Getting carded for absinthe

Given current prices of a decent verte or blanche here in the 21st century, it’s easy to develop a notion that absinthe was consumed exclusively by wealthy citizens who could afford high-end luxuries, stirring their costly green elixir in an expensive crystal glass with a silver spoon. While it’s true that there was a period in France (primarily during the mid-1800s) during which absinthe was the almost-exclusive purvey of ex-soldiers with healthy pensions, and wealthy bourgeoisie folks with a lot of francs to burn, the drink was within reach for all but the poorest members of society by the 1880s.

For the average working man, enjoying an absinthe didn’t necessitate clopping down to the finest cafe on the boulevard in a horse-drawn carriage and stepping out with a fancy walking-stick and wearing a cape (although, admittedly, that would have been my preferred entrance way back when); our local working-class hero could simply walk down to one of thousands of local cafes, fire up a pipe or a cigarette, and whet his appetite with a glass of the house brand absinthe while chatting with friends and locals the way he always did. To amuse themselves and to gamble away a few louis, there was an ever-growing assortment of bistro games becoming available all the time, but nothing could top the popularity of a good old-fashioned card game.

And to talk about ideal product placement: imagine having a captive audience of four or five people seated at a table for an hour or two, and having them continually staring down at your brand name while they entertained themselves, considering whether to raise the bet, draw another card, or punch Pierre in the face for winning the past three hands in a row.

Tapis de cartes, or “card carpets” such as the one pictured below, were an effective means of advertising, and were likely to have a longer lifespan than posters and flyers, although serving as a placemat in a bar does take its toll. Even the post-absinthe card carpets from the 1920s and 1930s advertising pastis and the like are fairly rare; finding a genuine absinthe-branded card mat from the pre-ban period is even more difficult to do. It’s nice to see that they still work their magic, though, as I can’t help but feel myself getting a little thirsty for a tasty verte just by looking at it.

Premier Fils tapis de carte, c. 1900

Digging into absinthe

Of all the various accessories associated with liquor and cocktails, arguably none of them are as unique and specific in use as the absinthe spoon. These little trowels of tastiness are essentially spoons with holes poked in them, and the apparent perversion of  such an austerely utilitarian tool as the common spoon was undoubtedly pointed out by more than one of absinthe’s detractors before the Great War as the sign of a damnable and devilish product. ‘Babylon has fallen!’ proclaims the sweaty revivalist/prohibitionist, dramatically attempting to quench his thirst with water from a nearby well, yet painfully unable to do so because the water falls through the holes before he’s even able to bring the spoon to his lips. One can almost hear the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

Or perhaps it never came to that. Based on noted historian Benoît Noël’s research of hundreds of documents of the period (which hey, I would have been happy to do myself, except that I don’t speak French), it seems that the iconic absinthe spoon did not make it’s debut until approximately 1889, nearly 100 years after distilled absinthe as a beverage made it’s debut (and at least 20 years after the anti-absinthe contingent mobilized). Prior to that, absinthe seems to have been served most often without sugar, a concept which makes sense given that almost no other liquor has sugar added to it. Presumably, the idea of adding sugar came into play as a method of minimizing the bitter wormwood taste and making the drink more palatable to those used to Swiss blanches (which are naturally sweeter), as well as to women, who were increasingly becoming more independent and empowered during the latter half of the 19th century.

The Swiss seem themselves to have introduced the absinthe grille a few years before the absinthe spoon, and an absinthe grille functions in much the same way: it is placed over a glass containing a dose of absinthe, and sugar cubes are rested on its perforated surface, ultimately to be dissolved into the drink by dripping water onto them from a carafe or fountain. However, grilles do not have a handle, and they are also too wide to fit inside of most glasses, so a standard spoon had to be used to mix the sugar granules into the finished drink. At some point, it would seem that some anonymous soul had the brilliant idea of combining the two implements into one magnificently elegant tool; and yet, as loathe as I am to admit it, it may be that we owe the invention (or at least the popularization) of the absinthe spoon to marketing.

The year 1889 isn’t an arbitrary one to use as the date of the earliest known absinthe spoon (as well as the earliest-known illustration featuring an absinthe spoon – see below for that). As much of an icon as the absinthe spoon became, the most iconic piece of metal associated with France is unquestionably the Eiffel Tower. This architectural masterpiece was completed in 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, and as impressive as it is today, it must have been a jaw-droppingly marvel to the average fair-goer in the late 19th century. A plethora of memorabilia associated with the Eiffel Tower was soon to follow, and one of the first was a commemorative absinthe spoon. This detailed and somewhat baroque spoon has since become one of the most highly sought-after collectibles in the absinthe world.

Eiffel Tower absinthe spoon - 1889

After the idea of sugaring absinthe via a perforated spoon came into fashion, a wide variety of spoons entered the marketplace, although most of the types typically used in cafes and bistros throughout France tended to be fairly simple. That being said, in the satirical illustration of General Boulanger done by Sem (Georges Goursat) below, you can just barely make out a long, curved tip on the spoon, a feature found on a type of absinthe spoon called “Losange étirée,” or “elongated Diamonds”). This elongated type of spoon is quite a bit rarer than those without the curved tip, and appears to have been intended as a way to rest the tip of the spoon on the edge of a bistro saucer so that the spoon did not come into contact with the table and remained sanitary (or at least, that’s the conclusion S—- and I came to after examining one — I haven’t yet been able to confirm that through any historical reference).

I’ll go into much greater detail about absinthe spoons at a later time. In the meantime, enjoy the comical art and feel free to come up with your own slant on what it means. To date, there hasn’t been any definitive interpretation of the humor here. General Boulanger did have a large base of support around 1889 and had a window of opportunity to gain great power in France, then inexplicably fled to England, after which his backers turned away in disappointment, he was pronounced a traitor by the French Senate, and a couple of years later he came back across the English channel to Belgium, where he killed himself at the graveside of his mistress who had died the year before. Ironically, while he seems to have been a user of opiates, General Boulanger does not seem to have been much of an absinthe drinker at all, and so the absinthe glass and spoon are likely symbolic of French decadence, excess, or something else entirely. If you think you might know, by all means, please comment!

Satirical illustration of General Boulanger, by Georges Goursat (aka, "Sem"), 1889.

I’ll have another (Pernod Fils circa 1910)

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of absinthe compared to many enthusiasts, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to try one sample of preban absinthe in my three years of chasing the green fairy. That was a life-changing event bordering on religious experience, but don’t tell Bill Mahr I said that or he might throw some of his hilariously clever (yet disturbingly mean-spirited and sometimes misogynistic) snarkiness my way.

At some later date I’ll tell you the story about mine and S—–‘s dance with a 1905 (or thereabouts) glass of Edouard Pernod. In the meantime, I’m happy to report that, in celebration of S—-‘s completion of her Master’s thesis, an arduous project which my ladylove slaved away at for more than two years while working full-time, we indulged in a glass of 1910 (or thereabouts) Pernod Fils.

Bear in mind that Pernod Fils was essentially the flagship absinthe of the Belle Epoque, or the gold-standard marque of the Gilded Age, if I may be permitted to mix geographically-specific terms, if not metaphors. It was the best-selling brand of absinthe in France, and by all accounts it was a high-quality liquor universally recognized as representing the finest of the distiller’s art, and best of what absinthe could be. Of those few folks who love absinthe enough to invest in a vial of the ever-dwindling supply of preban absinthe (a venture which should not be undertaken lightly, mind, as there are some unscrupulous folk who try to pass off newer absinthe as vintage preban), Pernod Fils is not only one of the more desirable marques to sample, but is fortunately also the most commonly encountered, by sheer virtue of how much was made and bottled in the last 20 years or so of absinthe production in France before the ban.

We had been waiting for some time to try this particular sample, and this past weekend, after all the “t”s were crossed, the “i”s were dotted, and the stars finally aligned, we pushed the button on firing the final draft of S—-‘s thesis into the ether of the net on Friday, and set about celebrating on Saturday with this liquid time-machine. I’ll confess that my experience with the Edouard Pernod had set the bar almost impossibly high (is there a pun in there somewhere?), and not surprisingly, the Pernod Fils did not make it over.

What? You’re surprised? In fairness, I should point out now that despite all the overwhelming superlatives which rush out in almost every review of a preban absinthe (most of them justified, perhaps), it’s important to temper them with the knowledge that in most cases, we are not really drinking the same absinthe that our predecessors did 100 and more years ago. Even in those rare instances where the bottles have been well-kept in cool, dark environments for the past century, absinthe by its nature of being a botanically-based and infused liquor will age more noticeably, even in a sealed glass bottle, than will almost any other liquor or liqueur (with the exception of other botanically-based boozes, such as chartreuse). As such, the aged absinthe we are drinking might have gotten “better” over time in terms of taste (although this is still technically due to degradation); likewise, it may have gotten worse, or simply been altered in a way that is neither better nor worse.

The Pernod Fils sample we had, as it exists now in 2012, was an excellent absinthe. In fact, I’d say it ranked in the top 5 of absinthes I’ve tried in terms of quality, and I’ve tried more than 30 in my three years of exploration. It had a lovely floral aroma in which the exceptional Pontarlier wormwood was prominent (although not extremely powerful), followed by the noticeable softness and fragrance of hyssop. It may be an overused adjective in the absinthe world, but the word ‘alpine’ came to mind with a focused clarity. Still, this absinthe had an almost feminine quality in terms of how subtle is was in many respects. That isn’t a criticism at all, as exceptional subtlety is something to be celebrated by anyone who can appreciate it. Nevertheless, I’ll confess that I was a comparatively disappointed since I had been expecting this absinthe to boast a powerful presence akin to the preban Edouard Pernod absinthe I had tried.

That’s when I had to stop and consider how very well-preserved this sample of Pernod Fils was in comparison to the Edouard Pernod. The 30 milliliters of this very rare drink had a bit of a peachy-brown color to it (see a picture of the louched sample below in an antique “egg” glass), and while it may not have retained much of the peridot green color that it undoubtedly had at the time of its production in or around 1910, it was still fairly clear and bright with noticeable trails of essential oils, the scent of which wafted up from the glass. In contrast to this, the Edouard Pernod sample from two years ago was a dark brown, with a deep, smoky-sweet aroma. Of the two, it’s most likely that the Pernod Fils was the closer to its original state, based on contemporary descriptions of each absinthe from a century ago. Therefore, while I may have enjoyed the Edouard Pernod sample more, that was due in significant part to how 100 years of aging affected the original Edouard Pernod, so that it was questionable how representative my glass truly was.

After our celebratory sampling was over and I took a little more time to reflect on the experience, I realized that tasting the subdued yet sublime Pernod Fils made me appreciate how close many absinthes of today have come to capturing the essence of those fine old absinthes of yesteryear. After over 100 years of refining the art of distilling absinthe in the 18th and early 19th century, folks in the early 20th century had the luxury of taking for granted the number of high-quality absinthes available to them. While many of the details of that knowledge were lost after various prohibitions on alcohol in general (and bans on absinthe specifically), distillers are slowly rediscovering the best ingredients and recipes for making wonderful absinthe. I’ll happily toast to their continued progress with a glass of the finest of modern absinthe, but I wouldn’t refuse another dose of the rare old stuff if you’re offering.

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

Fake it to make it

Never let it be said that there are no imaginative swindlers running amok in the world. Of course, I’d love to be able to say that and have it be true, but then again, we’d have very little to talk about if everyone were good boys and girls. That being said, if you’re going to be such a cutting-edge crook that you’re going to fake an antique absinthe bottle and label combination, you really should learn how to read first. Otherwise, you’ll end up looking silly when the glass seal on the bottle reads “Pernod Fils,” while the label itself reads “Premier Fils.”  Yes, yes, I know, there are only a few letters of difference there in the middle, but they do tend to be important.

It probably won’t be shocking to anyone to discover that the bottle pictured below was being sold on eBay recently. Oh how I do miss the relatively innocent days of endearing “ghosts in a jar” and “Mother Mary on toast” auctions on the ole’ Bay. What’s particularly said is that the bottle itself does appear to be a genuine 19th/early 20th century Pernod Fils bottle, and the “Premier Fils” label likewise also appears genuine (although this is more difficult to tell based on pictures alone). Unused vintage labels can be found without too much difficulty, though, so it’s likely that some unscrupulous person bought one of those and artificially aged and distressed it so that it would appear to be a time-worn antiquity. Of course, it isn’t necessarily the seller who did this (hey, it could even be a 100-year-old fake or gag, which would actually be appealing if proven), but one does wonder how it escaped his attention, or why he didn’t mention it in the auction description if he did in fact notice it.

In any case, it sold for 42 euros (about $65), which isn’t unreasonably high for an authentic Pernod Fils bottle without the label. Whether the buyer would have the heart to tear the presumably antique label off of it or not is something of a Sophie’s Choice, and I’m surely glad that my name isn’t Sophie.

But don’t call me Shirley, either.

Premier Fils label on Pernod Fils bottle

Pernod Fils bottle seal

Surprise! Absinthe and the Art Deco aftermath

My girlfriend S—- does not care for surprises. As for me, I love them – especially when I know they’re coming! As Yogi Berra as that may sound, it’s true. One of my favorite things to do is to buy something online, and then have it shipped to me, because who doesn’t love getting packages in the mail? I’m a sucker for that kind of fun. Opening the door to the mailbox (or the house) and seeing a box or brown paper parcel with my name on is one of the best feelings in life. It’s like a blue-collar Christmas, any old day of the week, delivered right to your door, and you didn’t have to remember to buy anyone else a damn thing. Beautiful.

Today, I actually received two little treats courtesy of the USPS. I usually time these gifts to myself a bit better so as to spread the fun out over multiple days, but honestly, it’s twice as much fun when you double-down on the packages. As it turns out, both bits of precious were absinthe-related (a not altogether uncommon occurrence in our household). One package contained two antique spoons, one of them an Epis #1 and one of them an Ouvragée #8. (The other package… well, it’s a surprise for Lady S—-, and so I won’t post that one until next week.)

It’s a little known fact, even among absinthe enthusiasts, that not all antique absinthe spoons were manufactured during the era considered to be pre-ban (i.e., prior to the French ban of absinthe in 1915). There were some countries in which absinthe was never banned at all (such as Spain and Britain), and in which folks who enjoyed drinking absinthe in the very early 20th century continued to do so into the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond. In fact, it was during this time period in which one of absinthe’s most famous latter-day admirers, Ernest Hemingway, first came to know of and partake of the liquor.

As such, absinthe accessories and paraphernalia continued to be manufactured in these countries outside of absinthe’s old stomping grounds long after it had ceased to be all the rage. Some of these latter-period accessories, such as the Art Deco-inspired spoons and saucers of the 1920s and 1930s, reflect the continued enjoyment of absinthe (or absinthe-inspired substitues, such as pastis). Both the Epis and the Ouvragée spoons are examples of the tail-end of the romantic and wistful fin de siècle absinthe culture rushing headlong into the new modern industrial age of the early 20th century. Below, I’ve included a picture of both spoons, along with one of my 1920s-1930s era octagonal saucers. As was the custom for cafes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the numbers painted onto saucers denoted the price of each drink (in this case, a conservative four francs), so that calculating a patron’s tab for the evening was as easy as adding up the numbers on the stack of saucers.

Epis 1, Ouvragée 8, and price-marked saucer

Epis 1, Ouvragée 8, and price-marked saucer