History of Absinth

What is Absinth(e)? 

Note that there are different expressions of Absinth(e) and this affects the spelling of the word. The Bohemian style is spelt "Absinth".  The Swiss and French style is spelt "Absinthe". 

  • Absinth(e) is made from Artemisia Absinthium - Wormwood.
  • Absinthium is derived from the Latin word absinthial meaning "bitter".

Early Applications

  • The use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt with several recipes for curing a terrible case of worms. 
  • Discoveries in China have uncovered tightly lidded bronze vessels from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (circa 1250 - 1000BC) filled with rice and millet wines macerated with wormwood amongst other herbs and flowers.
  • Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine" (circa 480BC) prescribed wormwood for jaundice, rheumatism, anaemia, and menstrual pains.  He also developed a potion of wormwood, dittany and sweet wine, commonly referred to as Hippocratic Wine.
  • Members of the Bedouin African tribe place the antiseptic leaves inside their nostrils as a decongestant and drink it for coughs.  The leaves are burned around their newborns to ensure their health. 

Early Mentions

  • The Holy Bible mentions wormwood 9 times in total:
  • Even Shakespeare (late 1500's) made reference to the bitter herb. 

Witchcraft

  • Stemmed from many Central European women taking the role of healers from the 10th century.
  • The male population diminished quite drastically during the Middle Ages through constant attacks from the Huns, Avars and Romans leaving many women to defend against attackers and heal the wounded by relying on witchcraft.  This was not restricted to women and inclusively men also practiced. 
  • Witches were also known as: Seers, diviners, shaman, mediators and midwives.
  • Absinth(e) was believed to counteract the poisons of hemlock, mushrooms, and sea dragons. It would also protect a person from seasickness and fatigue. 
  • Brews with absinthe were concocted for hex breaking, magical defense and love potions but also for medicinal and healing reasons.
  • 1484 - Pope Innocent VIII instigates the European witch hunts.
  • Although not entirely protected the art of witchery was allowed to flourish in Bohemia & Moravia due to a more open belief structure. 
  • Even today the Czech Republic has one of the least religious populations in all of Europe with 59% of them Atheists.  This is why the frenzy of the witch-hunts had little effect in that part of the continent and many alchemists would take up the maceration of wormwood into distillates after these medicine women were forced underground. 
  • Due to the "witch hunts" most European clandestine recipes were lost with the death of these healers or were destroyed to avoid persecution.

The Birth of Absinth(e) Elixir

  • There is recorded evidence of distilled wormwood based potions produced throughout Europe from the mid 1500's.
  • 1782 - Last "witch" was executed in Switzerland. 
  • The crusades of the Holy Church throughout Europe decimated the ritual of folk medicine and anyone associated with the mystical craft of witchery. Ironically the last witch was executed around the same time commercial absinthe was born.
  • 1790's - Couvet medicine women, Henriette Henriod began selling an Absinthe type elixir.
  • Faithful absinthe customer, Daniel-Henri Dubied purchased the recipe from Henriod in 1797.  Dubied began manufacturing the l'elixir absynthe in the first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet.
  • Henri-Louis Pernod took up a job at the distillery "Dubied Pere et Fils".  He left in 1805 to start up his own distillery in Pontarlier to keep up with demand.
  • The revised French recipe relied on the Holy Trinity of: Wormwood, Anise & Fennel.

Medicine to Madness

  • After the French revolution (1799), medicinal absinthe became available to a wider demographic even making its way to the US.
  • Absinthe by this stage was only available to the wealthy as it was imported from Switzerland then was adopted post revolution by the middle class who survived the turbulent rise of the poor. 
  • The French foreign legion adopted a ration of absinthe as a way of warding off malaria and dysentery lurking in the tropical climes they conquered from 1831.
  • As with gin's resurrection, the legion's acquired taste popularized absinthe with the French who drank it as a way of expressing patriotism.
  • Then the literary and artistic set turned to absinthe as their muse, which they believed allowed them to explore the farthest reaches of their minds.
  • The Bohemian set was synonymous with the gypsy lifestyle.  Named for the Eastern European artists' who moved to Paris with everything they owned.
  • Henri de Toulouse Latrec, Oscar Wilde and Paul Verlaine were ardent admirers and habitual absintheurs during the Bohemian artist movement.  
  • As absinthe became increasingly popular with the masses much cheaper and more toxic versions were produced to feed demand.
  • Absinth(e) accoutrements such as fountains and intricate spoons were produced for the bourgeois as demarcation of class.
  • In 1874, French consumption reaches 700,000 litres (Approx. pop. 38 million).
  • The phylloxera plague hit France - sending the price of wine up while absinthe became cheaper. 
  • Dr Valentin Magnan tested the effects of absinthe and alcoholism during the late 1800's. "All of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed."
  • The chemical compound thujone is discovered in wormwood. 
  • Magnan played on the fear factor explaining that the consumption of absinthe was degenerating the population.
  • The growing popularity of drinking absinthe was blamed for the French losing against the Germans in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  
  • Magnan proclaimed that madness and a drastic rise of inmates in asylums was a direct result of Absinthe consumption.
  • Magnan started the hypothesis that alcoholism and even worse, absinthism is hereditary and can lead to deformities in offspring.
  • Towards the end of the 19th Century, temperance movements concentrated on targeting absinthe as the Demon Drink.

Death of the Fairy

  • August 1905 - Jean Lanfray returned home drunk and after an argument about polishing his boots, he shot his pregnant wife, two daughters and himself.    
  • The defence set their focus on the two absinthe drinks consumed prior to the shooting. (Lanfray consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, two coffees laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe). 
  • The case received massive media attention and caused public outcry throughout Europe feeding the temperance frenzy. Although Lanfray survived his self-inflicted wound he was later convicted and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.  Lanfray committed suicide by hanging himself three days into his incarceration.
  • 1909 - Switzerland banned absinthe.
  • French consumption of absinthe in 1910 hit 36 million litres (Approx. pop. 41m).
  • The Green Fairy became referred to as the Green Witch. 
  • 1912 - US banned absinthe.
  • Germany declared war in August 1914. 
  • Absinthe was blamed (to a certain extent) for the French loss of the Franco-Prussian War. With WWI looming there was a sense that the absinthe consumption could again be detrimental to the war effort.
  • March 1915 - Absinthe was banned in France.

 

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