Absinthe, sometimes referred to as “la fée verte” or the green fairy is a highly alcoholic, distilled spirit that is infused with botanicals, particularly grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs.
Absinthe originated in the late 18th century and is famously associated with a period of great artistic creativity in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Origin and Early History
Absinthe’s exact origin is a subject of debate. Some attribute its creation to Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, who developed it as an all-purpose remedy around 1792. Others suggest that the elixir existed as early as the late 1700s, crafted by the Henroid sisters of Couvet. There’s also evidence that wormwood-infused spirits were used for medicinal purposes for many centuries prior to these dates.
However, the first commercially produced absinthe is credited to Major Dubied, his son Marcellin, and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod. They purchased the recipe from Dr. Ordinaire (or, according to some sources, from the Henroid sisters), and in 1797, established the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, Pernod opened a larger distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the name Maison Pernod Fils, marking the real beginning of absinthe as a commercially significant product.
The Belle Époque
Absinthe grew in popularity during the 19th century, particularly in France during the Belle Époque era, a period of French history starting in the late 19th century and lasting until World War I.
It became especially popular among artists and writers, including famous figures like Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, who featured it in their works and personal lives. Absinthe was reputed to have psychoactive effects, including hallucinations, though these claims have largely been debunked.
Absinthe Ban and the Role of the Wine Industry
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the temperance movement and the wine industry, which had recovered from the devastating phylloxera plague, began to view absinthe as a threat. Public opinion turned against absinthe, bolstered by sensationalized stories linking the drink to madness, criminal behavior, and even death. These were part of an effort known as the anti-absinthe movement.
One of the most notorious events attributed to absinthe occurred in 1905 in Switzerland, when a man named Jean Lanfray, who had consumed considerable quantities of wine, brandy, and two glasses of absinthe, murdered his family in a drunken rage. This event, dubbed the “Absinthe Murder,” was leveraged by the anti-absinthe movement, leading to a referendum in 1908 and the eventual ban of absinthe in Switzerland in 1910.
Similar bans were enacted in other countries, including the United States (1912) and France (1915), effectively ending the first era of absinthe.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw a resurgence in absinthe’s popularity. Changes in European laws in the 1990s led to the revival of absinthe production, and in 2007, the United States lifted its ban on the spirit, though it imposed regulations on thujone content (a compound found in wormwood).
Despite the relaxation of regulations, the spirit of the Belle Époque and the mythos of the “green fairy” still heavily influence absinthe’s modern image. Today, the spirit enjoys niche popularity and is appreciated by many for its unique flavour profile and its rich, if somewhat tumultuous, history.
Best Cocktails With Absinthe
While absinthe is usually enjoyed traditionally by diluting it with water and sugar, there are several popular cocktails that incorporate absinthe. Here are some of the best cocktails with absinthe and their recipes:
Classic Absinthe Drip
- 45 ml of absinthe
- 90-150 ml of chilled water
- 1 sugar cube (optional)
Pour the absinthe into an absinthe glass or a traditional serving glass. Place an absinthe spoon (perforated or slotted) over the glass, and put a sugar cube on top of it (optional). Slowly pour ice-cold water over the sugar cube, allowing it to dissolve and drip into the absinthe.
Stir gently and enjoy.
- 60ml Rye whiskey
- 1 teaspoon of absinthe
- 1 sugar cube
- 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
- Lemon peel for garnish
In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube with a few drops of water. Add rye whiskey and bitters to the glass, along with ice. Stir until well chilled. Rinse a chilled old-fashioned glass with absinthe, discarding any excess. Strain the whiskey mixture into the prepared glass.
Garnish with a twist of lemon peel, expressing the oils over the drink, and serve.
Corpse Reviver No. 2
- 25ml London dry gin
- 25ml fresh lemon juice
- 25ml Cointreau
- 25ml Lillet Blanc
- A dash of absinthe (about 1/4 teaspoon)
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, and Lillet Blanc to the shaker. Shake well until chilled. Rinse a chilled cocktail glass with absinthe, discarding any excess.
Strain the cocktail into the prepared glass. Serve and enjoy.
Please note that absinthe is a potent spirit, and it’s important to consume it responsibly. Adjust the measurements and ratios according to your personal preference, and remember to enjoy these cocktails in moderation.