The green fairy, the muse of poets and painters, banned for almost a century, a mysterious elixir of herbs and alcohol, the subject of tonight’s film, Absinthe, which traces the history and resurrection of the mythic liquor. Created originally in Val de Travers, Switzerland as a medicinal tonic, the drink was added to the rations of French soldiers in Algeria; and when they returned victorious to Paris, they brought their taste for the drink with them, where it was adopted by bohemians, artists and poets. From there the passion for absinthe grew into the bourgeoisie classes, and soon all of France was participating in “the green hour,” the absinthe-soaked equivalent of Happy Hour.
But at the peak of absinthe’s popularity, unscrupulous manufacturers mixed pure alcohol with raw flavor extracts, added copper sulphate as coloring, and sold it as a cheap imitation of the carefully distilled absinthe from established manufacturers. And absinthe’s popularity also undermined France’s wine business which was just recovering from the blight of 1871 which had wiped out all the vines (American wine growers shipped vines back to France to save the vineyards). Propaganda about absinthe-addled murderers and bad science ‘proving’ the drink to be lethal fueled the fires. Thanks to the temperance movement–and well, beginning in absinthe’s homeland, Switzerland in 1905, and spreading across Europe and America, absinthe was banned.
But absinthe never died. In Val de Travers, distillers simply made “le blue,” absinthe made with Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), the active ingredient, but minus the herbs which gave the liquor it’s yellowish green color. Pernod, Herbsainte and other pastis were made like absinthe, but minus the wormwood.
In 1988, Europe quietly lifted the prohibition on drinks and food made with wormwood; and by the mid-1990s, the Czech Republic, newly opened, had a booming bar trade in absinthe, though it was hardly the stuff of history. However, adventurous Americans brought back the yen for the green fairy.
Swiss distillers were reluctant at first to see the ban lifted, fearing that it would create a monopoly, that only one or two major distilleries would corner the market and absinthe would loose its mystique and the many different flavors that each bootlegger brought to it. In many ways this mirrors the concerns of some pot growers who fear that legalization will allow large multinational corporations to take control of marijuana growing, effectively weeding out different strains and varieties.
Meanwhile in the U.S., a push was on from the creators of Lucid Absinthe as they explored the legalities of the liquor. Lucid prevailed and became the first absinthe to be legally sold in the U.S. (Though frankly my friends and I were making our own from the mid-1980s on -using vodka, dried wormwood, anise and whatever we thought would taste good. Wormwood extract in Pernod was also one of our DIY experiments. And yeah, it worked).
Featuring interviews with absinthe historians, distillers and aficionados, and loaded with vintage photos and footage, Absinthe is a delightful and informative documentary that explores the culture past and present surrounding absinthe, delving into its effects on art and literature as well as society, while at the same time exploring the cause and effects of demonizing and prohibiting a harmless herb used to make the drink.