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The History of Absinthe

The shady, checkered, mysterious, and generally gossip-laden history of absinthe begins in Couvet, Switzerland in the 1790s. French doctor Pierre Ordinaire is living in Couvet, and claims to have invented an intoxicating anise-flavored recipe that he markets as an all-purpose tonic. However, local lore whispers that the Henriod sisters of Couvet have been prescribing the "medicinal" tonic for years before the so-called Dr. O.’s appearance on the scene.

Whatever the true origin of absinthe may be, it gets its first big break into the mainstream when Dr. Ordinaire sells the recipe to the entrepreneurial Dubied-Pernod family, which founds the first absinthe distillery in Covet, and goes on to open the fabulously successful Maison Pernod Fils distillery in France.

Over the next few decades, absinthe becomes increasingly popular, and not just for its medicinal benefits. The concept of the Green Fairy slowly develops from referring to the benevolent little spirit of good health to the seductive green goddess of dreams, visions, artistic inspiration, and even a sort of mystical madness.

The breakout moment for this transition, and absinthe’s mass popularity, comes when French troops are sent to war in Algeria in the 1840s. They are given a ready supply of absinthe as a tonic against fever and disease, and when they come back to France, they bring with them the good word that absinthe doesn’t just prevent dysentery; it’s a surprisingly effective morale-booster, as well.

Interestingly, absinthe has now been found to actually be a fairly decent herbal remedy against some bacteria and viruses, so those French soldiers weren’t just whistling La Marseillaise. However, as absinthe explodes onto the Parisian bar and café scene in the decades following the Algerian war, it’s the head, rather than the body, that people are looking to cure.

By the time the 1860s roll around, absinthe is so popular that the hours between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm became know as "l’heure verte," or "the green hour," a time when people gather at there favorite watering holes to get a buzz on before dinner. This trend may, in fact, be an early ancestor of what we lovingly know today as "happy hour."

Absinthe’s popularity gets another boost in the mid 1870s, when plant lice attacks French vineyards, causing a nation-wide wine shortage. During this period, many people, quite understandably, turn to absinthe for comfort. Due to the rising cost of wine, absinthe producers also stop using wine alcohol to distill absinthe, and start using cheap grain alcohols. It is thusly that absinthe becomes much less expensive and available to the masses.

The period from 1875-1915 is now semi-affectionately known in Paris as "the great collective binge." This was the period during which the truly awesome powers of the Green Fairy became known to the world, mainly through the art and writing and big mouths of Parisian and American ex-pat artists, who feel that absinthe opens wide the proverbial doors of perception.

In a glassy green haze, artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, and create famous artworks inspired by absinthe, and authors like Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud all claim absinthe as their muse. Somewhere amongst the gritty smokestacks of industrial-era London, Mary Shelley writes most of ""Frankenstein" in the midst of an absinthe binge.

During this period, La Fee Verte spreads out across the globe, enveloping Europe in an absinthe craze, and even traveling to the United States, where she became the drink of choice in cosmopolitan areas. Absinthe catches on especially strong in New Orleans , where bars set up ornate fountains to perform the slow ice-water dripping process – so integral to stylish consumption – for their customers.

Of course, such sudden, meteoric success is almost always inevitably followed by a similarly spectacular fall, and this law of life holds true for absinthe. For every happy drinker, there are several disgruntled teetotalers, and business competitors who don’t like this new fad one bit.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the scene is definitely growing sour. The anti-alcohol lobbyists are up in arms, and their champion, Dr. Valentin Magnan, is performing "scientific experiments" intended to prove that absinthe is poisonous and dangerous. These experiments mainly involve injecting pure wormwood oil into small animals like cats and rabbits, which convulse, go into seizures, and often die. This is considered to be conclusive evidence as to the evils of absinthe, although the drink only contains small, harmless amounts of wormwood and the supposedly "demonic" chemical: thujone.

However, Dr. Magnan’s studies are striking the hot iron. Because absinthe has become so popular, it is being produced for the masses in the cheapest form possible, which often involves the use of chemicals, solvents, and harsh dyes. These toxic additives are the true cause of the illnesses and madness that many attribute to absinthe’s unique wormwood formula, but in the grip of panic and "overwhelming scientific evidence," the wormwood gets the blame.

Another heavy blow falls on absinthe’s popularity in 1905, when a Swiss man, Jean Lanfray, brutally murders his family, supposedly under the influence of the green demon. What the media fails to publicize is Jean’s long-standing problem with alcoholism, which involves hitting every bottle he can get his hands on, making wine and brandy and crème de menthe just as culpable as absinthe.

That year, many Europeans sign petitions to ban absinthe, spurned on by media hype and several other nefarious outside influences concerned more with maintaining the status quo than with preserving the health and well-being of disciples of the Green Fairy.

To its most unfortunate detriment, absinthe has become the first alcoholic product marketed to women, which brings the fairer sex into bars and Paris nightlife in great numbers, an unsettling development for many who would prefer to see their little ladies in the kitchen, not at the café.

Furthermore, the wine shortage is over, and the powerful French industry is ready to welcome back its clientele, leading many consumer watchdogs to suspect that wine producers are behind much of the anti-absinthe sentiment that springs up at the fin de siecle.

Despite all the marks against it, absinthe remains good, legal fun in France until 1915, at which point it has already been outlawed in most European countries and in the U.S. (1912). However, the First World War proves to be the final death knell for absinthe, with the French government claiming that the potent drink is weakening national defense. "The abolition of absinthe and the national defense are the same thing!" is the rallying cry, and by 1915, after huge amounts of parliamentary debate, France says goodbye to the Green Fairy.

After this point, absinthe is forced underground for many years, although it, like alcohol during prohibition, is still around for those who choose to seek it out. Absinthe is never made illegal in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, the Czech Republic, or the UK. Unfortunately, all the rumors and hearsay about the sinister seductions of the Green Fairy make her seem inaccessible and dangerous for the majority of the twentieth century.

It is only thanks to recent modern science that the world has been given a wake up call. Absinthe does not, in fact, cause illness or insanity, Wormwood, much like vanilla extract, or mint oil, is just not the best thing to ingest in massive, concentrated doses. it is simply powerful and unique among alcohols.

The bans on absinthe are now slowly being lifted throughout Europe and North America, the only major holdout now remaining being the U.S., where it is legal to possess and drink absinthe, but not to produce or sell it.

Today, much of the mystery surrounding the nature of absinthe has been dispelled, but the Green Fairy continues to write her own history as her bohemian style and appeal remain. Like tequila and Jagermeister, absinthe is powerful and unique among alcohols, promising to remain the drink of choice for all those looking to bring something wild, exciting, and sexy to the party, long into the future.

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