The Origins of Absinthe

“The green fairy” first twinkled into existence in 1792 in the hands of a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire. (Yep, his name was basically “Pete Normalguy” but with a better accent). He was looking for a delivery method for wormwood. At the time, people thought wormwood had healing effects.

By 1797, Ordinaire sold his recipe to a Swiss father and son team. They eventually moved production to Pontarlier, France in 1805. Absinthe production rose to as high as 400 liters a day over the following decades. Though it was popular among elite imbibers, this was nothing compared to the demand create by the “absinthe fever” that took over mid-century Bohemia.

Absinthe in the 19th Century

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During the 1850’s, many artists and writers turned to this spirited spirit to find their muse. By the 1870’s, people from all walks of life were drinking it.

In addition to being a jolly good time, absinthe was also used to fight off bacterial infections. In those days, the water quality for the average French urbanite was very bad. So people added alcohol in order to “purify” before drinking. Believe it or not, wine was actually more expensive than absinthe, so many poor people saw it is the economical choice. Adding water to absinthe also has the strange effect of making it cloudy. So absinthe-water would be a delightfully minty green color.

One American city also started a long-lasting relationship with absinthe at this time. New Orleans embraced the green fairy as early as 1869, and within a few years was known as the “Absinthe Capital of America.” Special absinthe cocktail lounges opened all over the city. Local brands like The Green Opal and Legendre were born.

At a bar called The Absinthe Room, the owner installed a special fountain that dripped the diluted alcohol over lumps of sugar and into waiting glasses. These lounges attracted several notable end of century figures, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Oscar Wilde.

How is Modern Absinthe Different?

If you didn't have a fountain, you could put sugar on a special spoon and drip water through it to achieve the same effect
If you didn’t have a fountain, you could put sugar on a special spoon and drip water through it to achieve the same effect

While something that calls itself absinthe is available in the US, it’s missing the special ingredient: wormwood. Though many European countries don’t restrict its sale, the original recipe for absinthe is considered toxic by the FDA.

I tried some old world absinthe during my travels, and I didn’t think it was all the special, personally. Maybe I needed to be drinking alone and staring at a canvas or something, but my muse was pretty mute. Absinthe tastes very strongly of anise, so if you aren’t a black licorice fan, I’d stay steer clear.

Have you ever had a run-in with the green fairy? What do you think of the flavor and effect? Leave a comment below!

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