Absinthe, the green fairy accused of driving its consumers mad

May 1, 2020 | 3 comments

By Giovanni Cambizaca

When I drive out of the city towards home, I often think that the foothills of the Cajas look a little bit like Switzerland. If I could put bells on the cows, the effect would be almost complete. When we think about Switzerland, I suppose watches, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, and cheese all come to mind. Probably low down on this list is the fact that Switzerland is home to a drink with such a dark reputation that it was made illegal in many countries. So this week, let’s find out about the history of absinthe, the green fairy.

Absinthe was the drink that fired the imagination of artists and writers like Van Gogh, Zola, Hemmingway, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others. By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million liters per year, a significant amount, but a drop in the bucket compared to the 5 billion liters of wine they managed to put away.

Like gin, the flavor of absinthe comes from the use of botanicals, principally green anise, sweet fennel, and grande wormwood. This last sounds a bit ominous, and it is the source of absinthe’s troubled reputation. Wormwood contains a compound called thujone that was alleged to have mind-altering properties.

A 19th-century French physician, Valentin Magnan, studied 250 cases of alcoholism and claimed that the worst were always absinthe drinkers, who rapidly experienced hallucinations. After exposing guinea pigs to wormwood oil, Magnan attributed the supposed hallucinogenic effects to thujone. These allegations were cheerfully embraced by the bohemian artists who enjoyed their daily absinthe, and this did nothing to enhance absinthe’s reputation among the more puritanical citizens. (Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. — H.L. Mencken.)

In Switzerland in 1905, an event occurred which gave all the excuse needed to those whose first instinct is to ban something they disapprove of. Jean Lanfray, a laborer, murdered his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. Lunch that day for Lanfray consisted of a sandwich accompanied by seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe. Clearly, the absinthe was to blame! At his trial, Dr. Albert Mahaim, a leading Swiss psychologist, testified that Lanfray suffered from “a classic case of absinthe madness”. In 1908, the Swiss voted to amend their constitution to ban the manufacture or possession of absinthe. Other countries followed suit, including France and the United States.

Curiously, while the often rebellious French accepted their absinthe ban with nary a murmur, the orderly Swiss continued to manufacture absinthe in the canton of Jura with gusto, albeit surreptitiously. Val-de-Travers is a wide, green valley near the French border, with scattered villages where absinthe manufacture has a long history, and it was here that the traditional recipes and methods were preserved during absinthe’s long prohibition. By the 1970s, the ban was falling into disuse, and in 1983, French President Mitterrand paid a visit to Switzerland where he was served an absinthe soufflé that was by all accounts delicious.

In the current century, absinthe bans have fallen all over the world, and the drink is enjoying something of a renaissance. You can follow the tourist Route de l’Absinthe from Pontarlier in France to the Val-de-Travers, encountering 19 distilleries along the way. A delight for the palate, but something of a test for the liver.

Ecuador has participated in this revival, and in Cuenca, you can buy Jevert vonBrandt No. 91 absinthe, which is made here in Sayausi from local botanicals.

The most bohemian city in the United States is New Orleans, a place with a long association with absinthe. From the first part of the 19th century the drink was being sold at The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, and absinthe is included in the iconic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, and so this shall be our recipe today. I doubt many of you have Peychaud’s bitters in your cupboard, so this is, I think, a recipe for better times.

Sazerac Cocktail

  • Absinthe, to rinse

  • 1 sugar cube

  • 1/2 tsp cold water

  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 2 1/2 oz rye whiskey (originally cognac)

  • Garnish: lemon peel

Rinse a chilled rocks glass with absinthe, discarding any excess, and set aside. In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube, water and both bitters. Add the rye (or cognac), fill with ice, and stir until well-chilled. Strain into the prepared rocks glass. Twist a slice of lemon peel over the surface to extract the oils and then discard.

Te enviamos un abrazo
Giovanni, Maria Eliza y toda la familia Le Petit Jardin

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