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Abinsthe, Part Deux: La Fée Verte

While Absinthe first gained its popularity amongst the French soldiers in North Africa  during the campaigns of the 1840’s as a disease preventative and water purifier, it is widely associated with the French Impressionist movement and bohemian Paris, where it became the very fashionable drink of the bourgeoisie and the most popular aperitif in France.  So much so, in fact, that the time between 5:00pm and 7:00pm became known as “l’Heure Verte” (the Green Hour) – the “Tea Time” of the French bohemians and bourgeoisie, if you will – and painters and poets created art and poems dedicated to La Fée Verte (the Green Fairy), as the drink became known.

At this time, the drink was an icon which epitomized la vie boheme.  Artists such as Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso frequently featured Absinthe in their paintings.  Manet began his career with The Absinthe Drinker (1858).  And, Van Gogh was known for drinking ferocious quantities of Absinthe while creating his signature painting style, as well as having his ear removal episode often being attributed to the over-consumption of Absinthe.  For as prominent an influence the Green Fairy had on painters, its effect is just as noteworthy on 19th century writers.  Oscar Wilde has been quoted as saying, “What difference is there between a glass of Absinthe and a sunset?… 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.”  Perhaps he was channeling Van Gogh.

From humble beginnings in 1797, with Henri-Louis Pernod opening the first absinthe distillery in Switzerland, to the annual consumption in France being at a staggering 21,000,000 litres by the end of the 19th century, Absinthe had grown in leaps and bounds across Europe.  And the centers of production had moved to different regions with each area producing Absinthe with distinctive regional styles and characters.

Unfortunately, a few factors led to the ban of the Green Fairy: the temperance movement that was sweeping Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, findings that were published showing that alpha-thujone (richly sourced in wormwood, an essential ingredient of Absinthe) was a neurotoxin that caused violence and hallucinations, and pressure from the wine producers who saw its popularity as a threat to their sales which had plummeted due to the spread of phylloxera that destroyed most of France’s vineyards by 1890.  Thus, Absinthe was finally banned in its original home of Switzerland in 1910 and in its spiritual home of France in 1915 (although, it took a military order to accomplish this), followed by the rest of the world with the exceptions of the UK, Spain and Portugal.

The process of adding water to the Absinthe, referred to as the louche process, allows the release of essential oils from the herbs which the absinthe drink is made, especially the wormwood.  It was thought that these oils brought the mind to a peculiar state of alertness to enhance one’s sensory perception, to even unlock hidden creative powers; thus, the allure of Absinthe amongst the 19th century avant-garde art community.

Modern science, however, has failed to provide any comprehensive answers to this day despite the published documented effect linking thujone in 1916 by scientists to addictive psychedelic violence.  One interesting confirmation by recent research about the thujone found in absinthe is that it causes “CNS cholinergic receptor binding activity in the brain”, which is claimed to improve the brain’s cognitive functions.  At any rate, only a small amount of the thujone actually survives the distillation process, which means that Absinthe drinkers consuming copious amounts of Absinthe are more likely to suffer alcohol poisoning before experiencing a thujone-induced delirium.

So, what is Absinthe?  Beyond the history, the myths, and misconceptions, it is an alcoholic beverage made from a range of herbs such as fennel, anise, melissa, and hyssop, and Artemisia Absinthium (a plant better known as wormwood).  Absinthes were traditionally quality classified, ranging from 45% – 68% abv; but currently, they they range from 53% – 70% abv depending upon the producer.  Recipes and the quality of each Absinthe brand have always varied by country and manufacturer.  Absinthe is usually green, but there are a few Swiss varieties that are clear.  The best Absinthes are made exclusively with natural ingredients and do not have any artificially added colorings as a green Absinthe of quality will always get its color from the chlorophyll extracted from the herbs.  The natural coloring process, in fact, is considered critical for Absinthe ageing since the chlorophyll remains chemically active, which is similar to the role that tannins play in wines.

This, of course, brings us to la louche – or, the process of adding iced water to the drink, which transforms the color from an emerald green to a lighter, milky shade of green and dilutes the drink.  Traditionally, the water is poured over a sugar cube that sits on a perforated spoon atop a glass.

La Louche is an Absinthe ritual that is an essential experience that expresses the very essence of Absinthe: it bears practicality and symbolism.  As the cold dilution is drizzled into the glass it liberates the perplexing effects behind the Green Fairy by liberating the essential oils of the herbs from which Absinthe is made.  And the transformation of color observed in the glass could be considered symbolic of the transformation about to be experienced by the drinker – a transformation of the senses.

Contrary to popular belief, the original Absinthe ritual did not involve fire.  The “fire ritual,” when mixologists set absinthe aflame and then douse it with water, is a more recent phenomenon.  Absinthe connoisseurs and snobs are not fans of this method because it can destroy the flavor.

With or without fire, absinthe is making its comeback. In fact, it is ubiquitous amongst international mixologists and in cocktail bars in Europe and the States.  In Hong Kong, Kitsuné designed Pernod Absinthe’s limited edition bottle that eventuated into a capsule collection of clothing and accessories.  Also, in the true spirit of artistry, La Fée Verte was the theme for last year’s Art Basel Hong Kong.

So, there you have it – a spirit that has it’s own verb (“louche”), a history of inspiring some of the most brilliant and influential art and literature this world has experienced, has established itself as a national cultural inheritance amongst countries in Europe, as well as created world-wide controversy.  One can understand why so many are enamored by the notorious Green Fairy.

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As a career sommelier, Kimberley Drake has overseen some of the finest wine programs and operations in America and Asia. Her accomplishments range from working as a sommelier at Jean Georges in NYC to opening Hong Kong’s Café Gray Deluxe as their chef sommelier. She can be reached at Kimberley@NewsWhistle.com.

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PHOTO CREDITS
Lead-In Photo Courtesy of Alvor/shutterstock.com
Dude/Snake/Absinthe Photo Courtesy of Nadezhda Sundikova /shutterstock.com

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For our favorite brand of the divine drink, head over to our article “Please Excuse My Absinthe.”