There is perhaps only one drink that has so polarised opinions. Absinthe has been credited with the creative inspiration of many and freedom from societal conventions, but at the same time it has been blamed for causing madness, depression and despair. How did one drink come to have such a diverse and contradictory reputation?
It was not always the case that absinthe was called demon drink or devil in a bottle. Absinthe began life as a Greek medicine, the name we use today being derived from the Greek word absinthion. The concoctions were made usually by soaking wormwood leaves (Artemisia absinthium) in either wine or spirits. It was apparently used to aid child birth, as well as rheumatism, menstrual pain, jaundice and anemia. Throughout many centuries wormwood continued to be used in folk medicine. The evidence of this can be traced through written texts. For example, a second century doctor, Galen, used wormwood for relaxing the stomach and as a remedy for the ‘swoon’. During the plague years of the 17th and 18th centuries many believed that burning wormwood would fumigate infected households.
During this time, the use of wormwood continued to be medicinal, but occasionally it would appear as a recreational drink, but the shift from medicine to alcoholic beverage really began when wormwood was given to soldiers to provide protection from dysentery, bugs and to fight off fevers, as heat and untreated water caused ill health to rip through the French army as it began its expansion into North Africa in 1840. The soldiers would add it to their wine to take the edge off the bitter taste, as well as meaning it had an alcoholic kick. The soldiers who survived the war and the diseases took home their newly acquired taste for this drink, which they called ‘une verte’ because of the green colouring. It was not long before the population at large caught on to the green.
Initially, absinthe was a drink that was an indulgence of those with money in their pockets. Its reputation and exotic appeal began to grow and it became available to more people. Such was its popularity, that a dedicated ‘green hour’ of the early evening was dedicated to the indulgence of absinthe. A mere nine years after their return from war, there were 26 French absinthe distilleries producing around 10 million litres a year
It is said that a tragedy that took place in the small Swiss village of Commugny in August 1905 began the label of madness. Whilst the community gathered around three coffins containing a wife and two young daughters, Jean Lanfray, wept and protested his innocence. He was accused of their murder after a day filled with drinking absinthe, along with wine and brandy. Upon his return home, his wife was not impressed with his late and boozy return and accused him of laziness. It is said he that told her to shut up and she retorted that he should make her. At this point he was said to have shot her and his daughter who came to investigate. He finished the evening by shooting his two year old in her crib. Lanfray claimed to have no memory of these events and the community of Commugny arrived at the conclusion that it was the absinthe to blame.
Commugny was not the only place where absinthe was coming under fire. Throughout Europe there had been rumbles. The media of the day fuelled the fire and called it, “the absinthe murder”. Regardless of the fact that Lanfray had drunk more than just absinthe, the press decided that the murder of three people had been caused by drinking two glasses of the demon drink. The prohibition movement had a field day, La Gazette de Lausanne, a French-language Swiss newspaper, called it “the première cause of bloodthirsty crime in this century.” The trial cemented the drink as the cause of Lanfray’s madness, with his lawyers putting the whole affair down to being a classic case of absinthe madness - branding this as a medical affliction. This was supported by Albert Mahaim, a leading physicist of the age. It was his opinion that only the frequent consumption of absinthe could have caused Lanfray to have act in such a manner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prosecution pointed out how much other alcohol had been consumed prior to the murders. The finger pointed at absinthe did not convince the jury and he was found guilt of four murders. To make the situation even more tragic, a post mortem had discovered that his wife had been with child. Lanfray took matters into his own hands, hanging himself in prison just three days later.
Amongst the creative community, some lauded the drink and absinthe went hand in hand with the likes of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The polarisation of opinions about absinthe were captured in the 1859 Manet painting, the Absinthe Drinker, in which we see the down at heel gentleman, in rags and battered top hat, sitting in defiance with this glass of the green fairy. His painting was rejected from the Salon of Paris that year quite possibly because he had portrayed the perceived reality of absinthe drinking at that time. Many other famous creatives fell under the fairy’s spell. In artist circles Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso to name, but a few dabbled with the green one. Picasso even painted The Absinthe Drinker and the cubist breakthrough, The Glass of Absinthe, but seemingly never fell completely under its spell. To capture what many felt at the time about absinthe, Oscar Wilde declared, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” He was not the only writer to embrace absinthe, but Ernest Hemingway was somewhat more realistic about the impact of the drink.
So the big question is whether absinthe actually deserves its reputation as a toxic, mind bending elixir that can turn a man into a monster that murders his family or does it in fact alter the senses to promote bursts of creative genius. Can it be both or in fact neither?
Early studies were carried out in a number of asylums in Paris. Valentin Magnan was at the time considered to be an influential and well respect psychiatrist and was appointed to the Sainte-Anne Asylum in 1867. At this time in France there was felt to be a degeneration amongst the populace - a great nation in decline, and there had to be a cause. Absinthe was the most popular choice for demonisation. Magian noted the increase amongst his inmates of absinthe as a factor for incarceration and he sought to better define ‘absinthism’ as opposed to alcoholism. He devised an experiment with guinea pigs exposed to wormwood and others to pure alcohol. What he observed led him to call for a ban on absinthe as the absinthe test guinea pigs fell into seizures. His recommendation was not received positively by all. It was claimed that there was a very big difference between inhaling pure wormwood fumes and drinking a diluted distillation of wormwood. It is interesting to note that the United Kingdom was one of the few countries that did not ban absinthe.
The row raged on in France, with Magnan and his fans staunchly advocating that this was the drink that had rotted the French soul and at the same time there were doctors who were advising patients that it had health benefits. With the onset of war, and the death of Magnan in 1916, the time of Parisian decadence became a memory and the green fairy just a magical part of that story.
Of course, the fairy story did not end, it merely went under ground. There were bootleggers in Switzerland who continued to produce absinthe. Spain, like the UK, never banned absinthe and a few of their distilleries actually survived into the 20th century. Hit the 1990s and suddenly the fairy had re-awoken from her slumber - a Czech distiller started to sell absinthe in the UK and it rapidly became a hit and it was not long before others sensed the fairy was back. As its popularity grew, the ban in other countries was lifted. There were limits placed on the fairy’s magic in the European Union, however and the active ingredient in absinthe, thujone, was restricted to 10mg per litre, thus effectively legalising absinthe. The French, however, will only allow the drink to carry the label of absinthe on exported drinks. Domestic absinthe is labelled “spiritueux à base de plantes d’absinthe,” or “wormwood-based spirits.”
And now for the science bit…. the active ingredient in absinthe that works the magic was thought for some time to be thujone (C10H16O) and that it had hallucinogenic properties, but no-one had really investigated this is in a scientific fashion. Scientists in 1975 undertook a study comparing thujone with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis. What they discovered was that they share some similarities. As to whether absinthism actually exists, the most likely truth is that given the tiny quantities of thujone within the ethanol that creates absinthe, the reality is that it is simply alcoholism rather than the green fairy.
Often reproduced, the Absinthe Blanqui poster is an art-nouveau image inspired by the cultural trend
of orientalism at the time.
David Nathan-Maister and the Virtual Absinthe Museum, oxygenee.com