Absinth as a remedy
The first documented medical use of wormwood, the essential ingredient of absinth, dates back to the ancient Egypt, to the Ebers papyrus, the oldest existing medical document, from about 1552 BC. Wormwood is also mentioned several times in connection with its bitter taste in the Old Testament. Wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves were used as remedies against labour pains or rheumatism by the ancient Greeks. Moreover, there is evidence of the existence of a wormwood-flavoured wine, absinthites oinos, in ancient Greece. The word absinthe probably comes from the Greek expression for wormwood – apsinthion.
History of absinth
The first clear evidence of absinthe in the modern sense, 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. Ordinaire's recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. A certain Major Dubied then acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, 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 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"). By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply. Absinthe then became popular with all social classes, from the wealthy bourgeoisie, to poor artists and ordinary working-class people. Due to an epidemic of parasites in the 1880-90s which caused a substantial depletion of grapevines, absinthe became the number 1 beverage in France.
Due to this excessive consumption and the danger threatening to wine growers, it was just a matter of time when absinthe would be banned. Spurred by imperfect and probably bribed researches and lobbying of the wine growers, it has become widely spread that absinth is a dangerous drug. This was only reinforced by clandestine producers of absinth who used highly toxic substances instead of colourings, which caused liver collapses to its drinkers.
In 1905, it was reported that Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and attempted to take his own life, after drinking absinthe. The fact that Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed considerable quantities of wine and brandy prior to drinking two glasses of absinthe was conveniently overlooked or ignored. This was the tipping point in this hotly debated topic. A subsequent petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland initiated a referendum which resulted in entering the prohibition of absinthe into the Swiss constitution.
The ban on sale and distribution of absinthe followed quickly in Belgium, Brazil, The Netherlands, the United States, and finally in France in 1914.
Production of the Pernod Fils brand was then resumed at the Banus distillery in Catalonia, Spain (where absinthe was still legal), but gradually declining sales saw the cessation of production in the 1960s. Many countries never actually banned absinthe, notably Great Britain, where it had never been as popular as in continental Europe, or Czechoslovakia.
In the 1990s, realizing the UK had never formally banned absinthe, British importer BBH Spirits began to import Hill's Absinth from the Czech Republic, which sparked a modern resurgence in absinthe's popularity. In these countries, absinthe began to reappear during the revival in the 1990s.
Absinthes available during that time consisted almost exclusively of Czech, Spanish, and Portuguese brands that were of recent origin, typically consisting of Bohemian-style products. Absinthe connoisseurs considered these of inferior quality and not representative of the 19th century spirit.
In 2000, La Fée Absinthe became the first commercial absinthe distilled and bottled in France since the 1914 ban.
Absinth history in Czech countries
Modern Bohemian-style absinthes are based on an old tradition of absinth substitute from the period of the First Republic (1918-1938). At that time in Prague, absinth was widely consumed especially in the Slavia Café, where a famous painting “Absinth drinker” by Viktor Oliva has been on display until today. Absinth was also popular in the Daliborka bar in Prague 6, where, among others, Czech poets Jiri Wolker and Vitezslav Nezval were often enjoying it.
After the revolution in 1989, the first and most common absinths were Staroplzenecký absinth (manufactured by L’or special drinks) and Hills absinth.