Banned for almost a century until its recent revival, absinthe is something of a “living fossil”, a coelacanth amongst drinks, able to magically transport us back to the glittering world of Paris and the Belle Epoque, a world of bohemian musicians and writers, of the Moulin Rouge and the cafes of Montmartre, a world of starving struggling artists and glittering courtesans.
But the origins of the drink lie far from the bright lights of Paris – absinthe was first produced near Couvet in Switzerland, and nearby Pontarlier in the Doubs region of France. This largely forgotten part of rural France, nestled in the wooded foothills of the Jura mountains, is still regarded as the true home of absinthe.
Legend has it, that the inventor of the drink was Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who in 1792, shortly after the French revolution, travelled around the Val de Travers on his faithfull horse Roquette, and produced the first commercial absinthe, initially as an all-purpose remedy or cure-all. It was nicknamed “La Fée Verte” – “The Green Fairy” – and this name stuck throughout absinthe’s heyday. It was recommended for the treatment of epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic, headaches and worms. Dr. Ordinaire’s invention aroused the interest of a gentleman named Major Dubied, who saw its possibilities not just as a patent medicine, but as an aperitif. Dubied purchased what was reputed to be Ordinaire’s original formula from two sisters called Henriod at the beginning of the 19th century and began large scale production.
It’s likely that this traditional story is considerably embellished – the manufacture of absinthe-like drinks in the Neuchatel region is recorded from the 1750’s or even earlier, and the two Henriod sisters were making the drink even before Dr Ordinaire’s arrival in the Val de Travers. Most probably Dr Ordinaire was simply a doctor who did much to promote the use of absinthe as a herbal tonic and folk remedy in the region.
By 1805, the Pernod Fils absinthe company was set up in Pontarlier in the Doubs region, run by Dubied’s son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. Initially there were just two stills producing only 16 litres of absinthe per day. Shortly afterwards the elder Dubied and his son split from Pernod to return to their own firm, which was later passed down to a cousin named Fritz Duval.
Pernod Fils went from strength to strength. Henri-Louis’s dynamic younger son Louis purchased 36 000 square meters of land on the outskirts of Pontarlier alongside the Doubs River, and built a factory with a daily production exceeding 400 litres. By 1850, when Louis died, the factory had 26 stills producing 20 000 liters a day. Louis’s sons Fritz and Louis-Alfred took over the reins, and assisted by financing from the Veil-Picard banking family (and also by a brilliant Swiss engineer Arthur Borel, a close associate of the Pernod’s for 3 generations, who designed most of the factories innovative distilling, bottling and packaging equipment) continued to expand.
Pernod Fils went on to become one of the largest and most successful companies in France, and was a pioneer in the humane and enlightened treatment of its mostly female workers. As early as 1873 a profit-sharing and pension scheme was introduced, and the company at its own expense insured its workers against accidents, gave them unemployment compensation and provided medical benefits.
The popularity of absinthe spread further as it was used as a fever preventative by French troops fighting in Algeria from 1844 to 1847. Mixed with wine or water – jokingly referred to as “absinthe soup” – it was believed to kill germs and fend off dysentry (no doubt, this high alcohol combination also helped to relieve the boredom of barracks life). When the troops of the Bataillon d’Afrique returned to France, they brought with them their taste for the refreshingly bitter drink, and absinthe became a hit in bars and bistros all over France.
The reign of Napoleon III – from 1852 to his downfall with the Prussian invasion in 1870 – was something of a golden age for absinthe. Still relatively expensive, it was primarily a drink of the fashionable bourgeoisie. It was supposed to sharpen the appetite for dinner, and in the early evening, the smell of absinthe wafted over the Parisian boulevards. By the 1870s, it had become common practice to begin a meal with an aperitif, and of 1500 available liqueurs, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk.
Licensing laws were relaxed during the 1860’s, which resulted in a proliferation of new cabarets and cafés – more than 30,000 existed in Paris by 1869, and 5 p.m. signified l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour – in almost every one. The cafés were an extremely popular place to socialize, since most of Paris’ citizens were living in cramped apartments, often in squalor and poverty.
Nowhere was this cafe culture more vibrant than in the Parisian district of Montmartre, already by the mid 19th century the favourite haunt of the bohemian literary and artistic set. Amongst the best known establishments were the Brasserie des Martyrs, a particular favourite of Baudelaire, the Cafe du Rat Mort, popular with writers by day and a lesbian hangout at night, and most famous of all, the Chat Noir, founded in 1881 by Theodore Salis, an unsuccessful painter. Erik Satie played the piano here and Alfred Jarry was a regular, as was the remarkable poet and inventor Charles Cross, who reputedly drank 20 absinthes a night.
In 1860, a young Parisian author, Henri Balesta, wrote “Absinthe et Absintheurs”, the first book to record the social context of heavy absinthe drinking. He describes a typical cafe scene :
“In the morning, at lunchtime, the habitués invaded the bistrot. The professors of absinthe were already at their station, yes, the teachers of absinthe, for it is a science, or rather an art to drink absinthe properly, and certainly to drink it in quantity. They put themselves on the trail of the novice drinkers, teaching them to raise their elbow high and frequently, to water their absinthe artistically, and when, after the tenth little glass, the pupil rolled under the table, the master went on to another, always drinking, always holding forth, always steady and unshakeable at his post.”
Absinthe hit its peak during the years from 1880-1910, when it fell dramatically in price, becoming accessible to all parts of society and businessmen and politicians, artists, musicians, ordinary working-men. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 litres of absinthe, but by 1910, the figure had exploded to 36,000,000 litres of absinthe per year. It was a quintessential part of Belle Epoque French society.
Riding the crest of this wave the Pernod company boomed, continually expanding production. By 1896 production was up to 125 000 liters per day.A devastating fire in August 1901 destroyed much of the factory (and resulted in millions of liters of absinthe being discharged into the Doubs River, which turned cloudy with anise for miles downstream), but the shrewd Pernod’s collected almost 4 million francs in insurance payouts and rebuilt the plant with fireproofing and the very latest technical machinery.
So successful did Pernod Fils become that it spawned a host of copycat brands – there was an Edouard Pernod, a Gempp Pernod, a Legler Pernod, Jules Pernod, Jules Pernot, Perrenod et Cie, Emile Pernot, Pierrot, Père Noë and many similar. The constant legal battles that Pernod Fils waged to protect its name laid the foundation for some of modern French copyright law.
A particularly cheeky brand was called “La Meme”, which means “the same” in French :
…waiter! another absinthe!
OUI! the same! (but maybe NOT the same one he was drinking.…)
Pernod Fils (and some of its larger competitiors such as Berger and Edouard Pernod) exported worldwide. The French colonies – especially Algeria, Vietnam, Madagascar and Tahiti – were all significant markets, as were South American countries like Argentina and Chile. Naturally, absinthe soon found its way to the “Little Paris” of North America, New Orleans, where it quickly became extremely popular, particularly as an ingredient in cocktails such as the Absinthe Frappé. The “Old Absinthe House”, with its beautiful and timeworn green marble absinthe fountain, is one of New Orlean’s most famous sights. Aleister Crowley, the mystical writer and occult magician wrote his famous and often quoted tract “Absinthe – The Green Goddess” in the Old Absinthe House in 1916 while waiting for a woman friend. It was first published two years later in the socialist journal “The International”. After the end of prohibition, the New Orleans-based Legendre Company launched “Herbsaint”, an absinthe-like pastis, which is still made today.