From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Absinthe (also absinth) distilled, highly alcoholic, anise-flavoured spirit derived from natural herbs.
Absinthe originated in Switzerland as an elixir/tincture, used in a similar capacity as patent medicines would be used later in the United States. However, it is better known for its popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France, particularly among Parisian Bohemian artists and writers whose romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture. At the height of this popularity, absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug. By 1915, it was banned in a number of European countries and the United States. Even though it was vilified, no evidence shows it to be any more dangerous or psychoactive than ordinary alcohol.
Absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland in the late 18th century. It arose to great popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers. Owing in part to its association with bohemian culture, the consumption of absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and prohibitionists. Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Erik Satie and Alfred Jarry were all known absinthe drinkers.
A modern absinthe revival began in the 1990s, as countries in the European Union began to reauthorise its manufacture and sale.
Absinthe's popularity grew steadily until the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a fever preventative. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe with them, and it became popular at bars and bistros.
By the 1860s, absinthe had become so popular that in most cafés and cabarets 5 p.m. signalled l’heure verte ('the green hour'). Still, it remained expensive and was favoured mainly by the bourgeoisie and eccentric Bohemian artists. By the 1880s, however, the price had dropped significantly, the market expanded, and absinthe soon became the drink of France; by 1910 the French were consuming 36 million litres of absinthe per year.
Absinthe (with anise) has been consumed in Czech lands (then part of Austria-Hungary) since at least 1888, notably by Czech artists, some of whom had an affinity for France, frequenting Prague's Cafe Slavia. Its wider appeal is uncertain, though it was sold in many shops in and around Prague. There is evidence that at least one local liquor distillery, in Bohemia, was purporting to make absinthe at the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
Spurred by the temperance movement and wine makers' associations, absinthe was publicised in connection with several violent crimes supposedly committed under the influence of the drink. This, combined with rising hard-liquor consumption caused by the wine shortage in France during the 1880s and 1890s, effectively labelled absinthe a social menace. Its critics said that "Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganises and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country." Edgar Degas' 1876 painting L'Absinthe (Absinthe) (now at the Musée d'Orsay) epitomised the popular view of absinthe 'addicts' as sodden and benumbed; Émile Zola described their serious intoxication in his novel L'Assommoir.
In 1905, it was reported that a man named Jean Lanfray murdered his family and attempted to kill himself after drinking absinthe. The fact that he was an alcoholic who had drunk considerably after the two glasses of absinthe in the morning was overlooked, and the murders were blamed solely on absinthe. The Lanfray murders were the last straw, and a petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland was quickly signed by over 82,000 people.
Soon thereafter (in 1906), Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and redistribution of absinthe, although they were not the first. Absinthe was banned as early as 1898 in the Congo Free State (later Belgian Congo). In Switzerland, the prohibition of absinthe was even written into the constitution in 1907, following a popular initiative. The Netherlands came next, banning absinthe in 1909, followed by the United States in 1912 and France in 1915. Around the same time, Australia banned the liquor too. The prohibition of absinthe in France led to the growing popularity of pastis and ouzo, anise-flavoured liqueurs that do not use wormwood. Although Pernod moved their absinthe production to Spain, where absinthe was still legal, slow sales eventually caused it to close down. In Switzerland, it drove absinthe underground. Evidence suggests small home clandestine distillers have been producing absinthe since the ban, focusing on La Bleues as it was easier to hide a clear product. Many countries never banned absinthe, notably the United Kingdom, which eventually led to its revival.
The legacy of absinthe as a mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues to this day. Absinthe has served as the subject of numerous works of fine art, films, video, music and literature since the mid-19th century.
Numerous artists and writers living in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were noted absinthe drinkers who featured absinthe in their work. These included Emile Zola, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, Arthur Rimbaud, Guy de Maupassant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Verlaine. Later artists and writers drew from this cultural well, including Pablo Picasso, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway. Aleister Crowley was also known to be a habitual absinthe drinker. Emile Cohl, an early pioneer in the art of animation, presented the effects of the drink in 1920 with the short film, Hasher's Delirium.
The aura of illicitness and mystery surrounding absinthe has played into modern literature, movies, music and television. Such depictions vary in their authenticity, often applying dramatic license to depict the drink as a flaming green neon liquid that ranges from an aphrodisiac to poison, and always seems to be a catalyst of vivid hallucinations.