Sometimes referred to as “the green fairy,” absinthe is a highly alcoholic green liquor made from a variety of aromatic herbs. It is said to have been invented in 1792 by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French expatriate living in Switzerland, as a means of delivering the medicinal qualities of wormwood in a relatively palatable form.
The liquor is prepared from the leaves of common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and other ingredients steeped in alcohol, including licorice, star anise, fennel, hyssop, and angelica root. Many absinthe drinkers believed that wormwood was the source of its legendary hallucinogenic powers, but most modern scientific analysis attributes its effects to the very high alcohol content, sometimes as high as 70 or 80 percent. In addition, some less-reputable distillers used toxic chemicals to fake the brilliant green color and other characteristics of absinthe, further contributing to its toxicity and notoriety.
The traditional absinthe drink was prepared with a special slotted spoon on which a sugar cube was placed. Water was sluiced over the sugar and into a glass containing absinthe until the liquid turned a milky, greenish- white color. This correct color and consistency, called “louche,” indicated that the bitter taste of straight absinthe had been adequately diluted. Only a few daring individuals would drink absinthe straight.
Absinthe was popular in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century among artists and writers, including the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and the Irish poet Oscar Wilde. Postimpressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec combined absinthe and cognac to produce a drink he called an “earthquake.”
The popularity of absinthe in America was largely restricted to the demimonde, or cultural underworld, of New Orleans, a city with deep ties to France. On Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (Vieux Carré), an establishment known as the Old Absinthe House had a spigot used solely for dripping water through sugar-loaded absinthe spoons.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, opposition to absinthe began to develop among people who disapproved of recreational intoxicants. An almost hysterical fear of absinthism led to the drink being lumped together with opiates and other powerful drugs. Exaggerated accounts of debaucheries committed by absinthe drinkers led legislators on both sides of the Atlantic to ban its production and consumption. The United States banned absinthe in 1912, almost a decade before Prohibition.