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

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

The tick-tock sound means it’s time for absinthe!

There’s more than one way to louche an absinthe, and one of the more novel and entertaining ways devised in the 19th century was via an “auto verseur” brouillieur. A brouillieur (also known as a “dripper”) does exactly what it sounds like – it drips water droplets into the absinthe. In a way, absinthe is simply a liquor concentrate, designed and distilled specifically to be reconstituted with water. Exactly how much water is used to dilute the liquor depends partly on how high the proof is, and partly on personal taste. In general, a 4:1 ratio is a good estimate to begin with. Adding the water slowly produces an intriguing cloudy louche as the essential oils are released, but how that water is slowly combined with the absinthe is open to your imagination and preference. A thin stream poured from a carafe was the most common way to louche a glass of absinthe in the 19th century, while glass brouillieurs (essentially small bowls with a tiny hole in the bottom for water to drip through) might also be fitted on top of a glass of absinthe for water to drip through.

In the mid 19th century, one particular absinthe brand named Cusenier came up with the “auto verseur” (colloquially referred to as a “see-saw” brouillieur) for dripping water into absinthe which was both fun to watch and listen to. The brouilleur is balanced on a glass via the four glass feet which hold it in place, and as the water dripped through the bottom of the metal funnel-shaped bowl, it fell onto a small metal piece below which alternately swung up and down as a result of the water droplets striking it and rolling down the side. Here is a picture of a modern 21st century reproduction of the auto verseur placed on top of an antique Lyonnais absinthe glass (similar to a Pontarlier-style glass, but with a reservoir of a different shape) from the late 19th century.