The story of Absinthe and the Green Fairy

The Green Fairy is the English translation of La Fee Verte, the affectionate French nickname given to the celebrated absinthe drink in the nineteenth century. The nickname stuck, and over a century later, “absinthe” and “Green Fairy” continue to be used interchangeably by devotees of the potent green alcohol. Mind you, absinthe earned other nicknames, too: poets and artists were inspired by the “Green Muse”; Aleister Crowley, the British occultist, worshipped the “Green Goddess”. But no other nickname stuck as well as the original, and many drinkers of absinthe refer to the green liquor simply as La Fee – the Fairy.

But Green Fairy isn’t just another name for absinthe: she is a metaphorical concept of artistic enlightenment and exploration, of poetic inspiration, of a freer state of mind, of new ideas, of a changing social order. To the ignorant drunk, absinthe will forever remain but potent alcohol, perhaps with a bit of thujone “high” thrown in. To the original bohemians of 1890s Paris, the Fairy was a welcomed symbol of transformation. She was the trusted guide en-route to artistic innovativation; she was the symbol of thirst (for life) to Arthur Rimbaud, the first “punk poet”: it was the Fairy who guided him — and his fellow poet and partner Paul Verlaine — on their quest to escape the conventional reality of their time into the sanctuary of the surreal.

Transformation has always been the fundamental essence of the Green Fairy, for transformation is what she provides on several parallels. During the magical ritual of la louche, the drink itself first transforms from the concentrated, alcohol-rich, deep emerald green liquor into an alluring opalescent, cloudy greenish-white mixture. This, of course, is symbolic of the subsequent transformation that shall take place in the drinker’s mind. As the cool water liberates the power of wormwood oiland the other herbal ingredients from the green concentrate, so will new ideas, concepts and notions be set free in the mind of the drinker — be he a poet, an artist, a scientist, or the common man on the street.

Absinthe first gained its notoriety in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when it became the drink of choice among bohemian intellectuals, writers, poets and artists in France and across Europe. Soon, the emerald green liquor was consumed by people from all walks of life. While the lower classes celebrated l’heure verte (the green hour) in Parisian bars and cafes (a pre-dinner period when patrons drank a glass or two as an aperitif), painters and poets created art and poems dedicated to La Fee Verte (the “Green Fairy” ) as the drink became known.

At that time, absinthe was far more than just another alcoholic beverage: absinthe was the very icon of la vie boheme, even a way of life for some. The Fairy reached the shores of America, too, where the drink became especially popular in New Orleans.

Absinthe was originally served with chilled water, which was poured into a glass of the green spirit over a sugar cube that was placed on a perforated spoon resting on the top of the glass. Although other methods of drinking absinthe have evolved since, especially in the late 1990s, the original nineteenth-century ritual of preparing absinthe, known as la louche, remains an important part of the absinthe experience for all serious absinthe connoisseurs.

A drink with strange powers?

It is believed that the louche process of adding water to the strong alcohol allows the release of essential oils from the herbs from which the absinthe drink is made, particularly thujone-bearing wormwood. These oils, drinkers believe, not only counter the usual intoxicating effects of alcohol, but they also bring the mind to a peculiar state of alertness, enhance one’s sensory perception and even unlock hidden creative powers — hence absinthe’s popularity among nineteenth-century avant-garde artistic community.

Perhaps the most remarkable celebrity absinthe drinker of that age was the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. Painters Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gaugin were also fond of absinthe, as was the child rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud. Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and many others writers, poets and artists also drank absinthe for its unusual effects.

And how did it all start?

Absinthe was first created in 1792 by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland. His intention was to deliver the extract of thewormwood plant — which had long been known to have powerful healing effects — in a handy form.

Commercial absinthe production began in 1797 when a man named Major Dubied bought the recipe from Dr. Ordinaire and proceeded to manufacture the spirit with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland.

The business proved a success and in 1805, Pernod moved production to a larger facility across the border in Pontarlier, France. Although Pernod Fils only distilled some 16 litres of absinthe when it first started, it only took a few short years for production to increase to over 400 litres per day. But it was still nothing compared to what was yet to come.

The first absinthe fever

From its humble beginnings as a medicinal elixir, absinthe steadily grew into a global phenomenon.

In France, absinthe quickly caught on as the favourite drink of the aristocracy. In the 1850’s, the popularity of absinthe skyrocketed as the bohemian crowd embraced the “Green Fairy”. Many famous poets, writers and artists of the day routinely reached for a glass in search of inspiration.

By the 1870’s, the absinthe craze was felt at all levels of the French society; just about everyone was drinking it. Days started with a glass of absinthe and ended with l’heure verte (the late-afternoon “green hour” ) when one or more glasses were drunk as an aperitif before supper.

Interestingly, it is believed that it was the 1870’s blight in the French vineyards that ignited the spread of absinthe — once the exclusive drink of the aristocracy — across the social spectrum. At the time, wine was often drank with water, because water of that day had a high bacterial content and wine was believed to help. When the phylloxera blight caused a hike in the price of wine, working classes turned to cheaper absinthe to “purify” their water.

By the end of the nineteenth century, France alone was gulping down over 2 million litres of the liquid per year. In 1910, according to some reports, this had reached a whopping 36 million litres annually. By then, the absinthe fever had crossed the borders of France, and the demand for the drink spawned a successful Europe-wide industry of absinthe distilleries nestled in Swiss valleys and Bohemian forests.

Absinthe proved a great leveler in class-conscious Europe. Once beloved by the aristocracy, it moved through society with a freedom that was its own. At cafes from Paris to Prague, absinthe was drunk by artists and labourers, butchers and bankers. Astonishingly for the time, even genteel womenfolk freely enjoyed the elaborate absinthe ritual in public.

Traditional ritual of preparing absinthe:

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