The cult of absinthe drinking in late 19th century France

been propelled to the height of popularity by a combination of fervent
appreciation by demobilised members of the French army and the
propitious growth of mass production, effective advertising and bulk
distribution which put it in a position to fill the void left by the
dearth of vinous products in the wake of the phylloxera outbreak, absinthe
became enshrined as France’s national drink of choice. As the
population of the country broke through the forty million barrier at the
fin de siècle of 1899/1900, consumption peaked at a thirty six fluid
ounces per year for every man, woman and child in the country.

That said, a little too much can be read in to the relationship between
absinthe and the creative community at large in Paris during the latter
part of the 19th century. Although it was undoubtedly popular with the
writers, poets, artists and other resident acolytes of Mnemosyne who
frequented Montmartre and Le Marais in the city, it was no more
prevalent in these august circles as any other social cliques of the
time. It simply pervaded all levels and castes across French society and
could equally be said to be the definitive drink of the pompiers in the
capital’s fire brigade, the facteurs who bestrode the boulevards
delivering mail, or of the poissoniers at the huiteries around Marche de
Rungis. Wherever people gathered to socialise, the rituals of absinthe
presentation and preparation would be observed.

That’s not to
say, of course, that the literary community of Paris were not better
placed to articulate their thoughts more enduringly about this integral
part of their social agenda than most. Not only did Oscar Wilde lose his
life or death struggle with wallpaper in L’ Hôtel d’Alsace, but his
time in the city when absinthe was at the height of its popularity
prompted him to opine that it was “as poetical as anything in the world”
and that “after the first glass, you see things as you wish they were –
after the second, you see things as they are not”; Marie Corelli, the
author of Wormwood: A Drama of Paris described it as “the wildest most
luxurious madness in the world” and Bram Stoker considered it to be “the
aphrodisiac of the self”. And so were the seeds of the myth of
absinthe’s role as creative muse sown.

But what of the much
vaunted practice of absinthe consumption ? Having taken your place at a
table at La Closerie in the company of your urbane companions and
requested Pernod Fils, the waiter would have presented you with a bottle
of your chosen distillate, a carafe of cold water, a small dish of
sugar lumps, perforated silver spoons and – of course – your glass.

The glasses were, at least for the initial period of absinthe’s
popularity, nothing other than standard items of nondescript barware –
short, conical, unadorned and with abbreviated stems. It was only as the
green mist pervaded society more deeply and the national obsession took
on its own dynamic that specifically fashioned absinthe glasses were to
appear. Their purpose was to assist with the formalities of taking the
drink, and early pontarlier glasses – taking their name from the site of
Pernod’s first significant absinthe distillery – would feature engraved
or ground markings, cut facets or inclusions such as bubbles or tears
which were used to mark the correct level to which they should be
filled. The correct “dose” was generally one or one and a half fluid
ounces. To this should be added four or five times the amount of chilled
water, which – ideally – should be introduced in to the spirit by being
drizzled over a sugar cube (the sugar to counteract the bitter taste of
the pure absinthe, and the dilution to moderate its incapacitating
level of alcohol content). The sugar cube should be placed on your
slotted spoon which would then be balanced across the rim of the glass
over the bowl, and water simply poured lightly over it. More complicated
methodology was to come to the fore as the 19th century wore on, with
tabletop fountain dispensers being introduced for the water, and even
absinthe brouille glasses which incorporated a removable reservoir for
both water and sugar cube which fitted over the bowl while the
percolation took place. It should be noted that a further effect of the
addition of water was to create what was termed the louche effect, by
which the absinthe was rendered opalescent and somewhat milky as its
less soluble constituents were precipitated out (louche being French for
opaque). This precipitation also released the aromas of the botanical
constituents of the absinthe, creating the scented bloom or blossom (as
distinct from the bouquet of a wine), the inhalation of which is often
cited as an integral part of the procedure.

Rather than just
bearing indicative marks, later absinthe glasses began to include shaped
reservoirs which would hold a measured amount of the distillate. These
tended to take the form of bubble-shaped swellings at the base of the
bowl, below a nipped-in waist or slightly broader rolled or pinched band
immediately adjacent to the point at which the bowl begins to flare
outwards. Other methods by which the recommended “fill level” would be
made clear would be sliced facets cut in to the bowl to the appropriate
height, or a throwback to much earlier form of glass decoration with the
application of twisted, wrythen patterning to a similar area.

And so, although the almost mythological status of absinthe has been
irrevocably set in stone, the truth is a little less fanciful. It was
part of erudite and enlightened French café culture simply because it
was part of every aspect of French culture, across the social and
economic demographic from top to bottom. Don’t let this essentially
popular appeal diminish any desire you may have to collect absinthe
related ephemera, though – the value of English gin and ale glasses
comes from their integral part in the fabric of a nation, and absinthe
is an equally estimable Gallic equivalent – à votre santé, la fée verte !

link to all our absinthe-related material

Abram-Louis Perrenoud’s 1794 recipe for Extract of Absinthe

for 18 pots of eau-de-vie
(approximately 34 litres)
a large bucket of grand wormwood,
some mint,
2 handfuls of lemon balm,
2 of green anise
same amount of fennel
some calamus
1 handful of petite wormwood
same amount of hyssop