Monday, September 19, 2011

The Life and Absence of Absinthe


I went through a stage where I delighted in the idea of Absinthe, buying it and experimenting with sugar, fire, and friends. My delight was not for its alcohol component as much as the intoxicating idea that I was participating in the same ritual as so many of the great artists who have so influenced the world.

Now, I do know that what is sold these days as Absinthe... a sugary, artificially coloured fake in a fancy bottle, is not the same Absinthe that was so popular in France in the nineteenth century. It is missing key ingredients which gave it it's yellow colour (in fact not green!) and it's hallucinogenic effect.

Did you know that over time, these strong properties would cause a drinkers vision to become yellowed? It's been rumoured that his indulgence in Absinthe was the reason he used so much yellow in his paintings. The sad truth is more likely that the Absinthe of the day caused serious complications from the chemical thujone. This most likely caused Van Gogh to lop off his ear, as well as suffer convulsions, but I may well write more about that some other time.

No one ever looks to happy in these paintings of Absinthe drinkers....

Vincent Van Gogh, Absinthe
Edgar Degas
Raffaelli Jean-Francois - The Absinthe Drinkers
Édouard Manet, Absinthe Drinker, 1858-59
The Absinth Drinker, 1901, by Pablo Picasso
Famous Spanish artist - 20th Century Painter
Absinth Drinker by Pablo Picasso
The Green Fairy sits on the table of a Paris brasserie, haunting or encouraging the drinker.
The painter was a true bohemian from Bohemia, Viktor Oliva, and it still hangs in a Prague café-bar.
Photograph of Henri Toulouse Lautrec drinking Absinthe

Now some classic Absinthe posters... Notice the yellow theme? Everyone in these posters looks pretty excited about life.

 Pro-Absinthe Posters and Ads
This absinthe-loving black cat became the symbol of Absinthe Bourgeois, and was produced in several carton and poster formats.

Advertising carton for the Argentinean producer Ajenjo Arbide.

Famous poster also produced in 1896, designed by Nicholas Tamagno for Cusenier. The bon vivant enjoying his Absinthe Oxygénée is the French comedian Joseph-Francois Dailly (1839 - 1897).

The often reproduced Absinthe Blanqui poster - a quintessential art-nouveau image, heavily influenced by the then fashionable vogue for orientalism. The original is rare, with only three surviving copies recorded.
Two preliminary sketches (or maquettes) in ink, pastel and watercolour for one of the most famous of all
absinthe posters, Absinthe Blanqui's smiling redhead (ABOVE), printed sometime between 1898 and 1901.
comes the design of the frame, the basic position of the girl's head, and the configuration of her fingers holding the glass

The second maquette has the girl in profile, gazing upwards at the glass of absinthe. She is facing left rather than right as in the poster, but her green dress, the sinuous green ribbons surrounding her and the serpent clasp around her arm are all echoed in the final version.
One of the most iconic art nouveau images of all, this 1896 image for Absinthe Robette by the Belgian posterist Privat-Livemont has spawned a million reproductions.

An unrecorded lithographic poster for Rosinette, Absinthe Rosé Oxygénée, (37" x 50"), printed by Camis around 1900. This is the only know historical reference to a rosé absinthe.

Cappiello's famous poster for J. Edouard Pernot

Cappiello's famous poster for Absinthe Ducros. (MM.. triple rectification)

Poster for Absinthe Superieure, designed by Victor Leydet, c.1900
© Swim Ink 2, LLC/CORBIS

Below this is probably the largest absinthe poster in existence, a previously unrecorded 3-sheet version of the famous Absinthe Junod poster by Misti. Each individual sheet measure 1.35m x 2m, giving a total size of 4m x 2m, or just over 13ft by 6ft 7". A.Junod were one of the larger absinthe producers.

Original Absinthe was an expensive grape-alcohol drink that really only the upper-middle class could afford to partake of. However, producers of Absinthe began to switch from grape to cheaper root and beet alcohols, making it much more affordable for a much broader class. Many brands exploded, catering to even the cheapest end of the market, and soon Absinthe began to displace wine as the standard drink of the French working class.

Wine makers and grape owners wanted to make up for their loss by calling Absinthe "unnatural" and calling for its prohibition. At the same time, a disease called Absinthism had people becoming concerned about the effects of the over-use of Absinthe.

In 1907, 400 000 signatures on a petition declared: "Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."

Young artists and writers with their scandalous lifestyles - the "radical bohemian" set - only added to the political agitation against absinthe. Their debocherous behavior "shocked and outraged the establishment, and absinthe, their favourite drink came to encapsulate in the public mind, everything that had gone wrong with conservative France." (VAM)

Anti-Absinthe Posters

A large poster designed by Frédéric Christol (1850-1933) and printed in 1910 by Berger & Levrault, Nancy. It's interesting to note that wine, beer and cider are expressly omitted from the list of "Poisons de Choix" at the bottom right of the poster. These were regarded as natural and healthy, and seldom targeted by the French temperance movement. ("Fine Champagne" is cognac.)

An anti-prohibition chromolithograph, commemorating the vote of the French Chamber of Deputies on 12th February 1915 to ban the sale of absinthe in France. The French Green Fairy is being burnt at the stake in front of a crowd of weeping onlookers, while up above the Swiss Green Fairy, whose demise had already occured five years earlier, waits to welcome her sister to Fee Verte heaven.

A print advertisement from Le Courier Francais for a poster advertising "La Kolamarque", a cola based aperitif marketed as a healthy alternative to absinthe. The Grim Reaper with his hand on the bedraggled absinthe drinker's shoulders, while the dapper Kolamarque drinker is watched by a beautiful half-naked girl.

Spanish-language version of a French anti-alcohol poster, made for use in schools. Printed by Emile Deyrolle, Paris.
This poster warns of the dangers of absinthe-induced epileptic fits: at the top, a roofer falls to his death, while below, the daughter of an alcoholic father suffers from hereditary epilepsy.

A cardboard advertising sign for "La Poudre Montavon", an anti-drunkenness powder marketed to wives distressed about their husband's drinking.

A strongly worded broadsheet attacking "l'odieuse
absinthe" and announcing the famous anti-absinthe rally
at the Trocadero in Paris on 14th June 1907.
A French anti-alcohol poster showing on the left, "L'Heure Verte" amongst the poor at a working man's bar.  At the top "La bon eau est la seule boisson indispensable". And on the right, the bourgeoisie at a Grand Cafe.

A large double sided anti-alcohol poster illustrating graphically the alleged dangers of industrial alcohol and absinthe, and praising the healthy effects of wine, cider and beer. Designed for display in schools, it clearly shows the influence of the wine lobby as the force behind the French temperance movement, because the use of wine is not just not condemned, it's almost actively encouraged. Particularly noteworthy are the two contrasting guinea pig experiments: in the one the animal is fed industrial alcohol and has the usual epileptic fit and then dies a horrible death; in the other the guinea pig is fed wine and has nothing worse than a pleasant sleep, before waking up with presumably only a mild hangover...

The poster was designed by Dr Galtier-Boissière, curator of the scientific collections at the Musée Pédagogique de l'État, and printed in 1898 by Armand Colin et Cie in Paris.

An image used during the 1908 Swiss Anti-Absinthe Referendum
Absinthe is Death! by F. Monod, 1905

 By 1915 Absinthe was banned in France. Though by 1921 it became legal to produce thujone-free aniseed flavoured drinks of 40% alcohol. Although low-thujone versions of the drink can be found legally now in France, the popularity will never return to what it was, as sweetened and syrupy drinks have degraded the palates. 

Absinthe is meant to be mixed with sugar and water after it leaves the bottle, not come that way. With true Absinthe the final sweetening was provided by the drinker, who dripped icy water through a sugar cube placed on an absinthe spoon into the green liqueur below. Sugar cubes were popularized by Absinthe.

I have tried Absinthe using a spoon and sugar, however instead of dripping the sugar with water, we dripped it with 80-proof Absinthe, lit it on fire, and dropped it into the drink.  Absinthe spoons can still be found in antique shops in France, and I have always wanted one. Here are a few sugar spoons I thought were particularly cool.

As a conspiracy nut, I obviously couldn't help but love this one with it's All Seeing Eye!

Though not a fan of skeletons, this skeleton arm is very cool

Eiffel Tower spoon

Some interesting Absinthe-related glassware, made from glass dosed with uranium doixide which caused it to more or less "glow green" under ultra violet light.

Absinthe Mugnier carafe, an unusual uranium glass spoon-holder
made by Cote-Baritel, and
Three uranium-glass swirl glasses.
The same items under ultraviolet light, showing the
characteristic fluorescence caused by the presence of
radioactive compounds (uranium dioxide)  in the glass.

A Baccarat liqueur set with 2 glasses, topette, sugar bowl and tray all for use with Absinthe dating from 1830-1860.
The set fluoresces a bright lime-green under long-range UV-light.

The world's most famous occultist, "the beast" himself, Aleister Crowley, has this to say about Absinthe

"What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride that they are not as other men" - Aleister Crowley, The Green Goddess (1918).

Many thanks to the Virtual Absinthe Museum for the history and background of the images.


  1. wow, this was a really interesting read!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it :) I thought the Anti-Absinthe posters were very cool.

  3. You actually can buy genuine absinthe today of the same quality and ingredients as those banned first in 1905 in Switzerland (the original home of absinthe). It appears you had some of the bad imitators who were trying to make quick money off the mystique of absinthe. Although you could get true absinthe in Europe in the 1990s after the ban on wormwood was lifted in 1988, it wasn't available in the USA until 2007. It has been shown that there was/is nowhere near the amount of thujone in absinthe required to have the harmful effects described. Most people who were suffering from medical conditions 100 years ago were drinking the low quality imitations that used lower quality alcohol and chemicals (even copper) to create an artificial anise taste and green color, there were no regulations for production at the time, rather than the actual plants/herbs used with high grade alcohol in real absinthe. Find the real stuff and give it another try. It's different than other alcohols of its strength (some 140 proof), but it's nice if done correctly.

  4. Also - using the fire is an invention of Hollywood, not the original way of drinking. It doesn't change the taste of the drink.


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