Absinthe, The Poet’s Drink

Absinthe, The Poet’s Drink

No other spirit in history has the mystique of Absinthe.  It was the muse of Beaudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, of Van Gogh, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec.


In ancient Egypt, mentions of absinthe were found in papyrus.  The Greeks, Pythagore and Hippocrate, also praised absinthe, its creative stimulation and its aphrodisiac after-effect.

The modern origins are disputed between Doctor Pierre Ordinaire and between a woman named Henriod in the canton of Neuchatel, in Switzerland.  What historians seem to agree on is the recipe was bought by a soldier, Major Dubied, who opened with his son-in-law, Henri Louis Pernod, in 1797, the first absinthe distillery in Couvet, Switzerland.

For thirty years or so, absinthe remained a local beverage, despite an organized fight against alcoholism.   In 1830, French soldiers colonized Algeria and recommended to the population to distill a few drops of absinthe in water to fight malaria and dysentery.  Upon their return to France, soldiers quickly shared their taste of the beverage and its popularity lighted up Paris.


Wormwood is the main herb used in absinthe.  Green anis, fennel, lemon balm and hyssop are also part of the recipe.  Absinthe is a distilled alcohol, like whisky or gin.  This beverage is between 45 and 90% proof.  No wonder one can hear muses and angels.


During the mid nineteenth century, absinthe was the preferred drink of writers, poets and painters.  Oscar Wilde loved the “green fairy”, and he is quoted:  ”What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”  Ernest Hemingway, (no surprise here, as stated in this other blog) featured the drink in For Whom The Bell Toll and the short story Hills Like White Elephants.  It is said he procured absinthe from Spain and Cuba after the ban.

Famous French poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, were known to drink large quantities of absinthe together.  Beaudelaire was also a “green fairy” addict and wrote under its influence.  Guy de Maupassant, in his story A Queer Night in Paris, describes all sensations from the hour to take absinthe.

Painters also let absinthe color their work.  Van Gogh’s many yellow paintings and his ear cutting episode are attributed to absinthe.


Absinthe became the ugly face of alcoholism throughout France, speared on by anti-alcoholic leagues (one was headed by Louis Pasteur) circa 1875.  In 1906, The French National Anti-Alcoholic league collected 400,000 signatures.  In a time where signature had to be collected one by one (No Facebook option at the time), this movement was simply phenomenal.  In a twist that’s all French, their motto was “All for wine, all against absinthe.”

Wine producers might have been behind the movement, non?

Sarcasm aside, if one drank the same amount of absinthe as wine, the effects were four to six times more heady.

The leagues won their cause.  In 1915, absinthe was banned in France and many other countries.  It’s been re-emerging lately with modification to the recipe.  If you’re interested in knowing more about absinthe, there’s a fascinating documentary available on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime.

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