Absinthe is one of the items I hear people spout misconceptions about the most, and that’s saying a lot because working at a distillery you hear a lot of really off shit. I know I say this a lot, but to really understand absinthe you have to look at it’s history and heritage.
In the Beginning…
Like most liquors, the exact story of absinthe’s origins is somewhat contested, and as always, in my opinion not that important. The important thing is that absinthe became popular in France sometime in the late 19th century. During this time there was a bit of a limited mindset when it came to alcohol. France had long been known for its wine production and with the proliferation of distilled spirits, it earned a reputation for exquisite brandies. Throughout the world, French wine and Brandy was the pinnacle of alcoholic consumption, no less so in France itself. As the new man in town, absinthe rapidly earned a reputation as a drink for vagrants, probably due in part to its unusually high ABV: up to around 75% v. 40% (as is the average brandy). Just as absinthe was gaining ground in France, Phylloxera struck the french grape vines, crippling the industry and with time, almost permanently destroying it. With this sudden void came a huge shift in drinking culture across the globe. Within the country, absinthe was ripe to take its place.
Keep in mind, during this time period Western society was also in the midst of a ‘soft prohibition’ movement. Stronger beers and even stronger distillates were creating a widespread drunkenness that was deeply alarming to a great deal of people. With the sudden disappearance of good French wine, people were turning to harder liquors but without much more moderation.
Absinthe itself was not an unusual addition to the line up of flavored spirits and digestifs that were popular at this time. While it can be flavored with upwards of 20 different herbs and spices, most notorious is its inclusion of wormwood. It has a signature licorice/ anise flavor that people either love or hate. Good Old wikipedia lists its usual ingredients as wormwood, fennel, and anise (explained more in depth in This Post!) , the so called ‘holy trinity’ that is in all absinthe. It can also include “hyssop, melissa, star anise, angelica, peppermint, coriander, and veronica”. Basically, it is a typical herbal mashup of whatever has been given a medicinal property at this point. It is wormwood though that would eventually be the sand upon which the spirit stood.
Everyone Loved It! …mostly
After the downfall of wine, absinthe presided over French society. Every day, upon leaving work, it was traditional for men to stop by their favorite watering hole to enjoy a few hours before heading home. Soon enough this became known in some circles as the “Green hour”, because it was so characterized by the signature greenish ‘glow’ of absinthe. Distillers of the spirit reveled in this abundant time, making good use of this unrelenting demand, and delivering their own styles. As with all sudden booms, there were certain unscrupulous providers who took rancid spirits, barely covered them with barest amounts of herbs and shilled them to anyone foolish enough to purchase… but such is life in competitive industries. As this boom grew, so too did the objections of prohibitionists.
Wine Begins to Fight Back
Eventually, the source and solution to the phylloxera problem was discovered and the wine industry began to rebuild. In spite of the drives of prohibitionists, absinthe had continued to flourish and presented formidable competition to other alcohol providers. The French wine industry leveraged its considerable power against the spirit, a move that still colors public perception of absinthe to this day. As with most things people want banned, they took the stand that it made people morally unfit, and furthermore, the beverage itself was incredibly dangerous. The argument primarily focused around wormwood and one of the chemicals in it: thujone.
At the time, a certain scientist in France was able to isolate thujone and proceeded to give a significant amount of it to a lab rat. When the rat (understandably) reacted poorly, it was used as evidence that absinthe was dangerous. The modern day equivalent of this would be to give several grams of pure caffeine to a lab rat and then use the results to say that nobody should be allowed to consume soda, coffee, or tea. It simply wasn’t good science. Nevertheless, abolitionists and the wine industry prevailed and soon the reputation of absinthe was smeared across the globe and it was subsequently banned.
And so, here we are
Only recently has absinthe been experiencing a revitalization, thanks to the efforts of passionate consumers around the globe. The bans have all been lifted, so rest assured that when you go into a bar, you are most certainly getting “The good stuff”. No winks required, though if you want to slip your server a little something extra I bet they wont stop you.
Check out the next half in: