Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium ) is a perennial that is native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia but now grows wild in the United States. It is extensively cultivated. Also called shrub wormwood, Artemisia absinthium is a member of the daisy or Asteraceae family. The species name, absinthium, means “without sweetness.”
The French word absinthe can refer either to the alcoholic beverage or, less commonly, to the actual wormwood plant, with grande absinthe being Artemisia absinthium, and petite absinthe being Artemisia pontica. The Latin name artemisia comes from Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt. Absinthe is derived from the Latin absinthium, which in turn comes from the ancient Greek ἀψίνθιον apsínthion, “wormwood”. The use of Artemisia absinthium in a drink is attested in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura , where Lucretius indicates that a drink containing wormwood is given as medicine to children in a cup with honey on the brim to make it drinkable.
The first clear evidence of absinthe in the modern sense of a distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel, however, dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792 (the exact date varies by account). Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. By other accounts, the Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. In either case, a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, and with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe up until the drink was banned in France in 1914.
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventive. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe home with them. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). Absinthe was favoured by all social classes, from the wealthy bourgeoisie, to poor artists and ordinary working-class people. By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply. By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year, as compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion litres of wine.
Absinthe was exported widely from its native France and Switzerland, and attained some degree of popularity in other countries, including Spain, Great Britain, USA, and the Czech Republic. Absinthe was never banned in Spain or Portugal, and its production and consumption have never ceased. It gained a temporary spike in popularity there during the early 20th century, corresponding with the French influenced Art Nouveau and Modernism aesthetic movements.
New Orleans has a profound cultural association with absinthe, and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar, located on Bourbon Street, serves as a prominent historical landmark. Originally named The Absinthe Room, it was opened in 1874 by a Catalan bartender named Cayetano Ferrer.
Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Erik Satie and Alfred Jarry were all known absinthe drinkers.
Artist: Maxine Miller