The rise of the Green Faerie - absinthe, its glasses and accoutrements

An enduringly enigmatic drink, which sometimes gives the impression of reveling in its own self-importance, absinthe has at one time or other been both feted as the preferred distillate for artists, socialites and dilettante hangers-on in society’s higher echelons during France's Belle Epoque, and reviled as the fuel which fired insurrection and criminality in the working classes, reducing many a man or woman to wretched, retching and sometimes fatal dependency along the way

The truth, as is always the case, is somewhere in between, and although it is undeniably a drink which has a certain mystique, it can perhaps best be understood as the European – and specifically French – incarnation of English gin, both in its nature and the roles it has played in society; here’s the first of a two-part look at the rise and fall of absinthe, its dissolute place in 19th century bohemian lore and the trappings of its sometimes near-ritualistic consumption.

Firstly – to its constituent parts and background. It is a macerated distillate of alcohol and botanicals – specifically grand wormwood and green anise – and has been produced since classical times under the guise of a restorative tincture claimed to cure everything from chronic flatulence to malaria. Numerous other herbal additives may be used to impart flavor and – crucially – colour, with the chlorophyll extracted from particular herbs producing the distinctive green hue. In it’s unadulterated form, absinthe can be spectacularly alcoholic – in the range of 70 to 80% abv; the intention is that it should be diluted with water prior to consumption, but – human nature being what it is – that nicety may or may not always be observed. In spite of this inherent capacity for monstrous abuse, it remained an almost exclusively medicinal preparation until the 17th century, when it is mentioned in Caussin’s “Evangelical Wisdom for the Sacred Maintenance of Lent” in the curious context of “so many powdered beauties, so many glass-makers, so many pleasures of absinthe” which seems to suggest anything but the usual Lenten abstinence – particularly for the glass makers ! For the next hundred years or so, there are many references to different preparations which approximate the general methodology of an absinthe-like infusion, the majority of which are undeniably healthful but, as with Caussin, there are both oblique and explicit allusions to the enervating effects “which may be discerned amongst those who consort too long in the bosom of the green faerie”.

Whatever its purpose – aquavit or intoxicant - the intricately-flavoured spirit became increasingly popular during the 1700’s, and the first steps of its production on any sort of meaningful commercial basis can be traced to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. There exists a written record of the preparation of an “extract of absinthe” by a gentleman distiller going by the name of Abram-Louis Perrenoud, writing in 1794 or thereabouts. Perrenaud’s potation was to become much sought after, and caught the attention of a M.Daniel Henri Dubied – a lace merchant from Boveresse – who rather shrewdly purchased the rights to the recipe for an undisclosed sum. Further and ongoing co-operation was ensured when Dubied’s daughter Emilie married Perrenaud’s son, Henri Louis and the family went on went on to set up a production facility using the waters of the river L’Areuse in Couvet. Dubied was working alongside his sons Marcelin and Constant, and the concern became known as Dubied Père et Fils (Father & Sons). This arrangement remained in place for a few years, until Henri-Louis became somewhat disenfranchised with the small scale of his father in law’s operation, and decamped some twenty miles west over the French border – purportedly to avoid punitive import taxes - and set up his own much larger distillery in Pontarlier, under the name of Pernod Fils (yup – he changed the spelling of his surname). The scene was therefore set for absinthe to begin to percolate its way into the French psyche.

The initial waxing of the green distillate’s popularity was given not inconsiderable impetus by the adoption of absinthe by the French Army as an anti-malarial measure – and even a disinfectant - for use by troops in North Africa. The drink became popular in French colonial enclaves, and it was only a matter of time before returning soldiers and ex-patriots began to extol its virtues across the republic. Absinthe was now being marketed as an aphrodisiac, an aid to digestion, an aperitif, a sleeping draught, a means to inspire artistic creatively, to affect the habits of the upper class or to commune with the travails of the common man, depending on your perspective – pretty much anything you care to mention, to be honest.
Now, you may recall that the popularity of whisky in Scotland had a lot to do with a virulent outbreak of phylloxera which swept through French vineyards in the 1870’s, causing the fruit to wither catastrophically on the vines and crippling the production of wine, brandy and cognac as a result. Whisky production was already on an upswing and was primed to fill the void in the Scottish alcohol market left in the wake of the plague of sap-sucking pests – and absinthe was to do exactly the same thing in France.

Production and consumption soared exponentially, and France was plunged in to years of hedonistic, inebriated excess which was every bit as pernicious and incapacitating as was the Gin Craze which had swept through England in the previous century. Naturally, demand outstripped supply and where there is such an imbalance, there is a natural desire to make up the shortfall by whatever means are possible – and it is here that the roots of absinthe’s notorious reputation may lie. Again, as with the Gin Craze, production devolved in to the hands of inexpert, ill-educated, unlicensed distillers who were cutting corners and using poor quality ingredients with absolutely no regard for the wellbeing of those who might consume their bootlegged liquor. Stories of debilitating illness, death, madness and murder at the hands of those under the influence of the ruinous hooch were manifold, but still the clamour for absinth did not diminish. Ultimately, it took an act of god to bring things to a head, when Pernod’s factory was hit by lightning and burned to the ground. Suddenly, one of the most reliable sources of absinthe made to an acceptable standard was gone, and more and more illicit distillate flooded the market, with more and more tragic consequences as a result. Eventually, after the particularly graphic slaughter of his pregnant wife and two children by a M. Jean Lanfrey - in which absinthe was singled out as the main cause of the murderous affray – what remained of common decency was sufficiently appalled to change the perception of absinthe drinkers from that of ambrosial bon-viveurs to degenerate low-lives, and Lanfrey’s native Switzerland banned the sale of the intoxicant on the back of a wave of public outrage. In France, it took another eight years of growing contempt and dismay before the government was to act, but in March 1915 absinthe production was prohibited by law, and the wings of the green faerie were finally clipped.

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