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From Inside Peloton: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Absinthe

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When the first stage of the first Tour de France departed Paris en route to Lyon—a “plain stage” of 467 km (290 miles)—no one, except perhaps Henri Desgrange, could have imagined the size, shape and influence the race would come to have in the sport of cycling today. Professional cycling is, to a large degree, defined by the Tour. And once Frenchman Maurice Garin was declared the 1903 inaugural winner and the celebrations in Paris began, it is likely that those interested in the race toasted their champion in local cafés with the most popular drink of the day: absinthe. By 1903, the year of the first Tour, absinthe, that well-known but little understood mysteriously transformative plant-based green liqueur, had become an integral part of French café life, not only providing so-called muse-like hallucinogenic inspiration to well-known poets and painters like Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, but it also gave the common, frequent café visitor a uniquely palatable taste and pleasing sensation unlike any other alcoholic beverage that had come before. Appealing to just about every class of French drinker, in just about every kind of French café, absinthe had captured the imagination of the nation’s people as much as the Tour captures the imagination of cycling fans today. Clearly there was a kind of democratic, all-inclusive allure that absinthe provided for drinkers, so that the literary, artistic and intellectual citizens in and around France enjoyed the liqueur as much as anyone else: military men, laborers, professional men and women—aristocrats and bourgeois alike. La Fée Verte (“The Green Fairy”), as absinthe was commonly called, spoke to one and all.

Words: John Madruga
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

Mention the word “absinthe” today and the reactions may very well span the range of never heard of it to it will drive you insane to it’s an herbal drink, super high-proof and will get you high very quickly and in a very weird way. But what most of our impressions of absinthe today don’t recognize is the fact that no liqueur in the history of distilled spirits has had such an fascinating history, a history that could be considered a kind of psychological adventure into the areas of deception, war, murder, chemistry, physiology and social hysteria. The fact is that absinthe enjoyed a prolific rise to popularity, first in France and Switzerland and then throughout Europe, only to be banned in almost every nation it was sold. This historical rise and fall now sees absinthe on the rise again, becoming more and more popular as drinkers yearn to experience the once-taboo 18th century liqueur. But to enjoy a true taste of what the absinthe boom was like throughout France from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, make sure what you are drinking follows the basics of the original formula devised in about 1792. These days, not all absinthes are created equal.

The road signs on the way into Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, let visitors know what the area is best known for: berceau de l’absinthe. As the self-proclaimed birthplace of absinthe, this is where the wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name of the plant and also, clearly, the origin of the name absinthe) was grown and harvested to make the original elixir. Wormwood contains thujone, a chemical compound that has become associated with the unique psychedelic properties in absinthe, but evidence now shows that while thujone is toxic in large amounts, even the original formulas didn’t contain enough of the stuff to be dangerous. Nevertheless, ritualistically unlocking wormwood’s thujone is a key component in knowing how to enjoy a true absinthe.

I‘ve always been a little taken aback, even as a kid, when in a restaurant the waiter would ceremoniously bring out the signature dish—you know, the one that’s either on fire, about to be set on fire, or is sizzling so loud diners at tables 30 feet away are craning their necks to see what the hell is happening at our table. Nowadays that kind of presentation is generally regarded as lame, and it should be. We’ve seen and heard it a hundred times before, and what it typically adds up to in the end is that the noise and flames are there to do one thing: cover up the fact that that Baked Alaska or booze-infused sauce or 500-degree cast-iron dish searing your Ribeye will most likely be the most expensive and mediocre meal you’ve had in a long time. To have this kind of at-the-table service is always a sad experience and ends up being profoundly disappointing. Nevertheless, any ritual act is appropriate and fulfilling when it signifies something of real value, but the dessert or dinner entre that is deemed too special to remain in the kitchen and is therefore brought out in public to be “finished” by the waiter, creates a level of expectation for itself that it hardly ever lives up to. This better be the best fucking steak or fish or dessert I’ve ever tasted in my life, I think to myself, if it means I have to endure watching the waiter do his magic at the table, while I smile and pretend to be amazed the whole time, and the eyes of every restaurant guest within view is watching me watching the whole thing transpire. How can anything taste good after going through such hard-to-swallow experience?

Such was/is not the case with respect to the ritualistic procedure involved in drinking absinthe. Known as La Louche, it is the all-important act of slowly pouring ice-cold water over a sugar cube that has been suspended on top of the glass, with a slotted spoon, over a measure of absinthe. It’s what turns absinthe into absinthe. This is not a showy, public, at-the-table kind of procedure, rather it’s the proper way for any drinker to prepare to drink a proper absinthe and, if done correctly, La Louche will visibly let you know if you are performing the act correctly. As the water passes through the sugar and into the absinthe, a chemical reaction takes place such that the clarity of the pure, slightly green-tinted absinthe becomes opaque, a clouded response to the sugar and H2O coming in contact with the herbs and oils present in the absinthe, namely wormwood, fennel and anise (although other plants are often added, making the range of absinthe recipes rather large). It’s a simple ritual but one that is important on several levels. First off, La Louche is performed by the drinker in private, at his or her table, and so there is no need for a waiter to get involved, creating a heightened environment with onlookers peering in. Second, the ritual act of La Louche both literally and figuratively signifies a transformation in the glass, unlocking the power of La Fée Verte—a kind of metaphorical muse to the poets and painters who frequently drank absinthe—and anticipates the unique mind-altering transformation to be experienced once the drink is consumed. Finally, La Louche provides evidence that the absinthe one is drinking is authentic, has a high alcohol content and indeed contains thujone, the key compound found in wormwood. This was not so much an issue in the early days of absinthe production in Switzerland and France, but once the liqueur was banned throughout Europe and the United States and imitation absinthes appeared on the market (with artificial colorings and flavoring and no trace of thujone), La Louche became the tell-tale sign of knowing what was in the bottle.

The popular version of the story is that absinthe was created by a French physician, Pierre Ordinaire, who was living in Switzerland and using “his” potion to heal a number of aliments in his patients. The story is a good one because it contains the necessary elements to give the original absinthe formula a sense of social and medicinal legitimacy. Matters of gender and class were not taken lightly in the Romantic era of 1792 French society, so the fact that history tells us that a male doctor created absinthe as a healing agent is convenient because it upholds the implicit social hierarchies that place male above female and the profession of doctor above most all other occupations. What the story of Pierre Ordinaire also does is cover up the actual truth in the matter, which is that the original absinthe was devised by a peasant woman in Switzerland who understood the healing properties of herbal remedies; it was widely used by local doctors as Mother Henriod’s elixir and gained much local attention—so much so that a local businessman from Couvet, Major Dubied, bought the formula and began selling it for profit. Dubied then formed a business partnership with Henri Louis Pernod and together they made the first factory-produced absinthe in Couvet, Switzerland, in roughly 1797. By 1805, the operation had moved to France and the Pernod Fils distillery, the first distillery in France, was producing absinthe for the entire region.

But it was the return of thousands of French soldiers to their homeland from Algeria that triggered the rise of absinthe in Europe and around the globe. The French military had used absinthe as a cure for fever and dysentery, and once they returned to France and found the same drink—a drink they had come to appreciate not only for its healing properties but for its subtle anise and mint flavor—being served in cafés, there was no question what they were to order. On the one hand, in some cafés absinthe had become a kind of symbol for French strength and military national pride, while at the same time, in other cafés, it was being drunk and celebrated by the nation’s most important (as well as unknown) poets and painters. These two distinctly different groups of drinkers ended up representing all of France, some aligning with a conservative military philosophy and others aligning with a liberally-minded philosophy based in the arts and the imagination. What these two groups shared, and agreed on, was that absinthe was their representative drink.

While most marketed brands of whiskey, vodka or gin will typically average in the 40 percent alcohol range, the first absinthes were much higher—in the range of 60 to 70 percent, nearly twice the potency of the more mainstream stuff. In terms of “proof” numbers that means a real absinthe will go well into the 100-plus range. Alcohol content aside, what may have separated absinthe from the typical café libations of the day is that it was felt to be much more subtle and complex than anything else, proving to be intoxicating on many interesting levels—physical, mental, emotional and creative. This unique and varied effect that absinthe had on drinkers was exactly what they wanted, altering reality in a pleasing, heightened and sensory way. For some artists, absinthe was the creative gateway to a new way of seeing reality, for others it made reality too real. It was Oscar Wilde who famously wrote: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world …. That is the experience absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

After over 100 years of commercial production and phenomenal success—to the point that absinthe was becoming more and more dominant in a region known worldwide for its wine—news from Commugny reported that Swiss laborer Jean Lanfray had murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters (and then attempted to take his own life) in a drunken rage on August 28, 1905. Lanfray survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face and stood trail, where it was reported that on the day of the murders he had consumed the following: seven glasses of wine, a crème de menthe, a cognac and soda, coffee with brandy, another liter of wine and more brandy—along with two ounces of absinthe. Once the press had learned Lanfray’s binge had included absinthe (albeit a small fraction of the total amount of alcohol in his system), the case was labeled an “absinthe murder,” and it was this idea—that absinthe is directly related to alcoholism and violent, irrational behavior—that signified the beginning of the systemic demonization of absinthe. The popular perception became that absinthe and alcoholism went hand in hand while wine, the traditional and sacred (meaning, “highly valued” as well as “worthy of religious ceremony”) drink of France, was free of any such negative associations. Within weeks of the Lanfray case, more than 80,000 signatures were acquired for banning the liqueur—and the influence spread. In 1906, absinthe was banned in Belgium; in 1909, it was banned in The Netherlands; in 1910, it was banned in Switzerland; in 1912, it was banned in the U.S.; in 1914, it was banned in France.

At least in the U.S. the ban has been lifted (as of 2007), so the availability of “genuine” absinthe can be enjoyed. (What the government regulates in today’s absinthe is the amount of thujone present in the liqueur, perhaps thinking it will prevent another Lanfray-like murderous scene from occurring.) Knowing just what to buy and what to do with it once the stuff in your possession takes a bit of research, but if a 18th century French farmer can figure it out, so can you. First procure yourself a real absinthe, perform La Louche with ritualistic care, drink it slowly and then sit back and see what happens next. Mother Henriod just may pay you a visit.

From Issue 22. Buy it here!