The Truth about Absinthe

Here's the true story of this legendary and controversial drink.

The Truth about Absinthe
Photo: Beau Gustafson; Styling: Cathy Johnson

The history of absinthe is a dramatic page-turner of a story full of twists and turns. After becoming immensely popular, it fell out of favor and was even banned in certain countries. But it's resurfaced and is making a comeback.

History of The Green Fairy
Although the main ingredient of absinthe, wormwood, has been known as early as 1552 B.C. for its medicinal qualities, the creation of modern absinthe is attributed to Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor who developed it in Couvet, Switzerland in the late 1700s as a treatment for a range of illnesses.

Rise in Popularity
Industrial production of absinthe began in 1798, but because the cost remained high, it was primarily a drink of the elite classes in France. It became more popular in the 1830s when French soldiers were given rations of absinthe to help treat malaria and a variety of other ills. When the soldiers returned home, they arrived with a taste for this intoxicating drink, known as the "green fairy."

The Smear Campaign
As the vineyards recovered, winemakers were eager to recoup lost business and regain their customers. To do this, they had to quash some of absinthe's popularity. They joined forces with the temperance movement to launch a smear campaign against absinthe, which they now termed the green devil, falsely accusing the drink of having hallucinogenic effects, causing debauchery, immoral behavior, epilepsy, murder, and madness.

The case for absinthe wasn't helped when, in 1905, Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. They later discovered that during lunch he had drunk an excessive amount of wine and hard liquor in addition to two ounces of absinthe. However, due to a moral panic against absinthe in Europe at the time, the murders were blamed solely on absinthe. This fashionable drink was no longer associated with artists and intellectuals. Instead, it was seen as the beverage of dangerous addicts and murderers, which led to it being banned in Switzerland in 1908 and in most European countries and the United States before the outbreak of World War I. France–the center of absinthe culture–banned it in 1915.

Legalization
After a long hiatus during which science validated that this drink didn't in fact lead to insanity, absinthe began to emerge again in the 1990s. Manufacturers began importing it to countries, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal, that had never banned the drink. Its popularity began to increase, and most countries in the European Union re-legalized it during this period. Switzerland followed in 2005 and the United States lifted its nearly century-old ban in 2007. Viridian Spirits, the importer of Lucid absinthe, is credited with the move to lift the ban, and Lucid was the first absinthe to be legally available in the U.S. in 95 years. It's now legal in all 50 states.

Drink and Cocktail Recipes

By Rachel Quinlivan
Oct, 2009
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