Absinthe is a highly alcoholic drink that started gaining popularity in the 18th century among the French. After being banned in the United States for almost 100 years, absinthe has somehow managed to enter the bar scene again. The infamous absinthe with multiple nicknames- the green fairy being the most popular- is one of the most mysterious spirits on the rack.
So how did absinthe go from being 18th century's favourite tipple to being banned in 1915 and then being resurrected in the 1990s?
Let's Start From the Beginning
The Wormwood plant, Artemisia absinthium, is where absinthe derives its name from. It is created from the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, along with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green colour but may also be colourless. In historical literature, absinthe is popularly known as "la fée verte" (the green fairy).
Absinthe was first created in Switzerland, as an all-purpose remedy by Dr. Ordinaire. His recipe was later sold as a medicinal elixir by the Couvet sisters. In 1797, a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula and, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery. In 1805 they built a second one called Maison Pernod Fils. This remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe until it was banned in 1915.
A New Fad
By the 1860s, absinthe was widely embraced by the French; so much that 5 PM came to be known as 'l'heure verte' (the green hour) which was the 19th century equivalent of "the happy hour." Very soon, it was being exported internationally to Spain, Great Britain, USA, and the Czech Republic.
The drink was favoured by everybody - from the wealthy bourgeoisie to the poor artists as well as the common working class people. By the 1880s, absinthe's large scale production had caused a sharp drop in its price! By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million litres a year as compared to wine, which was almost 5 billion litres!
Thus, people started drinking more Absinthe instead of wine.
How the Mighty Took a Fall
Triggered by the temperance movement and the wine industry, Absinthe was associated with violent crimes and mayhem. One of the critics claimed, "Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of a man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganises and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country." Absinthe became the doormat of the French wine industry as well as the temperance movement, so they could promote their own agendas.
Absinthe had an ingredient called thujone that was considered a hallucinogen; although it was only present in trace amounts. This chemical compound was blamed for all of Absinthe's allegedly harmful effects. It was this ingredient and the blooming temperance movement, coupled with misrepresented stories, which led to the ban of the drink until the 1990s(In US it was 2007).
Debunking the Myths
Absinthe was the victim of several accusations that claimed it to be a dangerously addictive hallucinogen and a psychoactive drug. By 1915, it was banned in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherland and the USA.
However, recent studies have shown that its properties are nothing but exaggerated. All the rumours about it causing violent criminal behaviour, epilepsy, extreme hallucinations were all totally false! It was all part of the agendas of wine industries to curb the sale and consumption of the popular drink.
That Green Liquor That Makes People Crazy
The biggest misconception about Absinthe was that it causes hallucinations. This was one of the main reasons that caused its ban.
The misconception resulted in the 19th century, due to unregulated absinthe production. Ted Breaux, an absinthe expert, said that due to its popularity, some producers used non-potable alcohol and flavoured it with commercial oil extracts. This mixture was artificially coloured with copper sulphate and antimony trichloride. Prolonged consumption of such a mixture caused copper toxicity as well as antimony poisoning- which causes hallucinations.
Since it was cheap, it was widely consumed by the lower class. When the long-term effects began to show, Absinthe was blamed. Breaux also says that recent scientific studies have demonstrated beyond doubt that pre-ban Absinthes contained no hallucinogens, opiates or other psychoactive substances.
Absinthe's psychoactive properties have been largely exaggerated, and it has not demonstrated to be any more dangerous than our ordinary spirits. Absinthe's ban had more to do with its popularity than the alleged hallucinations. A fear of losing their sales, wine producers and those of other spirits began campaigning for the ban of Absinthe, accusing it to be the cause of all societal problems.
The rebirth of absinthe took place in the 1990s. Today it is very legal and can be enjoyed in several ways:
The Classique French
The classic French method is to pour a measure of absinthe into a glass and place a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon over the glass. Iced water is slowly poured over the sugar, to sweeten and dilute the drink to about one third - one fifth. The water turns the drink cloudy, which is called la louche. This releases the herbal essences and brings out the aromas.
The “bohemian” method follows the French set-up, but the sugar cube is lightly soaked with absinthe and set on fire for a minute or two. One has to ensure that it doesn't drip into the glass, as absinthe is highly flammable. Iced water is then poured over the sugar which created the louche effect. Surprisingly, this makes the absinthe stronger.
Though used sparingly, absinthe is often used in cocktails nowadays. Due to its high alcohol content (45-75% ABV), it is often mixed with other, less potent, spirits while making cocktails. An absinthe rinse - where it is swirled inside the glass - adds an intense liquorice flavour to the cocktail.
Death in the afternoon, Absinthe Sazerac, Absinthe Suissesse, The Foaming Fairy, etc are a few varieties of absinthe cocktails.
Absinthe definitely has a history full of drama. Rising from a ban that lasted for nearly a century and almost resuming to its former glory, says a lot about it. This proves that absinthe is truly a remarkable spirit, and when consumed rationally, it guarantees a good time.
So now you can try some for yourself and this time you will not have to be scared of the green fairy!
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