Fairy Tales: The History of Absinthe

Absinthe, we’ve all heard of it, though we all can’t claim to have tasted its intense aniseed flavour. The word absinthe stems from the Latin word “absinthium” which translates to “wormwood”.  

Wormwood, along with anise and fennel, is the key absinthe ingredient, but the recipe can change depending on the label. Once absinthe is distilled and herbs are added it takes on a natural green colour, leading it to be famously referred to as “The Green Fairy”.

Let’s take a closer look at this famous (or infamous) beverage and how it has made a stunning, illuminated comeback!

Origins of the fairy

The first known advertisement for a wormwood-based spirit called “Bon Extrait d’Absinthe” appeared in a Swiss newspaper in 1769, before a Dr. Ordinaire further developed the beverage using eight separate plants including wormwood, fennel, anise and hyssop. He combined these plants with 68 percent alcohol volume and this soon became known as the standard alcohol content for absinthe.

Dr. Ordinaire soon sold his elixir recipe to the French Major Dubied, who built the very first absinthe factory with his son-in-law in Couvet, Switzerland. They begin to market this fascinating new elixir as a stimulant as opposed to a beverage with simple medicinal properties.

Going big time

The French army soon began using absinthe as a disinfectant during its 1830 Algerian campaign, using the alcohol rations to sanitise the water. But it was also loved for its taste, and returning French troops didn’t want to give up their beloved absinthe, so the spirit would soon become an important part of Western European socialising throughout the 1800s.

The Century’s great artists, composers, poets and writers all testified to the drink’s enchanting effect, with many works dedicated to the beverage.

Banned

However, the 21st Century saw a shift in attitude towards the beverage. Switzerland, its country of origin, was the first to ban the elixir, due to its outrageously high consumption rates and pressure from the wine lobby, who continued to advocate for a band on this insanely popular beverage.

The advocacy was based upon the potentially harmful effect of the ingredients found in wormwood. It wasn’t before too long that other European countries began banning the drink, with only places like Spain and Portugal still allowing consumption after 1920.

This allowed the produced Pernod Fils to continue producing absinthe in Tarragona, Spain, however absinthe without wormwood became more popular and surpassed the original.

The comeback

It wasn’t until the 1980s that European nations realised they had banned the drink because of misconceptions surrounding it. Then, in 1991, researchers found that the absinthe’s potentially toxic ingredient, thujone, was essentially ineffective in absinthe, and today genuine absinthe can be sold again in stores and bars throughout the European Union!

It can be bought in Oz, too!

Whilst the drink’s history is firmly rooted in Europe, you can also buy traditional absinthe in Australia. Absinthe is available from a range of labels who still carry the same production methods including adding the 68 (or thereabouts) alcohol volume to the beverage.
It can be enjoyed in the traditional manner with some cold water and a little syrup for sweetness or it can even be used to mix up a few cocktails. The drink has come a very long way since its early days, and while it may not be as much a go-to Down Under as, say, gin or vodka, wine, it’s a legendary beverage with some of the most fascinating history and a delightful taste!

Christophe Rude
Christophe Rude
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