• Richard Murff

Absinthe is Just Weird

Strange Medicine for Strange Times



The ancient Egyptians used wormwood as medicine, the ancient Greeks used it in wine for the same. But it wasn’t until a French doctor living is Switzerland, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, developed the stuff in its modern form around 1792. One Major Dubied acquired the patent and together with his son and son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod, started the first absinthe distillery, thus unleashing a hyped-up green fairy on the world.

The two sold it as a medicine, and the French army used it as a preventative for malaria with its colonial troops in the 1840’s. The soldiers brought their tastes back with them. It wasn’t until another foreign agent, the grape phylloxera from American vines, hit France that the drink’s popularity soared. Throughout the 1860’s and 70’s the phylloxera devastated about 40% of the French wine and grape stock making a nice Bordeaux expensive and hard to come by. By the late 1860’s absinthe was so common in bars and cafés that 5 o’clock was called “The Green Hour.”

By the time the phylloxera was dealt with, absinthe had been the go-to drink for some 15 years, and the habit was hard to break. The wine producers began to get behind the growing French temperance against the liquor and spirits industry because it never occurred to them that something as wholesome as wine would be included in a ban on alcohol.

Then on August 28, 1905 something wonderful happened: Some bat-guano Swiss farmer murdered his entire family because his wife wouldn’t shine his shoes. Well, “wonderful” depends on your point of view, here. As it happened, one Jean Lamray, had seven glasses of wine, two cognacs, a brandy laced coffee (you know, to keep his wits), two crème de menthes (you know, for fresh breath) and two absinthes with a sandwich for lunch with his father. The two went home and had another coffee and brandy, Jean got into an argument with his wife and then demanded she shine his shoes. He got a rifle, shot her. Dad ran off to get the police, the kids came in to see what happened, he shot them and then himself, but only managed to blast himself in the jaw.

The wine producers jumped on the case and the fact that a medical expert classed in a “classic case of absinthe madness.” The next year the Swiss banned the stuff, bans were enacted in other countries, and the US in 1912. By 1914, even France banned it and the French went back to their vin ordinaire.

In 2007, an environmental scientist and New Orleans native T.A. Breaux proved that the Tujune (a chemical cousin to TMJ in marijuana) in wormwood was so trace as to be non-existent. The ban was lifted and here we are.

So how do you drink it?

The French method is to take a sugar cube on a slotted absinthe spoon (although Breaux himself says the sugar isn’t necessary with the good stuff – and he’d know) and slowly drip three parts ice-cold water into one part absinthe. The clear green with grow milky, called the louche.

In the oppressive heat of New Orleans, they came up with the adding a little simple syrup over ice and a splash of soda water. They also came up with the Sazarac and the Obituary Cocktail.

But to drink it on its own is just weird. Then again, these are weird times.