Absinthe: Ever Green

27 June, 2014

“But it is sad to see that it has taken so long. At least three of the first French brands to emerge (or re-emerge from 2000 onwards) were made to standards that would have placed them in the bottom category of absinthe in the 19th century through virtue of the added artificial colours they contained. Two of them seem to be in the process of eliminating artificial colours now, some 13 or so years after their initial launches.”

Moss refers to the re-emergence of the category 13 years ago and it’s from there that the second big problem stemmed. Absinthe had been widely banned because of its association with alcoholism, the drug effects of wormwood, mental illness and crime. While no one doubts the potentially harmful effects of wormwood and in particular thujone, credited with being an hallucinogen, supporters of absinthe have a big issue with this view of the drink.

“You’re not going to see green fairies by drinking absinthe because you would die before you had reached the level required,” says Alan Moss, whose absinthe brands include La Clandestine and Butterfly. “And we wouldn’t want that because it’s not good for repeat business.”

Ted Breaux takes up the story. “Absinthe had been extremely popular in the 19th century, and in France more popular than wine. When the French wine industry recovered from being wiped out by the Phylloxera aphid, it attacked absinthe for the one thing that had made it different: wormwood.

“But the truth is that, as demand for absinthe grew, unscrupulous drinks makers were taking industrial spirit not fit for human consumption, colouring it with copper sulphate and adding chemicals to create the clouding. This was consumed by the poorest people and alcoholics, and not surprisingly with dangerous metal levels in their bloodstream, they ended up seriously ill, in asylums or committing violent crimes. Proper absinthe was banned for things it wasn’t responsible for.”

Stephen Goulding, proprietor and distiller at the Golden Moon Distillery and Speakeasy, says there were other factors, too. “Anti-semitism played a major part because at the height of the absinthe boom in France many of the producers, such as the Pernod family, were Jewish, and there was a lot of anti-semitism in France at the time. Non-Jewish absinthe producers advertised the fact to avoid the backlash.”

Banned in many places and unfashionable pretty much everywhere else, absinthe fell off the drinks map. So what changed? Amazingly, the first resurgence was as a result of the end of the Cold War.

“Before the iron curtain came down the Czech Republic made its own spirits, including one it called absinthe – and I use the term loosely. Once the iron curtain came down people discovered what a beautiful city Prague was and there they found absinthe. Soon the Czechs realised that people would pay a lot of money for it. Trouble was, it tasted nothing like absinthe. So to distract from this fact they came up with the gimmick of setting it on fire.”

This sort of gimmick and other ‘hooligan’ promotions nearly killed off the absinthe revival before it had begun. As bans were lifted across the world, some of the new producers played up to the super strength of the drink and its supposed hallucinogenic properties – even though the way to drink absinthe is to add substantial amounts of cold water to it (to make it cloudy) and the drug element is a myth. 

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