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

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.