The history of absinthe

Absinthe's history seems to be firmly routed in the end of centuries.

Early history of the absinthe drink

Absinthe was first created in 1792 by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland. His intention was to deliver the extract of the wormwood plant -- which had long been known to have powerful healing effects -- in a handy form.

Commercial absinthe production began in 1797 when a man named Major Dubied bought the recipe from Dr. Ordinaire and proceeded to manufacture the spirit with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland.

The business proved a success and in 1805, Pernod moved production to a larger facility across the border in Pontarlier, France. Although Pernod Fils only distilled some 16 litres of absinthe when it first started, it only took a few short years for production to increase to over 400 litres per day. But it was still nothing compared to what was yet to come.

The first absinthe fever

From its humble beginnings as a medicinal elixir, absinthe steadily grew into a global phenomenon.

In France, absinthe quickly caught on as the favourite drink of the aristocracy. In the 1850's, the popularity of absinthe skyrocketed as the bohemian crowd embraced the "Green Fairy". Many famous poets, writers and artists of the day routinely reached for a glass in search of inspiration.

By the 1870's, the absinthe craze was felt at all levels of the French society; just about everyone was drinking it. Days started with a glass of absinthe and ended with l'heure verte (the late-afternoon "green hour" ) when one or more glasses were drunk as an aperitif before supper.

Interestingly, it is believed that it was the 1870's blight in the French vineyards that ignited the spread of absinthe -- once the exclusive drink of the aristocracy -- across the social spectrum. At the time, wine was often drank with water, because water of that day had a high bacterial content and wine was believed to help. When the phylloxera blight caused a hike in the price of wine, working classes turned to cheaper absinthe to "purify" their water.

By the end of the nineteenth century, France alone was gulping down over 2 million litres of the liquid per year. In 1910, according to some reports, this had reached a whopping 36 million litres annually. By then, the absinthe fever had crossed the borders of France, and the demand for the drink spawned a successful Europe-wide industry of absinthe distilleries nestled in Swiss valleys and Bohemian forests.

Absinthe proved a great leveler in class-conscious Europe. Once beloved by the aristocracy, it moved through society with a freedom that was its own. At cafes from Paris to Prague, absinthe was drunk by artists and labourers, butchers and bankers. Astonishingly for the time, even genteel womenfolk freely enjoyed the elaborate absinthe ritual in public.

Absinthe in America

But absinthe wasn't just a European phenomenon. In 1878, over 7 million litres of the spirit were imported into the United States from Europe. New Orleans, the undisputed absinthe capital of America, even had its local brands such as Green Opal, Milky Way and Legendre.

Old Absinthe House, New OrleansGlorious New Orleans indeed embraced the Green Fairy with a particular affection. Here, absinthe took off in 1869, when the Aleix brothers opened a bar named the "Old Absinthe House" (pictured) at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets in the French district. The brothers hired Cayetano Ferrer, a bartender from the French Opera House, to run the bar.

In 1874, Ferrer took over the lease and renamed the bar the "Absinthe Room". Ferrer was acclaimed for serving absinthe in the French style: marble fountains dripped cold water onto lumps of sugar suspended on perforated spoons over glasses of absinthe until the concoction achieved the desired level of sweetness and dilution. Ferrer's establishment soon became perhaps the most famous bar in a city famous for bars; its signature drink, the absinthe frappe, became the cocktail of the day.

The Absinthe Room attracted an impressive list of visitors, including presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Aaron Burr, William Thackeray, Jenny Lind and Oscar Wilde. In 1918, Aleister Crowley, the British magician, proclaimed: "Art is the soul of life and the Old Absinthe House is the heart and soul of the old quarter of New Orleans."

To be continued... Please check again in a day or two.

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At Absinthe Fever, we encourage you to get involved. In fact, this whole site is meant as an open forum about absinthe, because we believe that absinthe is more than a drink, or a bit of thujone in a bottle. The Green Fairy -- the affectionate name given to the absinthe drink in the 19th century -- is art, poetry, experience, lifestyle... So join us and share your thoughts anywhere on Absinthe Fever!

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Absinthe Bourgeois poster
Absinthe's history is as captivating as the drink itself. This promotional poster for Absinthe Bourgeois is from the days of the first absinthe fever.

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