The history of Absinthe, the green fairy

World Best Bar

Mar 01, 2018

The history of Absinthe
Absinthe, s'il vous plaît


1876. A cafe in Paris. “Absinthe, s’il vous plaît”, asks Arthur Rimbaud, poet, libertine and genius.”It’s time to summon la Fee Verte,”The Green Fairy.”Oui, Monsieur”, says the moustachioed barman.

A minute or two later and he sets the following before the poet: a bottle of absinthe, a jug of iced water, a sugar cube on a tiny saucer, a glass and finely a perforated absinthe spoon. Taking the bottle delicately about its neck, he pours himself a glass of the emerald liquid. Next he places the spoon on top of the glass and the sugar cube on top of the spoon. Finally, he pours the water into the glass. And, as if by magic, the liquid changes from emerald to jade.  This is ‘La Louche’, the ritual of absinthe.

Absinthe Fever

Absinthe gained notoriety in the mid 19th century when it became de rigueur Fin de siècle bohemians. Such was its popularity, that there was even ‘l’heure verte’ (the green hour) when a pre-prandial absinthe was de rigueur.

Nor did they just drink it. Poets devoted poems to it, painters took up the brush to paint its effects. One famous of example is that of Degas, L’Absinthe painted at the height of the craze in 1876.  In short, absinthe was not merely a drink. It was a symbol of the age.

So What Exactly Is Absinthe?

Firstly, it’s Swiss, not French, the invention of a certain Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland who, in 1792 distilled wormwood and other herbs in an alcoholic base as a remedy for his patients. The result? Green rocket fuel which tasted like liquorice.

In 1805, Henri Louis Pernod founded Pernod Fils, France’s first absinthe distillery. Inspired by a recipe from a 19th century manuscript, Pernod Absinthe is produced today in the traditional manner.

Inspired by a 19th century manuscript, it’s made in the original distillery of Henri-Louis Pernod in Pontarlier, France. The wormwood and the green anise are distilled after maceration in a neutral wine spirit base, after which it’s macerated in a heady bath of star anise, Melissa, petit wormwood, hyssop, plus a host of top-secret plants. Rimbaud would approve.

Why Was It Banned?

Because it makes you mad-such was the view one eminent French Doctor who carried about several studies on behalf of the Government. Only it doesn’t.


Behind the anti-absinthe hysteria, lay two further reasons.

1. By the turn of the century, the French Wine industry was beginning to recover from the Great French Wine Blight, which struck in the 1860s. The culprit? Step forward phylloxera, a parasitic aphid, which devastated Continental vineyards for more than a decade.  When the vines began to recover, French winemakers were quick to join the crusade against Absinthe. The ‘Green Fairy’ became the ‘Green Curse.’

Matters came to a head in 1905 when Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family allegedly under the influence of absinthe. Bowing to increasing public pressure, the Swiss banned it in 1908. The USA followed suit in 1912 followed by France in August 16, 1914, days after war was declared. The ban remained for seventy-four years.

2. The French government claimed that absinthe was contributing to an epidemic of alcoholism. Wine, by contrast, was thought patriotic, French, morally upright even.

Were They Right?

No. Contrary to popular belief, there is not enough Thujone (a byproduct of Wormwood) in it to give hallucinations. However, it is pretty strong.

The Green Fairy Strikes Back

The ban on absinthe was finally lifted in Europe in 1988 and in America in 2007, though strictly speaking it was never officially banned in Britain. Fast-forward to today and one thing is abundantly clear: absinthe is back. And Pernod Absinthe is leading the charge.

Green Beast Sighted in Ibiza

Meet Charles Vexenat, terminally cool inventor of the Green Beast, a new absinthe cocktail like no other. The Frenchman is one of a new wave of mixologists for whom absinthe is a passion. It’s worth remembering that absinthe has long been a staple of the barman’s arsenal. The Savoy Cocktail Book, that classic of the genre, contains many such examples: the Absinthe Special made with gin, Angostura bitters and Anisette syrup, the Atty, the Blackthorn, the Brunelle and many more.


Written by Alex Beeching 


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