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Some Absinthe History

Wormwood has been used for medicinal purposes for millenia; references appear in Egyptian papyri, early Syrian texts, and even in the Bible. Ancient absinthe was little more than wormwood leaves soaked in wine (and in the last 500 years or so distilled spirits were also used). Pythagoras recommended this concoction as an aid to labour in childbirth. Hippocrates prescribed it for jaundice, anaemia, rheumatism, and menstrual pains. Pliny the Elder notes that it was customary for the champion of a chariot race to drink a cup of wormwood infused wine, to remind him that even victory had its bitter side. He also notes that it was used as a cure for bad breath. Vermouth, made famous as the main flavouring of the classic Martini, is in fact fortified wine infused with Artemisia Ponticus, otherwise known as Roman wormwood. Vermouth derives it's name directly from wormwood, via the German word wermuth. Vermouth, due to the different species of wormwood used, has virtually no thujone and its psychoactive effects are entirely due to the alcohol and small amounts of tyramine & tyrosine in the wine (amino-acid by-products of fermentation, precursors to dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine).

By the 13th century, absinthe was known in France as "assince" or "absince", and was fed to dogs to cure flatulence. By the 14th century, "assenz", as it was then called, was recommended as an aid to human digestion. In the 15th century it was known as "absynce", by the 16th century "absynthe". In 1597 John Gerard wrote in his book "Herball" that "Wormewood voideth away the wormes of the guts." Wormwood was also recommended as a gastric tonic and heart stimulant (the latter can probably be explained by thujone's GABA-antagonist effects).

More recently in the 17th century, when Madame de Coulanges, one of the leading ladies of the French court, became ill, she was prescribed a wormword preparation. When it calmed her stomach, she wrote to Madame de Sévigné, "My little absinthe is the remedy for all diseases." By the 17th and 18th centuries, wormwood had gained a reputation as a cure-all. In 1780 herbalist Nicholas Culpepper calls wormwood "an herb of Mars." He notes further that "Wormwood delights in Martial places, for about forges and iron works you may gather a car-load of it. It helps the evils Venus and the wanton boy produce. It remedies the evils choler[a] can inflict on the body of a man by sympathy. Wormwood being an herb of Mars, is a present remedy for the biting of rats and mice. Mushrooms are under the dominion of Saturn, if any have poisoned himself by eating them, Wormwood, an herb of Mars, cures him, because Mars is exalted in Capricorn." You do have to admire the reasoning that went into that. There's probably some truth to the idea of wormwood growing around iron-works, it benefits from a somewhat higher iron-content in the soil and early steel manufacturing processes produced a lot of ammonia, a source of fixed nitrogen which all plants need.

Absinthe as we know it today was (allegedly) invented in 1792 by a French doctor called Pierre Ordinaire, who fled France's revolution and settled in Couvet, a small town in western Switzerland. He is said to have discovered Artemisia Absinthium growing wild in the Val-de-Travers region. Like most country doctors he made his own remedies, and knowing of absinthe's past, he started experimenting with it. He eventually arrived at a recipe similar to what we now know as absinthe, and the 68% alcohol elixir that he produced in his 16 litre still became popular in town, and was nicknamed La Fée Verte early on.

Upon his death, he left his recipe with two Henriod sisters from Couvet, who then sold it in 1797 to Major Dubied, a visiting Frenchman. That same year, his daughter Emilie married a Swiss man named Henri-Louis Pernod. Dubied, his son Marcellin, and Pernod setup what was probably the first proper absinthe distillery; Originally it only measured 8x4 metres, but as sales increased it was soon enlarged. By 1805 they opened a larger distillery, Pernod Fils, just across the border in Pontarlier, France. In due time they bought 36,000 square metres of land on the banks of the Doubs River and built an even larger factory with a daily production of over 400 litres.

In 1844, France went to war with Algeria. French troops were issued a ration of absinthe as a fever preventative, and you can also imagine how it relieved the boredom of barracks life. It gave the troops a taste for anise, which they brought back to Paris after the war, and aided by the Pernod brothers' business sense and advertising Pernod was soon producing 20,000 litres a day, and the factory was linked up to the railroad. By 1900 production was over 125,000 litres per day, and was shipped all over the world.

It should be noted that in the latter half of the 19th century, absinthe had percolated through most of French society. At the height of absinthe consumption, it had become a daily ritual that during lunch, you consumed a glass of absinthe, to relax, to let the labours of the morning fade away, and to invigorate you for the labours ahead. Also in the evening, you had "The Green Hour", a time to relax with your peers, again consuming absinthe. At first absinthe was only really available to the upper class, as it was considerably more expensive than wine. But at about this time a blight afflicted most of the grape vines in France, causing a severe wine shortage. Suddenly, absinthe was now as cheap, or even cheaper than wine. Also at about this time, many competitors sprang up to accomodate a growing market; most used cheaply distilled alcohol (containing small amounts of methanol and isopropanol fermentation by-products) as a base to make absinthe from, lowering costs and making it available to just about everyone, but at a cost.

The bohemian lifestyle of the 19th century was something most artists of the time were familiar with, and it almost always included absinthe. Baudelaire, Manet, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Wilde, Dowson, Degas, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Monticelli, Gauguin, and Picasso all consumed absinthe, most to excess, many to their ultimate end. It was said to help with the creative process, but the cheaper stuff also had a nasty side. The methanol and isopropanol impurities, consumed regularly, damage and age the body prematurely (when metabolized, methanol becomes formaldehyde and then formic acid, isopropanol becomes acetone). Absinthe is usually coloured green, and traditionally this was done by soaking herbs in the 70% alcohol liqueur before bottling. But if the proper shade of green wasn't achieved naturally, "science" provided the solution in the form of copper sulfate! Copper in large quantities is very damaging to the nervous system and the brain, to say nothing of the other organs. Absinthe, being an anisette, is also supposed to turn milky when water is added. This was achieved naturally by distilling anise to include anise oil in the finished product, but again, if it didn't happen naturally, antimony trichloride was added! Antimony in just about any form is downright lethal, and antimony trichloride would definitely do a number on you. Also, thujone levels were not regulated at this time, so levels were often in excess of 250ppm (parts per million), as opposed to the European Union standard of 10ppm (most modern absinthes meet this limit, and even the strongest don't exceed 70ppm - even I won't drink anything exceeding 100ppm).

All these factors combined led to a condition known as "absinthism", which in reality was probably a form of alcoholism, due to the fact that absinthe is often 70% alcohol (140 proof, most commercially available liquors are around 40% / 80 proof), and many "absinthists" drank it straight. The asylums of France were full of absinthists by the end of the 19th century, France's birthrate was falling, and almost half of army conscripts were deemed unfit for service. All this was blamed on absinthe, while wine, good natural wine, was still believed to be healthy, even when consumed by the bottle.

Then in 1905 Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, went on a bender. Starting on the dawn of August 28th, he arose for work, poured himself an ounce of absinthe, lightly diluted with water. By the time breakfast was served he'd had a second ounce. After breakfast, he headed to a local café for a crème de menthe and a cognac and soda, before heading to work in the vineyards. During lunch and an afternoon wine break he had six glasses of "piquette", a strong local wine. At 16:15 he had another glass of wine. At 16:30 he quit work and went to a café where he had a coffee and brandy. That evening upon returning home, he polished off another litre of piquette while ordering his wife around, and being disgusted with his physical state she just threw it all back at him. Lanfray poured himself a coffee with several ounces of strong home-made brandy, then noticed some housework that hadn't been done. He lashed out at his wife, who yelled back. He told her to shut up. Try and make me, his wife answered.

Something snapped. Without a word, he grabbed his army rifle, a long-barreled Vetterli with a bolt-action repeater and a 12-cartridge magazine. He aimed at his wife's forehead, and fired a fatal shot. From the rear of the house, his four-year-old daughter appeared in a doorway, staring at her dead mother. Lanfray immediately shot her in the chest, she died within seconds. He stepped across her body, went into the room of his two-year-old daughter, and fatally shot her as well. He then attempted to shoot himself in the head, but the gun's barrel was too long and he botched the job, shooting himself in the jaw, in no danger of dying. The police found him, semi-conscious, clutching the dead two-year-old. After a successful operation to remove the bullet, he was taken to view the bodies, where a nurse recalled that he whimpered over and over, "Please, oh, God, please tell me that I haven't done this. I loved my wife and children so much!"

It was learned that at the time of her death Lanfray's wife was four months pregnant with a male fetus. An intense inquiry was started into Lanfray's drinking habits, and it was discovered that he sometimes drank up to five litres of wine a day. But, what they latched onto was the fact that on the day of the murders he'd had not just wine and brandy, but also two glasses of absinthe. "Un absinthiste!" cried the newspaper headlines. The story hit the front page throughout most of Europe. Anti-Absinthe groups and Abolitionists siezed upon this as an example of the evils of absinthe. During his trial, his lawyers attempted, somewhat successfully, to excuse his actions has having been caused by the evil absinthe, and that he was not 100% accountable due to the absinthe madness. The prosecution argued, rightly, that two ounces of absinthe consumed 12 hours before the murders could have no effect. Lanfray was convicted of quadruple murder (the fetus was counted) and sentenced to 30 years; three days later he hung himself in his cell.

In 1906 legislature banning absinthe was put forward, and in 1908 it was made law. It went into effect October 7th, 1910. Belgium banned absinthe in 1905. Holland followed in 1910. France finally relented to popular demand in 1914. The United States declared it illegal in 1912. Notably, however, Canada, the Czech Republic (then part of Czechlosovlakia), Spain, the United Kingdom and possibly others never banned absinthe. The Abolitionists wanted nothing less than a total ban on alcohol, however. Iceland went so far as to ban all wines and spirits from 1908 to 1934, Russia from 1914 to 1924, Finland from 1919 to 1932, and the US from 1920 to 1933. No other alcoholic drink other than absinthe was ever singled out for banning, however. Even when these countries lifted the ban on alcohol, the ban on absinthe remained. The golden age of the Green Fairy was over...

Page last modified 2008-03-24
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