Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic, anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium, also called wormwood. Although it is sometimes incorrectly called a liqueur, absinthe does not contain added sugar and is therefore classified as a liquor or spirit.
Absinthe is often referred to as la Fée Verte ("The Green Fairy") because of its coloring - typically pale or emerald green, but sometimes clear. Due to its high proof and concentration of oils, absintheurs typically add three to five parts ice-cold water to a dose of absinthe, which causes the drink to turn cloudy (called "louching"); often the water is used to dissolve sugar to decrease bitterness. This preparation is considered an important part of the experience of drinking absinthe, so much so that it has become ritualized, complete with slotted absinthe spoons and other accoutrements. Absinthe's flavor is similar to anise-flavored liqueurs, with a light bitterness, and a more complex flavor imparted by multiple herbs.
Absinthe originated in Switzerland as an elixir, but is more well-known for its popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers whose romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture. In its heyday the most popular brand of absinthe worldwide was Pernod Fils. At the height of this popularity, absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug; the chemical thujone was blamed for most of its deleterious effects. By 1915 it was banned in a number of European countries and the United States. Modern evidence shows it to be no more dangerous or psychoactive than ordinary alcohol. A modern-day absinthe revival began in the 1990s, as countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale.
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|The precise origin of absinthe is unclear. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an
all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet,
Switzerland, around 1792 (the exact date varies by account). Ordinaire's recipe was passed
on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. In fact, by other
accounts, the Henriod sisters may have already been making the elixir before Ordinaire's
arrival. In either case, one Major Dubied in turn acquired the formula from the sisters and, in
1797, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe
distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805 they built a second distillery in Pontarlier,
France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils.
Absinthe's popularity grew steadily until the 1840s, when
absinthe was given to French troops as a fever
preventative. When the troops returned home, they
brought their taste for absinthe with them, and it became
popular at bars and bistros. By the 1860s, absinthe had
become so popular that in most cafés and cabarets 5 p.m.
signaled l'heure verte ("the green hour"). Still, it remained
expensive and was favored mainly by the bourgeoisie and
eccentric bohemian artists. By the 1880s, however, the
price had dropped significantly, the market expanded, and
absinthe soon became the drink of France; by 1910 the
French were consuming 36 million litres of absinthe per
Spurred by the temperance movement and winemakers' associations, absinthe was
publicized in connection with several violent crimes supposedly committed under the direct
influence of the drink. This, combined with rising hard liquor consumption due to the wine
shortage in France during the 1880s and 1890s, effectively labeled absinthe a social
menace. Its critics said that "it makes people crazy and criminal, it turns men into brutes and
threatens the future of our times." Edgar Degas's 1876 painting L'absinthe (Absinthe) (now at
the Musée d'Orsay) epitomized the popular view of absinthe "addicts" as sodden and
benumbed; Émile Zola described their serious intoxication in his novel L'Assommoir.
The prohibition of absinthe in France
led to the growing popularity of pastis
and ouzo, anise-flavored liqueurs that
do not use wormwood. Although
Pernod moved their absinthe
production to Spain, where absinthe
was still legal, slow sales eventually
caused it to close down.
In Switzerland it drove absinthe
underground. Evidence suggests
small home clandestine distillers have
been producing absinthe since the
ban, focusing on La Bleues as it was
easier to hide a clear product. Many countries never banned absinthe, which eventually led
to its revival.
The legacy of absinthe as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues to this
day. Absinthe has been seen or featured in fine art, movies, video, music and literature.
The modern absinthe revival has had an effect on its portrayal. It is often shown as an
unnaturally glowing green liquid which is set on fire
before drinking, even though traditionally neither is true.
Numerous artists and writers living in France during the
late 19th and early 20th centuries were noted absinthe
drinkers and featured absinthe in their works. These
include Vincent Van Gogh, Manet, Guy de Maupassant
and Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh spent a good deal of
time painting in cafés but feared the bohemian lifestyle
was damaging. During a fit in 1888, Van Gogh cut off his
ear lobe and gave it to a brothel wench. This fit has often
been said to have been absinthe-induced; nevertheless,
there is no evidence to suggest this. Degas' painting
"L'Absinthe" (1876) portrayed grim absinthe drinkers in a
cafe. Years later, it set off a flurry in the London art world.
The grim realism of "L'Absinthe", a theme popular with
bohemian artists, was seen as a disease by London art
critics and a lesson against alcohol and the French in
general. Picasso depicted absinthe in different media,
including the paintings "Woman Drinking Absinthe" and "Bottle of Pernod and Glass".