The Green Fairy – Absinthe
The first clear evidence of absinthe being drank as a spirit dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792. Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. The Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. Either way a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils. It was extremely popular in France until the drink was banned in 1914.
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventive. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe home with them. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply.
Absinthe was exported widely from its native France and Switzerland, and attained some degree of popularity in other countries, including Spain, Great Britain, USA, and the Czech Republic.
New Orleans has a profound cultural association with absinthe, and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar, located on Bourbon Street, serves as a prominent historical landmark. Originally named The Absinthe Room, it was opened in 1874 by a Catalan bartender named Cayetano Ferrer.
In 1905, it was reported that Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and attempted to take his own life after drinking absinthe. The fact that Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed considerable quantities of wine and brandy prior to drinking two glasses of absinthe was overlooked or ignored, therefore placing the blame for the murders solely on absinthe. A petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland collected more than 82,000 signatures. A referendum was subsequently held on banning the drink on 5 July 1908.After it was approved by voters, the prohibition of absinthe was then written into the Swiss constitution.
In 1906, both Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and distribution of absinthe, although these were not the first countries to take such action. Absinthe had been banned as early as 1898 in the colony of the Congo Free State.The Netherlands in 1909, Switzerland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.
In the 1990s, realising the UK had never formally banned absinthe, British importer BBH Spirits began to import Hill’s Absinth from the Czech Republic, which brought its popularity back. In December 2007, St. George Absinthe Verte, produced by St. George Spirits of Alameda,California, became the first brand of American-made absinthe produced in the United States since the ban. Since that time, other micro-distilleries have started producing small batch artisanal absinthes in the US. In May 2011, the French Absinthe Ban of 1915 was repealed following petitions by the Fédération Française des Spiritueux, who represent French distillers.