ABSINTHE: FROM MEDICINE TO MUSE
ABSINTHE: FROM MEDICINE TO MUSE
The once-banned liquor moved across centuries and continents before becoming a favorite drink (and inspiration) of some of history's greatest creatives.
Sickly green. Powerfully herbal. At least 100 proof. A name thought to originate from the Greek absinthion, which means 'undrinkable.' Absinthe's defining characteristics don't immediately appeal and, for many, the bitter spirit is an *acquired* taste. But besides populating well-stocked bars, absinthe has a winding history, one that saw its popularity (and infamy) grow across centuries, continents and cultures—all before making an acute impact on modern art.
Absinthe's origins are ancient with the traditional recipe of wormwood leaves, anise and other herbs changing little over thousands of years. Its modern resurgence, however, can be traced back to a specific event: France's colonization of Algeria that began in the 1830s and 1840s. French troops were sent to the North African nation with many supplies, one of which was absinthe as it was believed to combat malaria, fevers and dysentery. While its ability to prevent or treat any of those ailments would not pass the muster of modern medical science, French soldiers took a liking to it (even though many reportedly diluted it with wine to make it more palatable) and brought it back when they returned home, chiefly to Paris.
A plague of insects had decimated many of France's vineyards around the same time, causing the supply of wine to plummet and prices to skyrocket. Absinthe was produced so cheaply that it, for a brief time, replaced wine as France's primary alcoholic beverage for the working class who could more easily afford it.
Consumption of absinthe eventually increased so much that 5pm became known as the Green Hour, named after the spirit's signature hue, and the drink itself was nicknamed the Green Fairy. Beyond the general public, absinthe's proliferation in cafes and bars introduced it to a range of creatives, artists and writers frequenting those spots who, like the soldiers before them, became enamored with the aperitif.
Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Albert-Emmanuel Bertrand, Edouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were just some of the artists who became avid absinthe drinkers—and all of them created artworks featuring it as a subject and, often, named it in the title itself. Picasso alone created at least four paintings depicting the brew and even went three-dimensional when he made an absinthe sculpture in 1914. Together, these artists along with writers like Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire cemented absinthe's reputation as the drink for the creative set.
But perhaps, that set enjoyed absinthe too much. By the early 1900s, the liquor had become associated with violence and even psychosis, leading to its ban in France, the US, Switzerland and most of Europe before becoming legal again decades later. It was commonly believed that absinthe had hallucinatory effects, and it's more than possible that this added to the drink's allure. It's rumored that van Gogh heavily indulged in absinthe before cutting off his ear—just one frequently-cited example of the liquor's dark mythology.
The truth is more straightforward. It's very likely that any extreme behaviors pinned to absinthe were simply a result of excessive alcohol. Though absinthe does contain a chemical compound called thujone that can have mind-altering properties, it is present in trace amounts so small that alcohol poisoning would occur before any potential hallucinatory effects could set in.
Given its track record as the It girl of spirits, it should come as no surprise that even absinthe's extended absence proved influential. Its unavailability helped make way for cocktails, like martinis, that would dominate midcentury imbibing habits which linger today. Yet an updated understanding of the science and a rearview perspective on the 20th century haven't stripped absinthe of its mystery or romance. Its associations with art and artists has stuck, lending it a unique gravitas that's difficult to match and ripe for referencing in modern media (like the green fairy played by Kylie Minogue in Baz Luhrmann's period musical Moulin Rouge!). Despite less than favorable characteristics, its history as a muse capable of inspiring great minds keeps people coming back—one monstrously verdant sip at a time.