The cult of absinthe drinking in late 19th century France

Having 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

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