Picturing Pernod Fils

Any discussion of absinthe in its heyday is not complete without mentioning Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils was the single-most popular brand of absinthe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, right up to the French ban in 1915. Although the true origin of absinthe is hotly debated, including whether or not the doctor known as Pierre Ordinaire was an historical personage at all, or something more of an allegorical figure, what is known for certain is that Henri Louis Pernod and Daniel Henri Dubied opened one of the very first absinthe distilleries in 1797. While the brand would largely become identified with France as a result of the Pernod factory built in Pontarlier in 1805, Pernod Fils absinthe production actually began in Couvet, Switzerland in 1797.

At the height of its popularity, Pernod Fils was producing 30,000 liters of absinthe PER DAY, and in addition to satisfying the thirst of millions of French drinkers, the product was shipped to many faroff and exotic countries which had likewise developed a taste for absinthe, or which were at least hosting some European expatriates (such as Paul Gauguin, in Tahiti). It was of the highest quality, as indicated by the absinthe superiore designation, and the best-selling brand of the day.

Of course, Pernod Fils didn’t get to be the Green Fairy’s favorite emissary by being slouches and keeping a good thing to themselves. Production increases over there years, and in the mid-to-late 1800s, Pernod Fils continued to capture the favor (and the francs) not only of the bourgeoisie, but also of the middle-class. Of note in this period is that Pernod Fils continued to use a grape base alcohol for their absinthe, rather than the far cheaper industrial alcohol which many other brands used, even after the devastating phylloxera blight which all but destroyed grape vines in France beginning in the 1860s and crippled the wine industry for a generation. Integrity and pride of workmanship found in an absinthe distillery? Those are some characteristics the government and the temperance movement curiously failed to acknowledge (and emulate).

Of the variety of marketing avenues the company explored, one of the best known was an elegant advertising image which became familiar to thousands of bar and cafe patrons throughout France starting in 1880. Specifically, it was a chromolithograph based on an oil painting done by artist Charles Maire. In a rather unique process, the chromolithograph print was applied to a canvas backing, and then varnish was applied to create the illusion of an actual oil painting. Each one was stretched and mounted on wood, then placed in a custom-made gilt-wood frame painted gold and featuring wormwood leaves. The end result was a sort of still-life look at absinthe, featuring a bottle of Pernod Fils, two Pontarlier-style reservoir glasses, a glass carafe full of cold water, and a newspaper proudly displaying the Pontarlier town name (which by that time had become home to more than 20 absinthe distilleries).

For absinthe historians and distillers, this artwork is particularly interesting in that it features a completely prepared glass of absinthe which accurately displays the a proper louche for Pernod Fils. Exactly how cloudy an absinthe SHOULD appear after preparation is a matter of some debate among modern distillers even today, with some insisting that a louche should not appear to be “milky.” This image unequivocally demonstrates the appropriate thickness of the Pernod Fils louche.

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