Absinthe in the Belle Époque

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Often there are eras throughout history that double as snapshots of a moment frozen in time. Between the people, place, and timing, there are different forces that come together fortuitously to encapsulate the essence of the moment. One may deem the swinging ’60s in London as an example of this, the youth-driven cultural revolution emphasizing complete and total hedonism. Or perhaps the Renaissance, spanning from the 14th to 17th centuries, during which an infectious cultural movement spread across Europe birthing some of the greatest artworks of all time. Though no era seems to compare to the intoxicating mystique of Paris during the Belle Époque or „Beautiful Era.“ Defined as the period between 1871 and 1915, it was a time when the golden age of creatives who resided in Paris ruled under the hypnosis of le fée vert or „the green fairy.“

However, the green fairy is no tiny mythical creature with wings, but rather the nickname for the fabled hallucinogenic liquor called absinthe. It’s the highly-alcoholic beverage with a reputation–the one that allegedly drove Vincent van Gogh mad; the one Ernest Hemingway would drink and subsequently perform knife tricks at the bar. In a time when Paris acted as a hub for some of history’s great creative minds, absinthe was seemingly in the middle of it all as a common muse. Author Oscar Wilde put it perfectly, saying „A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?“ But to understand how absinthe came to be one of the most revered and most controversial drinks of all time, one must start at the beginning.

Absinthe was first created in the 1790s by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland. Dr. Ordinaire created absinthe with the intent for it to be used as an alcohol-based elixir distilled from the bitter-tasting herb Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. In ancient times, the Greeks and Egyptians prescribed wormwood for ailments like menstrual cramps and fevers. Beneath its wispy leafs, the wormwood plant holds a secret: it’s naturally rich in thujone, a chemical compound believed to trigger inexplicable transformations of the mind. Many reported „mind-illuminating“ effects, believing that it enhanced perception, creativity, and enabled the ability to „see beyond.“

Typically, there’s a specific ritual and paraphernalia used when serving the drink. A special slotted spoon holding a sugar cube sits on top of a glass filled with absinthe. The glass is then placed under a fountain and water is slowly dripped over the sugar until it dissolves. Though there are many ways to serve absinthe, try Hemingway’s ultra-French cocktail. Named after his book Death in the Afternoon, the drink involves a jigger of absinthe and cold champagne mixed until it attains an opalescent milkiness. „Drink three to five of these slowly,“ Hemingway advises.

However, the most defining feature of absinthe is its brilliant, herbaceous green shade that appears almost glowing. Though the spirit can be colorless, the chlorophyll content in the wormwood works as a colorant. Similarly to wines, the chlorophyll also acts as a natural tannin creating the palatable sensation of an acidic dryness.

Commercial production of absinthe began in 1797 when a man named Major Dubied bought the recipe from Dr. Ordinaire and began manufacturing it in Couvet, Switzerland. Aromatic flavors like warm anise and sweet fennel were added into the recipe as it was produced as an apéritif.

The popularity of absinthe skyrocketed in the 1850s when it was given to French troops as a malaria preventative. Soldiers‘ taste for the emerald liquor ensured its presence in local bars, bistros, and cabarets in Paris. By the 1860s, the French five o’clock happy hour was called l’heure verte or „the green hour.“

The absinthe craze permeated Paris, favored amongst aristocrats and the middle-class. More and more people began partaking in the new cocktail with its supposed psychedelic effects as a hunger for absolute decadence increased during this time. Various artists and writers living in the area began to use absinthe to clear the mind and search for inspiration. In the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist says absinthe is “Opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy. It’s supposed to rot your brain out, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.” The drink additionally provided muse for legendary figures and historic works in the art movements of Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, and Cubism. In the spring of 1914, artist Pablo Picasso created six copies of his sculptural work „Glass of Absinthedepicting an image of the drink decorated with an authentic absinthe spoon. Many art historians claim that Vincent van Gogh’s bizarre paintings and strange behavior were a result of his love of absinthe. It’s said that Van Gogh would even drink turpentine and eat paints to feel effects comparable to absinthe due to a similar chemical ingredient.

It seemed absinthe flowed on tap for the lost generation in Paris. By 1880, mass production caused the price to drop, making it more accessible to all classes. The French were drinking a whopping 36 million liters of absinthe per year by 1910 rivaling their almost 5 billion liters consumption of wine. Allegedly, the fierce competition led to fabricated claims and smear campaigns on absinthe orchestrated by the wine industry. The alcohol that originated as a medicine soon became associated with violent crimes, social disorders, and drug usage. Edgar Degas‘ 1876 painting „L’Absintheportraying a woman drearily slumped over her glass of absinthe depicts the attitude towards the drink at the end of the century. The vilification of absinthe was a success and ultimately led to the prohibition of the liquor written into laws of various countries. In 1912, the United States declared absinthe illegal with France following their lead in 1915.

Today, absinthe laws differ from place to place. While many countries have since allowed production of absinthe, most countries have their own version bearing little to no resemblance to the original spirit. Most of the focus is on the thujone levels present in the liquor, as it is the chemical component that supposedly makes the consumer trip. The United States absinthe sale requires thujone content to be under 10 milligrams making it legally thujone-free. Countries like Australia and the European Union allow up to a 35 milligram thujone content.

The fact of the matter is, it’s likely absinthe didn’t derange the visionary artists. Rather, the larger issue was the sheer quantity of the exceptionally high-proof liquor that writers and artists began to drink. It’s said that illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would drink around six bottles a day. The drink’s convivial effects intoxicated Paris, allowing the green fairy to cast a spell that continues to hold attraction to this day. Representations of the green fairy are found all over, including in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 drama Moulin Rouge! where Kylie Minogue was a tiny personification of absinthe as a green fairy. Even singer-songwriter Marilyn Manson has his own line of absinthe appropriately called Mansinthe.

A prominent muse of art nouveau’s great works and literary masterpieces, the elegant serving process and mystery behind the spirit make it one of the many curiosities that were quintessential to Paris in its most beautiful and most indulgent era.

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