What is absinthe?
To understand what absinthe is, it is important to understand what absinthe originally was! Absinthe began it’s life as a medicinal elixir – a way of experiencing the effects of nature before the days of modern medicine. When absinthe was born, it was taken only for the effects and not for the tatste. Some of the earliest known texts discussing absinthe distillates date to around 1667 and are from German physician Dr. Johann Michael Fehr of Leipzig.
Whilst today there may be people who drink absinthe for the alcohol, this was not the case when absinthe was born. Alcohol was the preservative of the natural oils extracted from herbs and botanicals.
A Historical Absinthe Hoax?
If you thought that a certain Dr Pierre Ordinaire of Switzerland invented absinthe in 1737, then you are mistaken, the Ordinaire story is pure fiction. To start with there are earlier recipes pre-dating this unlikely gentleman’s arrival in Couvet, and the rest of the story involving a governess and the Henriod family is mostly an historical hoax. What is true is the absinthe was sold in Switzerland as “Extrait d’ Absinthe” or simply put extract of wormwood. It was sold as a curative potion and intended to have an effect on the drinker on account of it’s primary ingredient, wormwood.
These Extrait d’ Absinthe recipes generally call for wormwood with anise at a ratio of 2:1. Modern day absinthes are basically copies of Pernod’s “sickly liquorice” and have none of the original wormwood bite. John Glasco speaks of the distinction in 1928 after real absinthe had been banned in France:
The clean sharp taste was so far superior to the sickly liquorice flavour of legal French Pernod that I understood the still-rankling fury of the French at having that miserable drink substituted for the real thing in the interest of public morality. The effect also was as gentle and insidious as a drug: in five minutes the world was bathed in a fine emotional haze unlike anything resulting from other forms of alcohol.
The Green Fairy Effect
Absinthe moved on and became incredibly popular in Belle Epoque Europe. particularly amongst French writers and artists and inspired many works of art. Rimbaud, Verlaine. It was a source of inspiration and earned itself the nickname of Green Fairy, La Fee Verte, Die Grune Fee. No other drink in history has been so widely acclaimed, do you think they were just drinking absinthe because they liked the taste? Of course not!
“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
So why was absinthe so popular amongst these Bohemians? Why has it been called The Cocaine of The Nineteenth Century?
The answer seems to in the unusual marriage of high proof alcohol and a natural element in wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) called thujone.