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Absinthe has to be one of the most celebrated, maligned, and misunderstood drinks in the world. Say the magical word and you will be instantly transported to the decadence of Belle Epoque Paris, drinking in a bar with Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Toulouse Lautrec. There will also be green faeries, hallucinations, and even madness. So what is this demonic drink?

The History of Abstinthe
Absinthe is related to drinks such as gin and aquavit in that it consists of high strength alcohol flavoured with something. It has its roots in a time when eaux-de-vies were thought to have medicinal properties. The word ‘absinthe’ comes from the Latin artemisia absinthium, wormwood, a principal ingredient which is also used in vermouth (whose name is derived from the German for the botanical, wermut).
The first drink we would recognise as absinthe was produced in the village of Couvet Switzerland by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, an exile from the turmoil of revolutionary France. He created a drink flavoured with 15 botanicals including wormwood, star anise, chamomile, liquorice, fennel, and coriander, and named it Extrait d’Absinthe. He passed the secret of the drink to his housekeepers, the Henriod sisters, and they continued making and selling it after he died. Or did he? There’s a competing story that the sisters had been making the drink long before Dr Ordinaire turned up and that he actually stole the recipe from them!

Absinthe Production
But it wasn’t the Heriod sisters who put absinthe into production. It was another residence of Couvet whose name might sound a little familiar to you for reasons that will become clear shortly. He was called Abram-Louis Perrenoud and it was his son, Henri-Louis Perrenoud in business with father-in-law Major Dubied, who turned the production of absinthe into a proper business.
As Henri-Louis’s biggest customer was France, he moved the business over the border in 1805. Even more momentaneously he changed his name to Pernod, and the rest is history, as they say. At this time, the borders between drink for pleasure and medicine were still somewhat blurred. Pernod’s product proved enormously popular with French soldiers fighting in North Africa who were given it to alleviate the symptoms of malaria and tropical fevers. It was also taking off in metropolitan France, especially in the cafes of Paris and other big cities. It was a boom time for liqueurs and spirits as France’s mighty wine industry had been devastated by phylloxera, the vine-eating louse from America. Absinthe from Pernod and others took France by storm. In the late 19th century, France’s producers were distilling 220 million litres of absinthe annually.

It was particularly popular among the Bohemian set, drunk by artists and poets. The drink’s properties quickly assumed mythical proportions. It was blamed for hallucinations, madness and even murder. Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his own ear is often attributed to absinthe abuse. How fair is this? The particular troublesome ingredient was the wormwood, in particular a compound within it called thujone. In one notorious experiment a doctor fed wormwood oil to guinea pigs which then had seizures. But this toxic ingredient would have been present in such tiny quantities in absinthe as to be harmless to humans. The real danger was absinthe’s high alcohol, often well over 60% ABV, and bad distillation by less scrupulous brands meaning that the spirit might be full of noxious compounds or could even be coloured with highly toxic copper sulphate.
A combination of lurid stories amplified by the popular press, temperance organisations and the powerful wine lobby created a moral panic around absinthe. Something must be done! Harrumph! Harrumph! And by the early 20th century something was done. The first country to ban the drink was the French Congo in 1899 followed by Switzerland in 1910, the US in 1912, France in 1915 and Italy rather late to the party in 1932. It was never banned in Britain though, which is interesting for the rest of the story.

Abstinthe is back!
Pernod didn’t give up, however. It introduced its first pastis in 1938, a drink very similar to absinthe without the offending ingredient. But absinthe proper faded away and was all but forgotten about. The revival came from an unlikely place, Czechoslovakia (as it was then). Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989, dozens of British people descended on Eastern Europe and Prague in particular in search of cheap beer and good times. One such was George Rowley. But Rowley wasn’t just a tourist, he was looking for business opportunities and saw one with Czech beer which he began importing into Britain. It was on one trip that he tried a local drink called absinth (without the e) which had never been banned by the Czechs. He also discovered that it was also technically not illegal in the UK too.
After jumping through various legal hoops, he began importing it to Britain in conjunction with small literary magazine The Idler. It quickly took the country by storm, not least because of the ritual way it was served with a lit sugar cube and dripping flaming absinthe. Who could resist that? Rowley’s success with reintroducing the drink to Britain led to a reappraisal of absinthe across Europe. In the late 1990s, Rowley teamed up with absinthe historian Madame Delahaye and a Parisian distiller Christian Camax to produce La Fée absinthe which was launched to the world at the Groucho Club in London in 2000 with special cocktails by the late great Dick Bradsell.
Though La Fée was distilled in France it was still illegal to sell it there but change was afoot. In 2002, Pernod produced its first ‘absinthe’ since 1915 called Pernod Aux Extraits de Plantes d’Absinthe. Pernod and La Fée managed to circumvent the ban on sale in France by describing their product as Extraits de Plantes d’Absinthe rather than just absinthe. The green fairy was back in its spiritual home. One by one other countries allowed the return of absinthe either through cunningly circumventing the law as in France or by realising that due to a cock-up involving the law banning the drink not making it into the books after Italy joined the EEC technically it was no longer illegal in Italy.

How to drink abstinthe
Nowadays, absinthe is made in Europe and America and there are dozens of different brands from big players like Hendricks’s gin which launched its own absinthe in 2019 to tiny players like Devil’s Botany. But what’s the best way to drink it? There are two main methods for absinthe preparation:
The French Method involves the traditional slotted absinthe spoon. Absinthe is poured into the glass first. Then the slotted spoon is placed atop the glass with a sugar cube on it. Using a slow drip fountain, water is gradually dripped onto the sugar cube, and into the glass, until the cube is dissolved. The spoon is then used to stir the drink. This will produce a sweetened, cloudy drink not unlike pastis.
The Bohemian Method involves using a traditional heat-proof absinthe glass, absinthe is poured into the glass, the slotted spoon is placed on top of the glass and an absinthe-soaked sugar cube is placed on the spoon. The sugar cube is then lit, and the cube is dropped into the drink and allowed to burn out.
Absinthe is also an important ingredient in cocktails like the Sazerac and Dick Bradsell’s creation the Green Fairy Sour. Shake one part absinthe with one part lemon juice, one part mineral water, ¾ part sugar syrup, one dash of angostura bitters and an egg white with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist, and a mad glint in your eye.

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