Absinthe Friends

Degas - L'Absinthe
L’Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas, in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Public domain.

It’s the drink that symbolised the Bohemian culture of la Belle Epoque in late 19th  to early 20th-century Paris. It was consumed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire and Satie, painted by Degas and Manet and immortalised in early silent films. This beverage had a harmless-sounding nickname, la fée verte (the green fairy), but came to be demonised for its supposedly harmful effects. What is it? Absinthe.

Like many such drinks, absinthe was made by distilling plants and herbs, in this case Artemisia absinthium (common wormwood). It also included sweet fennel, green anise and various other herbs. Absinthe is highly alcoholic, typically being bottled at between 60% and 74% alcohol by volume, but it is normally diluted with water. The drink is a naturally green colour, but it can also be colourless.

Varieties of absinthe. Copyright © Ari, Wikimedia Commons

Sources of inspiration

Several things came together to inspire my interest in this drink. Last week, I was idly flicking through a French magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, when I came upon a photo of common wormwood. I vaguely knew that this was the main ingredient of absinthe, but I had never before seen its attractive feathery foliage.

Also, I am reading a biography of the French painter, Suzanne Valadon, Renoir’s Dancer, by Catherine Hewitt. She came to our local library recently to talk about Valadon, who succeeded in a man’s world in Belle Epoque Paris, having started out as an artist’s model. This fascinating biography paints a vivid picture of life in Montmartre, the hang-out of artists, writers and the demi-monde. Absinthe was one of the drinks of choice.

Elaborate preparation

Absinthe was almost a legend in its own lifetime. The elaborate preparation of the drink became a ritual, which caught the imagination of café drinkers. A measure of absinthe was poured into a glass. A special slotted spoon was then placed over the glass with a sugar cube on top. Iced water was dripped over the sugar, which diluted the absinthe and sweetened it, since the wormwood makes it very bitter if taken neat. The addition of water turns the absinthe cloudy, a bit like pastis.

Two absinthe glasses, copyright Eric Litton, Wikimedia Commons

Another method involved soaking the sugar in alcohol, setting it alight and dropping it into the absinthe, which ignited in turn. Iced water was poured in to put out the flames.

La boisson qui rend fou (the drink that makes you mad)

Absinthe originated in Switzerland but became increasingly popular in France during the 19th century. However, it began to be accused of causing hallucination, brain damage and madness. Emile Zola graphically described its ravages in L’Assommoir.  This was not exactly conducive to the war effort during WWI if solders on leave over-imbibed, so absinthe was banned in France in 1915, as well as in other countries, although not in Spain.

In fact, there’s little evidence that absinthe is more dangerous than any other alcohol taken to excess. The unpleasant side effects may have been caused by adulterating substances in the cheaper versions. The French government lifted the ban on it in 2011.

Spirited revival

The town of Pontarlier, near the Swiss border, was absinthe capital of France. In its heyday, 23 distilleries produced 10 million litres of the drink every year. Since absinthe’s revival, production has been increasing again and around 15 distilleries in France produce nearly one million litres per year.

I have not discovered any local distilleries that make absinthe. A small distillery in Sanvensa, about 25 km away, makes various liquors using regional ingredients and recipes, but absinthe does not seem to be among them. Similarly, there is no record of absinthe having been a drink of choice among the local paysans, who drank mostly wine or vieille prune (plum eau de vie).

During a visit to Cantal a few years ago, in the interests of research, I sampled gentiane, a local liquor produced from roots and herbs. Ce n’était pas mon truc, as they say. Dear readers, absinthe doesn’t appeal to me at all. You’ll have to try it for yourselves. Let me know what you think, if you do.

Thiezac - Sept 11 Gentiane
Each served in its own special glass Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2012

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  1. Ha ha ha – you know I did exactly that when we went with friends to a musical/entertainment evening in a village hall because dear and very highly esteemed friends of us played there for a charity…. And we won a bottle of saphire blue Gin which looked so evil that I thought they had just tinted water to make it look interesting. I then was lectured that no indeed it was a very respectable and quite expensive gin, so we happily passed it on to our friends who are less complicated than we are (the Swiss generally are not great G&T drinkers and we certainly go rather for red wine than the heavy stuff). I just looked it up again and here we are: Bombay Sapphire for €72.- the bottle…. So it should be good! 🙂 But we DID say that somebody surely must have passed on that bottle from another tombola to this one – this is SO funny and made me laugh out loud!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, you know, Bombay Sapphire is supposed to be one of the best! I don’t drink spirits myself, I stick to wine. My husband would have drunk the gin, though.


      • I’m with you on that one. The gin was a roaring succes when we were invited to that friend’s 60th birthday! I vastly prefer wine too 🍷😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I quite often threaten people with Absinthe – for example,in Lyon with two daughters and my son-in-law yesterday the latter was being a little grouchy as we sought the Brasserie we had booked in ever decreasing circles. Walking through the Christmas market I said – ‘do we think absinthe would help your spirits, G?’ He knows me well enough to know I would certainly see this notion through to its (sugared) bitter conclusion and instantly bucked up. We had a fabulous lunch in Brasserie George and all was well. I so enjoy reading your posts …. you spark so many reminders in my knotty brain … bits of buried history, things I have read, things I should read, things I should see. That is really such a gift.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, threatening people with that bitter pill sounds very effective! I have never been to Lyon. It’s quite a long drive from here, although less than an hour on the plane from Toulouse. It is on our bucket list.

      Thanks for your kind words about my posts. I have a magpie mind and flit from one thing to the next. Blogging suits that tendency very well. It is less of an advantage when it comes to more sustained pieces of work!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Magpies are some of my favourite people. Including me 😉 Lyon is well worth the trip … I intend to go for a couple of nights in the New Year on my own just to soak it up – this was the quickest of flits and really didn’t do it justice 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vanessa; I’ve popped over from Osyth’ blog (small world as she is replying to the same post…) and I had to laugh twice; first when I ‘flew through’ your Absinthe post (as a Swiss I have a certain interest…. but I really don’t like it!) and secondly to thank you for your kind words of advice (said with a smile in your lines) AND to send you to Lyon ASAP. I had the rare chance to accompany Hero Husband when he had to take a trip to Lyon by car (he usually takes the 1st train in the morning and comes back on a late one in the eve). We stayed there 2 nights, or rather I did, because he was out from early morning to late and I had the place to myself. It’s a FANTASTIC, wonderful, beautiful, history-studded beauty, people are kind and helpful (so much so that I had to ward them off, I couldn’t even open my city-map without various offers of help, you try that in Paris….!). I fell so much in love with Lyon that I wanted to pack my suitcases the very same day and am still heartbroken a ew months later over the unsuccessful event of ‘permanent escapism’ then, in September! Go, girl, go…. In summer, take a ‘cruise’ on the two rivers, to me this is the ‘must do’ in every place with waterways and the other tip is to buy a day-card on trams/bus lines, it’s an intense city and even with a day-card I did miles and miles on cobblestones, and was sighing my way up and down steep lanes. BUT it’s so worth it. If you need anybody to carry your handbag or your camera, I’m your woman! Take care and all the best, Kiki

        NOTRE DAME PARIS - in memoriam

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hello, Kiki. Thanks for popping over from Osyth’s and for following. Yes, it is a small world. She and I discovered that we had lived in the same area in England some time ago and our paths may even have crossed without our knowing it. We had to come to France and start writing blogs in order to “meet”. We hope to do so in person soon.

          Thanks also for your encouragement to go to Lyon and for your tips. It is definitely on our bucket list. We just need to do it! I have been there once for the day (!) on business, but that wasn’t even in the city centre. It sounds like the kind of place that needs several days to appreciate it.


      • I like the term MAGPIE MIND 😍
        Might need to adopt it. It’s me 100%. I realise it when Hero Husband has NO idea what his sweet woman is talking about …. but he does it too!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Artemisia is such a beautiful plant, and it was very easy to grow. It did become a bit of a thug, squeezing out the plants around it, so in the end it had to go! I did chew on a leaf once, but found it far too bitter to do anything with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never grown artemisia and I shall have to try it in a place I need covered up. But I shall heed the warning about its effect on other plants! It’s clearly only good for making absinthe.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love the shrub..Artemisia/wormwood;loathe the drink altho’ by coincidence (yet another) I found one of those spoon thingies yesterday in a lot I bought at a brocante. Had no idea what it was so thank you for the enlightenment… oh yes and for an interesting post. 🙂 Did it really take so long for the French government to lift the ban? Don’t suppose manufacturers were too happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t seen the plant before seeing the photo of one in a mag. I don’t think I will ever try absinthe, but I would rather like one of those spoons. Lucky you to find one in a brocante. I shall have to look out for them. The ban was definitively lifted in 2011, but some of the legislation had been relaxed before that. The Vichy government, of course, was very anti alcohol, which perpetuated the ban.


  5. I bought a small bottle at the airport a few years ago. It is truly nasty tasting, but I had never heard about the sugar cube and water. I’ll stick to gin and tonic.


    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m quite sure I wouldn’t like it. I tend to drink only wine, anyway, since I don’t care for spirits. The sugar was obviously there to sweeten it. Like a lot of these herbal-based concoctions, I imagine absinthe is very bitter.


  6. Great article. I was introduced to absinthe in a bistro on Paris 10+ years ago. Still there and is called L’absinthe! Enjoy the drink and ritual

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’ve heard of that bistro. I expect the ritual is part of the enjoyment. Have you experienced the setting-alight ritual? Apparently, that was a later innovation and wasn’t done in Belle Epoque France.


  7. Woah, spooky! I was at a local fete de Noel this morning and one stall selling spirits had some colourful bottles of absinthe with Vincent van Gogh on the label. I wanted to sneak a photo but the stall holder was right beside me! 🙂 Then I opened my phone and there was your article on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a coincidence! And that sort of thing keeps happening to me. Yesterday, I was humming a WWI song that I rarely sing, only to find that a blogging friend had quoted it in her latest post. I have been trying to find bottles of absinthe to snap, but without success, so I had to use a Wikimedia shot in the end. Have you tried absinthe?

      Liked by 1 person

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