The birthplace of absinthe was Val-de-Travers (district in the canton of Neuchatel, in Switzerland).
Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is credited with the invention of absinthe in 1792 (Conrad, 1988). It was first created as a remedy for many ailments such as epilepsy, gout, kidney stones, colic and headaches. Ordinaire was a French doctor traveling around the Val-de-Travers region. However, there is documentation that suggests that the Henriod sisters were making absinthe prior to Ordinaire’s arrival (Baker, 2001).
The recipe was purchased by Major Dubied in 1797. He turned the elixir into an aperitif that could be enjoyed by many. He opened his first distillery with his son Marcellin, and his son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod in Couvet Switzerland. He opened a second larger distillery in Pontarlier France in 1805 (Lanier, 1995).
Absinthe continued to become more popular in the French and Swiss regions. At the same time France sent troops to Algeria in 1830 to lay the groundwork for the beginning of the French North African Empire (Adams, 2004).
Initial conquests of Algiers, Oran, and Bone led to the extension of the French territory. In 1839, Arab chief, Abd-el-Kader led a strong resistance to the French (Adams, 2004). However, in 1847 Abd-el-Kader was captured.
During this time French soldiers were suffering tremendously as they were unaccustomed to the African conditions. Doctors suggested the use of absinthe in the place of quinine because it was much more cost effective (Lanier, 1995). The French soldiers also used absinthe to purify their unhealthy drinking water. It caused roundworms to loosen their grip, allowing them to be defecated from the body (Adams, 2000).
As the French soldiers came back victorious from battle with the developing empire underway, they took to the cafes with their new drink, une verte’, which is referencing the green color of absinthe before water is added (Adams, 2000).
The French citizens wanted to feel as if they were a part of the successful foreign campaigns, not just in Northern Africa, but also in Madagascar and Indo-China (Owens & Nathan, 2010). This was France’s first victories since the early years of the Napoleonic wars. The local dairy farmer would be sitting at a café and see the unusual, exotic drink the soldier was drinking and say “I’ll have what he’s having”, and thus began the l’heure verte or the green hour (Adams, 2004).
The golden age for absinthe was 1850-1870. The Bourgeoisie and the military were creating a new France. The l’heure verte was prior to dinner. This is when people would consume a glass or two of absinthe to sharpen their appetite for dinner. Bars and bistros exploded with business during the green hour. However, it was still relatively expensive, and only the upper middle class could indulge. Absinthe hit its peak between 1880-1910, when the price fell drastically (Baker, 2001). Now, everyone could enjoy absinthe. In 1874, 700,000 litres were consumed. By, 1910, that figure rose significantly to 36,000,000, and then exploded to 220,000,000 by 1912 (Conrad, 1988). It was also being exported to the United States. By 1878, 8 million litres were being exported annually.
During this time period, absinthe became very popular with authors and artists. It was thought to release creativity while consuming the drink. It was also painted regularly because of its vibrant green color, and the alleged psychoactive properties (Adams, 2004). It inspired and appeared in works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Emmanuel Maignan. It also was drank by Oscar Wilde, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, and later in the 20th century Ernest Hemingway (Lanier, 1995).
On August 28, 1905 in the village of Commugny in the Vaud canton of Switzerland, Jean Lafray, a married 31 year old vineworker with two young children and a pregnant wife, awoke at 4:30am to start his daily routine (Adams, 2004). Lanfray would have an absinthe with three parts of water. On this day, he told his wife to wax his boots so he could go mushroom hunting the next day. At 5:30am, on his way to work with his father and brother, he stopped in at a local inn and consumed a crème de menthe and a cognac. According to Adams, Lanfray worked until noon, and then sat down to lunch consisting of bread, cheese, sausage and three glasses of piquette, which is a strong homemade red wine. He continued to work until 3pm, and then took another break. He had two glasses of red wine, and then went back to work. Approximately an hour later, a neighbor gave him another glass of red wine. Lanfray finished his work day at 4:30pm, and headed to a bar with his brother and father. He had a coffee and a cognac (Adams, 2004).
According to Conrad, Lanfray would ingest somewhere between two and two and a half litres of red table wine and the same amount of piquette every day. Additionally he would have several brandies, cordials, and absinthe in a day. Lanfray was a diagnosed alcoholic.
When Lanfray arrived back at home from the bar at 5:30pm, he consumed a litre of piquette. His wife asked him to milk the cows, and Lanfray responded by telling her to do it herself, which she did (Adams, 2004). He demanded coffee, and complained that it was cold. At this point, he noticed his boots had not been waxed, and began shouting and screaming at her. She shouted back at him. Lanfray told his wife to shut up, she taunted him, and told him to make her. According to Adams, Lanfray got up from the table, retrieved his Vetterli repeating rifle, took aim, and shot his wife through the forehead. Lanfray’s father fled the house to get the police. Lanfray’s 4 year old daughter, Rose heard the commotion and walked into the kitchen. Her father shot her in the chest, and she died immediately on the floor of the kitchen. Lanfray then walked in to his 1 year old daughter’s cradle, and shot her in the chest as well. He then tried to kill himself, but the barrel of the gun was too long. He decided to tie a piece of string around the trigger so he could shoot himself in the head. This was unsuccessful, the bullet missed his brain and lodged itself in Lanfray’s lower jaw. This caused a massive exsanguination from the mandible. As Lanfray was losing vast amounts of blood, he picked up his daughter, and went out to the family barn, and fell asleep. He was found by the police, and taken to the hospital in Nyon. Lanfray would be found guilty on February 23, 1906, and sentenced to life in prison. Three days later he would hang himself in his cell.
The crime became headline news, and without any other cause, absinthe became culprit for these grisly murders.
This was the catalyst to ban absinthe in Switzerland, and other countries. Within a few days after the murders, 82,000 villagers in the canton of Vaud had signed a petition to ban the sale, and production of absinthe. On May 15, 1906 Vaud bans absinthe. This is followed by the Grand Counsel of Switzerland voting to ban the retail sale of absinthe on February 2, 1907. On October 11, 1910, absinthe is officially banned in Switzerland under article 32 of the Swiss Federal Constitution.
On the heels of the outlawing of absinthe in Switzerland, the United States passed legislation to ban the spirit in 1912 (Baker, 2001). By 1915, absinthe was banned in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1922, France passed a law allowing imitation absinthe. This is absinthe made without wormwood (Conrad, 1988). However, the Swiss and French people preferred the real absinthe which was being bootlegged and black marketed successfully in all of the countries that banned absinthe. This underground absinthe movement would continue until July 21, 1998 when George Rowley would secure the United Kingdom’s government’s authorization on the document that allows absinthe to be legally sold in the European Union after being banned for over a half a century (Lanier, 1995).
Rowley and partners would sell absinthe under the company, Green Bohemia. This absinthe was produced from a tiny distillery in the Czech Republic. While most people would agree that it didn’t have the pleasant taste of the traditional French and Swiss absinthes, people still would thirst for absinthe (Baker, 2001). One drinker at a Czech pub stated “You drink absinthe to get drunk quickly- only a masochist would add water and make it a long lasting drink.”
In 2000 Green Bohemia launched another absinthe, La Fee. This attempt was in partnership and under the guidance of Marie-Claude Delahaye, one of France’s foremost authorities on absinthe. This was a French style absinthe and was much more palatable. It was the first absinthe to be distilled in France after the ban was lifted.
In 2004, the ban was lifted in The Netherlands, and in 2005 it was lifted in Belgium, and Switzerland. Val-de-Travers once again became the home to new brands of absinthe such as Kubler, and La Clandestine.
In 2007, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted the ban on absinthe in the United States, with the regulation that the absinthe must be thujone free. The first absinthe to be imported was the French brand Lucid. Shortly following this, the first absinthe produced in the United States was St. George Absinthe Verte at St. George Distillery in Alameda, California.
Hideous absinthe: a history of the devil in a bottle. Madison,WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.