Absinthe – The Legend and the Reality

Almost since its introduction, the mysterious green liqueur known as absinthe has enjoyed a strong reputation among artists, poets, writers and others as a way to seek deeper spiritual truths.  Those seeking to outlaw its consumption hold strong opinions as well, and the drink has been accused of producing everything from blindness to hallucinations to madness.

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, and the history of absinthe is a fascinating one to explore.  Whether your goal is to sample the famous “Green Fairy” or just learn more about it, there is certainly plenty of lore on both sides of the absinthe debate.

The substance in absinthe which has garnered all the attention, both positive and negative is thujone, or wormwood, but this herb was not part of many of the original preparations of this famous drink.  In fact a variety of different herbs, including such common plants as fennel, anise, licorice and even peppermint, were used, but it is wormwood that has remained a constant when it comes to the classic absinthe drink.

The history of this fascinating drink stretch all the way back to 1797, when a French physician by the name of Pierre Ordinaire used a combination of herbs, including most famously wormwood, to create an herbal remedy for his patients.  This new concoction quickly caught on, not only with Dr. Ordinaire’s patients but with the public as well, and by the early years of the 19th century Herni Louis Pernod had obtained the famous recipe and used it to create the first absinthe distillery, located in Switzerland.  By the middle of the century this green liqueur had become the preferred drink of the upper crust, and it would go on to be the favored liqueur of the artistic and literary communities as well.  Indeed the popularity of this drink was so great that by the time the 19th century rolled to a close some 2 million liters of this famous and infamous liqueur were being consumed every year.

By the time the 20th century had dawned, there were growing concerns about the possible ill effects of absinthe, both on the individual absinthe drinker and on society at large.  In fact the drink was blamed for everything from marital problems to money woes to madness, and there was a great deal of anti-absinthe hysteria percolating throughout the world.

This anti-absinthe tidal wave eventually culminated in a worldwide ban on the Green Fairy, but recently the drink has made something of a comeback.  As the 21st century gets underway, absinthe is widely available in many parts of Europe, as well as in societies as divergent as Israel, Great Britain and Canada.

As with many other things, the reality of absinthe is neither as glowing as its proponents would have you believe, or as dire as its critics claim.  The true history of absinthe is a long and complicated story, and that unique story is still being written today.