18 June 2010
Absinthe got its name from Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood and one of its ingredients, thujone, a natural chemical compound that is the supposed source of absinthe’s alleged mind altering properties. Wormwood was first used to flavor alcoholic drinks as far back as 1792, when a potion was created by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland. Ordinaire's elixir also contained anise, hyssop, Melissa, coriander and various other local herbs, and at 68% alcohol presumably packed quite a punch. Ordinaire allegedly left his recipe to two sisters, and they in turn passed it on to a Major Dubied whose son-in-law was one Henri-Louis Pernod.
Whatever the truth behind its origins, absinthe stopped being a local curiosity and started on its route to becoming a national phenomenon in 1797 with the foundation of a distillery by Major Dubied, his son and his son-in-law. By the mid 19th century there were at least half a dozen producers operating in the region, with Pernod alone producing 20,000 liters a day from 26 stills.
From the mid 19th century onwards absinthe became associated with bohemian Paris and featured frequently in the paintings of such artists as Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso. When they were not painting it they were drinking it in large quantities. In fact it was not just popular among artists and poets – Parisian cafés were full of gentlemen drinking absinthe, so much so that the time between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. became known as L'heure verte (“the green hour,” in reference to absinthe’s color) and absinthe was the most popular aperitif in France.
So, if absinthe was so popular, why was it banned? There were a number of reasons. It got caught up in the temperance movement that was sweeping Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and became the scapegoat for all alcohol. Then, findings were published showing that thujone was a...