Absinthe and the Return of the Green Fairy, Artemisia

Christopher Holstege

Christopher Holstege

On absinthe, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde once said: “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás once said that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This may be no truer than for the increasingly popular drink absinthe. One of the most popular and intriguing intoxicants of the Victorian Age, absinthe had all but disappeared after it was banned in nearly all developed countries in the early 1900s. A recent resurgence of absinthe use has occurred in Europe and is rapidly spreading to the United States of America. Despite its increasing popularity, very little information exists on the mechanism of action and toxicity of absinthe. This article aims to shed some light on these and other historical aspects of absinthe.

Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is a woody perennial plant native to Europe, Southern Siberia, and the Mediterranean. It is the oils from this plant that are thought to be the key ingredient separating absinthe from other strong liquors. Wormwood’s usage dates back for centuries with the earliest documented usage being found in copies of the Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1550 B. C. Writings in this work are from as early as 3550 B. C. Wormwood’s name is based on its use as an anthelmintic, which dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Extracts of wormwood are described as being of high antiquity in Pliny the Elder’s ‘Historia Naturalis,’ from the first century A. D. reek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and author Pedanius Dioscorides describes wormwood and its uses in his work 65 A. D. work ‘De Materia Medica.’ This work served as the pharmacopoeia for over 1500 years after its completion. Along with its anthelmintic properties, wormwood also found usage in religious ceremonies.

Absinthe, a strong liqueur containing wormwood extract, reached its peak popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was written in a 1906 Lancet article that “Paris has only 17,000 bakers, 14,500 butchers, but 33,000 drink sellers. In France, 160,000 employed in the production of bread; no less than 500,000 employed in cabarets.” In the early 1900s, France imported two million gallons of absinthe annually. This magnitude of usage, along with the acute and chronic effects of absinthe, led most countries to ban the drink containing wormwood. As early as 1872, the French National Assembly attempted to control absinthe production and sales, without success. 3 In 1908, Switzerland banned absinthe, followed shortly by the United States of America, with France the following suit in 1915.

In recent years, the sale of absinthe has again become legal in several countries. Today, you may purchase absinthe in the Czech Republic, Japan, Portugal, and Spain. It is sold in clubs in the United Kingdom, and with the development of the Internet, anyone anywhere may obtain a bottle. As a result, there has been a resurgence of absinthe usage, even in the United States of America.

The widespread use of absinthe stems back to Napoléon Bonaparte’s conquest of Algeria in the 1840s. During these wars, Napoléon Bonaparte’s soldiers spiked their wine with wormwood extract. This was thought to prevent helminth infestation and “fevers.” Upon returning to France, they found that absinthe quench their thirst for wormwood. The soldiers in turn introduced civilians to the intoxicating effects of this alluring drink, and the “Age of the Green Fairy” had begun.

Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French physician in Switzerland, is believed to have developed the recipe for absinthe sometime before 1790, selling it as a “cure-all.” It consisted primarily of ethanol, 140 proof, with several herbs added for flavour including calamus root, angelica root, coriander, hyssop, lemon balm, anise, fennel, and others. The most distinctive ingredient, separating absinthe from other liqueurs at that time, was wormwood extract. The oils of wormwood impart to absinthe both its bitter taste (from a compound called absinthin, giving it its name) and its unique neurologic effects. In 1797, Henri-Louis Pernod, a Swiss distiller, purchased the recipe from Pierre Ordinaire. He began bottling absinthe under the label Pernod, and he made his fortune.

It was not until the late nineteenth-century. However, that absinthe enjoyed its peak in popularity. This was a direct result of the love affair that Parisian artists, poets, and playwrights had with the drink. The list of notable and enthusiastic absinthe drinkers includes Alfred Jarry, Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Celan, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, and Ernest Miller Hemingway, to name a few. Many of these artistic geniuses implored absinthe’s virtues in their younger years but damned its ravaging effects at the end of their lives. Absinthe was not just for artists and literaries. As mentioned above, Parisians from all walks of life consumed a vast amount of the beverage during the last quarter of the nineteenth-century through the first decade of the twentieth-century. So popular was the drink in Paris that 17:00 to 19:00. was known as the l’heure verte (the green hour), 1,3 reflecting the fact that nearly all of the 33,000 bars and cafes were filled with patrons sipping absinthe. Even on the outskirts of Paris, in the old village of Montmartre, it was noted that “the sickly odour of absinthe lies heavy on the air.” Popular belief held that absinthe expanded the consciousness, renewed brain activity, and held aphrodisiac qualities. Above all of this, however, was the power of ritual.

Absinthe, a green-gold liquid, derives its colour from the chlorophyll extracted from the many herbs it contains. Because of the extremely bitter taste that wormwood imparts and the high alcohol content, it is rarely served neat. There are many ways to partake of absinthe, all of them providing a bit of ritual to go along with the potent intoxicants. The most traditional method of drinking absinthe involves placing a cube of sugar on an absinthe spoon (a slotted spoon or sieve). The spoon is placed or held over a glass containing about an ounce of absinthe. Cold water is poured over the sugar and into the glass, dissolving the sugar into the drink. Dilution of the liqueur by the water yields an opaque opalescent green liquid, which shimmers in the glass. The turbidity or louche (pronounced “loosh”) is produced by dissolution of the essential oils when the alcohol concentration is lowered. With such a magnificent presentation, it is little wonder that commoners became enthralled with imbibing absinthe. It represented a magical moment to escape the poverty of their everyday lives. Along with its resurgence have come new ways to drink absinthe. These usually involve lighting the drink on fire and sometimes even incorporate inhaling absinthe vapours to accentuate the rush that thrill seekers are looking for. Absinthe is extremely bitter, tasting of licorice, but with an herbal, medicinal quality described as being “like a little toothpaste mixed with cràme de menthe and Jägermeister.”

The most famous and tragic lover of absinthe was Vincent Willem van Gogh. Many theories have been purported as to the cause of Vincent Willem van Gogh’s mental illness and eventual suicide. Vincent Willem van Gogh was a heavy user of absinthe; toward the end of his life, addicted to absinthe, Vincent Willem van Gogh became malnourished from its excessive use and its effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Although many authors have theorised that Vincent Willem van Gogh’s unique yellow vision arose from digitalis toxicity, thujone, the active chemical in absinthe, is known to cause altered visual perception. Suffering from seizures and hallucinations, Vincent Willem van Gogh has been considered by some analysts to have been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, porphyria, and complicated migraine. Absinthe toxicity, however, remains a possibility, as chronic use is known to cause both seizures and hallucinations.

Supporting this notion, Vincent Willem van Gogh’s fits were controlled by bromide along with abstinence from absinthe, treatments believed by one author to benefit absinthe addiction, but likely having no effect on temporal lobe epilepsy. Supporting the notion of Vincent Willem van Gogh’s love and addiction of terpenoid compounds are the reports of him drinking turpentine and sleeping on a pillow soaked with camphor. Pinene in turpentine, camphor, and the thujone in absinthe all belong to a similar class of proconvulsant compounds called terpenes.

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