31 March 2009

Food & Drink: Absinthe, the Green Fairy

By Erastes

Absinthe is notorious--a drink with a scandalous reputation. Beloved of the artists of La Belle Epoque in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it has turned men mad. Absinthe is the French word for wormwood, which together with Florence fennel and green anise, make the drink unique. It is the tiny amount of thujone, found in wormword, which causes its alleged hallucinogenic effects.

If Absinthe were a woman, it would be one of those tattered, slightly too-old-for-the-business French demi-monde escorts, with the straps of her dress falling around her arms. It was invented in Switzerland in 1797 by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. Monsieur Pernod, better known these days for...well, Pernod, started to distill absinthe in bulk, opening a factory in France in 1805.

But why did the bohemians make it their favourite tipple?

It originally had a wine base and was an expensive purchase, and although the upper class had already adopted it, that's where it stopped. But around the 1870's things changed. There was a grape blight. There simply wasn't wine available, and it forced the makers of absinthe to base it with grain alcohol. This made it cheap and the bohemians hoovered it up. By 1910, they were drinking over 30 million litres a year, compared to 5 million litres of wine!

Absinthe divided society. The artistic types loved it, and the conservatives sought to ban it. Devotees numbered such famous names such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Aleister Crowley. It was probably the notoriety of these bad boys of the artistic crowd, rather than the drink itself that caused people to hate it.

By 1915 it was banned in many countries, including the United States.

But it's back. Countries around the world are legalising it again, so you might find a green fairy at your table one day soon.

Absinthe Buyers Guide