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Word of Mouth - When absinthe was cheaper than wine

Word of Mouth // Education // Jan. 30, 2017

This is the first of three episodes from Garry Littman about the cult drink absinthe. It’s a story that begins well and ends rather badly.

Absinthe began its life in a small village near Neuchatel in Switzerland in around 1792 as a tonic or elixir to cure indigestion, improve appetite and fend off fever and chills.

Just over a hundred years later the Swiss banned absinthe after a heavy-drinking farmer from Commugny, not far from Geneva, went on a drunken rampage and killed his wife and two daughters.

It seems a nip mixed with water was the ideal pick-me-up. After a second or third glass the fabled green fairy or green muse kicked in. After a fourth or fifth came the promise of madness and folly.

Absinthe became the drink of choice for all French classes. It was cheaper than wine thanks to a massive wine shortage in the second half of the 19th century and was further elevated to cult status by the pens and brushes of the Paris bohemia - artists, writers and poets like Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Van Gogh suffered for their green muse.

It contains a mix of herbs - predominantly the absinthe plant also known as wormwood which was used medicinally as far back as 1600 BC by the Egyptians as a stimulant and tonic, antiseptic and a remedy for fever and period pains.

It was one of many herbal remedies developed by the Henriod sisters in the village of Couvet near Neuchâtel. The sisters had a small shop in the village where they sold concoctions passed on from their mother and her mother. But it was a French doctor in the village Pierre Ordinaire a refuge from the French revolution, who first marketed absinthe. The Henriod sisters probably kept a low profile undoubtedly well aware of witch hysteria that had gripped Switzerland during the past 400 years .

Dr Ordinaire bought the recipe from the sisters and then later sold it to a Major Dubied whose daughter married Henri Louis Pernod in 1797 - yes, Pernod - and the Pernod dynasty began.

In 1805 absinthe production moved about 10 kms across the French border to Pontarlier where taxes were much lower. Pontarlier became an absinthe boom town with 20 distilleries employing 3000 people and producing 30,000 litres of absinthe per day. In 1906 the town had 111 bistros or bars. The best client was the French army. Every summer 10,000 artilleryman took part in training exercises in Pontarlier.

And it was the army that took absinthe to the rest of the world. Soldiers were given absinthe to fight off malaria and dysentery and to disinfect water.

It kept the troops in fine spirits, literally.

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