Thursday, July 2, 2015

Thirsty Thursday - Absinthe

Few cocktails carry the mystique and infamy of the green, wormwood and star anise flavored curative-come-beverage of intellectuals invented by French doctor, Pierre Ordinaire, absinthe. Dr. Ordinaire brewed his first batch of absinthe in the small Swiss town of Couvet where he'd taken refuge from the upheaval (and beheadings) of the French Revolution. Absinthe was a sort of snake oil cure-all, distilled from a combination of local herbs, star anise, fennel, and Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), and the good doctor claimed it would alleviate just about any ill the imbiber could think up. From flatulence to rheumatism, dropsy to infertility, a dose of Dr. Ordinaire's green tincture would set you right. When Ordinare died, his recipe passed to the Henriod sisters who continued to sell the emerald-green potion as a patent medicine until 1797 when one Major Dubled entered the picture. The Major purchased the rights to Dr. Ordinaire's recipe and, with the help of his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Penrod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Pére ed Fils. It would be Penrod who would bring absinthe to the world when he open a second distillery in Pontarlier, France and brought what would become the drink of artists, writers, and intellectuals to the nation from which it would conquer the world.

In the beginning, absinthe retained its medicinal reputation. In the 1840's French troops carried absinthe along as a treatment for malaria. They returned having acquired a taste for the liquor just at a time where mass production and distribution made absinthe affordable to just about everyone. Absinthe became so popular that, by the end of the 19th century shortages made it a fashionable item and mark of class. Five o'clock became l'heure verte (the green hour) in French cafes and by 1910 absinthe had become the drink of choice in France. The Green Lady spread her wings and influence the globe. She became a popular and welcome guest in Spain, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, and the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans could never have served a sazerac without absinth. is one of the city's most prominent landmarks, but its growing popularity would soon lead to its demise.

With the demand for absinthe at an all-time high, disreputable manufacturers saw an opportunity to strike it rich. They began substituting grain alcohol for cheaper grape alcohol making their product more popular and increasing consumption. Due to the glut of cheap absinthe and two types of blight attacking vineyards and running up the price of wine, absinthe eventually became more popular with the French working class than wine. By the turn of the century France's vines were on the mend and vintners were sick of taking a beating at the hands of the Green Fairy. They were up for revenge and their first strike was to start a smear campaign against absinthe which they decried as an unnatural and inferior product. Ignoring rampant alcoholism as a potential cause, they pointed to absinthe as the root cause for the chronic drunkenness, destitution, and hopelessness that ruled over the lower classes and by the 1860's the term "absinthism" emerged.

Anti-Absinthe Propaganda in the San Francisco Call
The disease described by Dr. Falentin Magnan of the St. Anne Asylum in Paris sounded horrible enough:

" In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature… the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed."

Oddly the symptoms the doctor described generally apply to alcoholism in general, a fact dismissed out of hand by Magnan because it didn't support his personal crusade. Soon abolitionists and the press joined in the fray and before long absinthe was accused of causing madness, criminality, tuberculosis, and epilepsy. The final blow would come from a sensationalized murder committed by an alcoholic laborer named Jean Lanfray who slew his pregnant wife and children after a binge that happened to include two ounces of absinthe.

“Lanfray consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. He returned home drunk with his father, and drank another coffee with brandy. He then got into an argument with his wife, and asked his wife to polish his shoes for him. When she refused, Lanfray retrieved a rifle and shot her once in the head, killing her instantly, causing his father to flee. His four-year-old daughter, Rose, heard the noise and ran into the room, where Lanfray shot and killed her and his two-year-old daughter, Blanche. He then shot himself in the jaw and carried Blanche’s body to the garden, where he collapsed.”

In 1906 absinthe became illegal in Brazil and Belgium, in 1908 in Holland, in 1910 in Switzerland, in the US in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. The Green Fairy wasn't dead, though. In 1990's she began a resurgence, returning to the UK and by 2004 she'd returned to Amsterdam and in 2012 the French brand Lucid officially was legal for import into the US. Now, with the long and sordid history of absinthe out of the way, let's get down to tacks (brass or otherwise) and talk about how to drink the stuff.

If you go into a modern bar that serves absinthe, it would (basically) be served in the American style. That is a pony of absinthe, a carafe of water, and a cube of sugar. The absinthe will be served in a tumbler or reservoir glass. A special, slotted spoon will be balanced on top of the glass, on which there will be a cube of sugar. The carafe of ice water is poured over the sugar cube, sweetening the absinthe, diluting it to the strength desired by the drinker, and producing the classic louche (milkiness and opalescence). Here are the instructions as described in Harry Johnson's 1888 New and Improved illustrated Bartender's Manual.

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