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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...