the ballpark of $4000 to $6000. (My bottle from the 1950s was considerably less!) The most commonly seen bottles are of Pernod Fils, followed by other brands with a high volume of production, such as Edouard Pernod. Take a look here for examples.

      Oh, and according to an interview Ellen Andrée gave years later, Degas asked her and Marcellin Desboutin to feign being absinthe addicts for his painting. Apparently they did it all too well!


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