Absinthe and the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition)

World War I, known as the “Great War” or “the war to end all wars” in the years immediately following its conclusion, was a cataclysmic moment of global change in uncountable ways. With specific regard to absinthe, the lead-up to it, and the actual onset of the war itself, would be the final nail hammered by the temperance movement into a coffin that was decades in the making. Following an earlier ban in Switzerland, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, ostensibly to preserve French genetic stock and her soldiers on the battlefield, despite the fact that absinthe was utilized as a health elixir and water purifier to French soldiers less than 100 years prior in French Algiers.  The next few years of war would soon prove their at least that part of their intention to be horribly ineffective, as over one million French soldiers are thought to have perished by the end of World War I.

During the same period of time before the outbreak of war, a group of scholars were working on what was to be the final edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica to be produced entirely (or nearly so) in Britain. The eleventh edition, published between 1910-1911, is still regarded as perhaps the finest to be produced by Encyclopedia Britannica, and indeed by any encyclopedia. While it’s use of certain textual devices such as “pathetic fallacy” (which is basically the anthropomorphism of inanimate objects as if they had feelings or intellect) renders it somewhat less than academic or reliable for modern scholarship, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the world as seen and defined through the eyes of a changing populace which was leaving the industrial age of the 18th and 19th centuries behind, and stepping into the technological age of the future. It is arguably all the more endearing for it’s slight and awkward imperfections.

Among those things to say goodbye to was absinthe. While absinthe would technically continue to be distilled for many decades after the bans of the early 1900s, it would do so in increasing obscurity over there years. The entry for absinthe in this eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910 then is perhaps the final English-language “definition” of note of what true absinthe is. While still imperfect, owing in part no doubt to absinthe being a primarily French and Swiss creation which was not very popular in Britain, it is nonetheless very close to what could be considered “textbook.” Modern distillers and absinthe aficionados should take note of it:

ABSINTHE, a liqueur or aromatized spirit, the characteristic flavouring matter of which is derived from various species of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Among the other substances generally employed in its manufacture are angelica root, sweet flag, dittany leaves, star-anise fruit, fennel and hyssop. A colourless “alcohólate” is first prepared, and to this the well-known green colour of the beverage is imparted by maceration with green leaves of wormwood, hyssop and mint. Inferior varieties are made by means of essences, the distillation being omitted. There are two varieties of absinthe, the French and the Swiss, the latter of which is of a higher alcoholic strength than the former. The best absinthe contains 70 to 80% of alcohol. It is said to improve very materially by storage. There is a popular belief to the effect that absinthe is frequently adulterated with copper, indigo or other dye-stuffs (to impart the green colour), but, in fact, this is now very rarely the case.  There is some reason to believe that excessive absinthe-drinking leads to effects which are specifically worse than those associated with over-indulgence in other forms of alcohol.

1913 ad for the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica


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