On Aug. 28, 1905, a Swiss farmer, Jean Lanfray, took a great distaste to his life, his wife and his children. He had emotionally taken about all he wanted from them. His lot in life, being a husband, father, farmer and dairyman, was not to his liking. To say the least, he was not having a good day.
After drinking local wine most of the day, late in the day he switched to something a bit stronger, absinthe, and after a good tug at the bottle, he proceeded to murder his pregnant wife and his two daughters before turning the rifle on himself. He missed his forehead after firing the bullet, which lodged in his jaw.
The people of the town of Commugny in Switzerland, where this atrocity took place, held a meeting. A reason had to be found for such a heinous deed, and a scapegoat was necessary on which to assign blame. Surely this could not be Farmer Lanfray’s fault.
Absinthe became the fall guy element in the story.
Keep in mind that absinthe was enormously popular in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It supplanted wine as a favored drink of choice. In 1874 in France alone, 700,000 liters of absinthe were consumed. By 1910, that figure had exploded to more than 36 million liters.
New Orleans too was considered a center of the absinthe-appreciation culture, with our many public houses that properly served the Green Fairy, so called because when mixed with cool water in a slow-drip process, the alcoholic beverage turns a pale green.
Absinthe is a distilled spirit, made from a wort-like plant, wormwood, a member of the daisy family. It is a pungent, bitter, anise-flavored, high-alcohol beverage, more than 60 percent by volume and definition, that brings on an inebriated state very quickly (of course!), particularly to turn-of-the-19th-century society types accustomed to wine, which is less than 12 percent alcohol. When absinthe is consumed in even half the quantity of wine, well, you can imagine the results.
In its Golden Age, which was the Belle Époque era in France, absinthe was conspicuously consumed by artists and creative types, adding to the legend that the drink was actually a drug, which caused the imbiber to create outrageous works of art no regular person would ever conceive of creating without the drink’s “mystical” powers.
That tale continues even today as I was listening to the spiel of a carriage driver as he passed The Absinthe Museum, 823 Royal, in the Quarter. This driver regaled his passengers with the story that absinthe was a hallucinogenic, capable of making people do unspeakable harm to themselves and others around them. Good stories, even when not true, die hard.
At any rate, Switzerland banned absinthe in 1910, followed by the United States in 1912 and then France, following the distractions of World War I, in 1915. While the oft-stated reason for banning absinthe was to protect the public from acting out acts of horror after ingesting the liquid, there was quite a bit of lobbying work behind the scenes –– and much money contributed to elected officials –– by the winemakers of Bordeaux.
These esteemed owners of vineyards, who were also, in some cases, savvy bankers, saw an opportunity to recover lost sales from their products, namely fine wine, and be rid of a worthy competitor forever.
But forever is a long, long time. Enter a young New Orleans scientist, Ted Breaux, who was fascinated by the story of absinthe and its beguiling bouquet and taste. Another New Orleans entry into the story is Lucullus, the high-end emporium in the 600 block of Chartres, which had on display in the early 1990s an absinthe fountain, like the ones used just a few blocks away more than a hundred years ago. Breaux was captured by the artifact and bought one, not quite certain what it meant to his life –– and ours.
Breaux ultimately determined that not only should a wrong be righted but also that absinthe, well-made, has a place in the pantheon of ingredients enjoyed by modern cocktail society.
In 2007, the U.S. government relaxed its limits on beverages containing thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. It was noted that a spirit containing less than 10 parts per million, or ppm, of thujone would be allowed. Europe also came to the same legal-definition result about 10 years prior.
In actuality, absinthes with higher quantities of thujone are of poor quality, and some of the Eastern European absinthes which “list” upward of 80 ppm of thujone have not been found to possess any such high levels of the menthol-like ingredient.
It is possible that the banning of absinthe was actually a big misunderstanding and a plot by competitors to get rid of a spirit that was extremely popular. But again, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Many absinthe production houses have come into existence with the lifting of the ban, and the drink is gaining new converts along the way. There does not seem to be as much imbibing it on its own, but rather absinthe has retaken its rightful place from the absinthe-substitute, Herbsaint, in drinks and even in baking.
Another interesting New Orleans connection to the story: Herbsaint was created here because of the ban on real absinthe. Herbsaint is a play on the term the Creoles sometimes used when referring to the Sacred Herb, Artemisia Absinthium, the proper botanical name for wormwood. Yet Herbsaint contains no wormwood.
New Orleans’ own Sazerac, one of the oldest cocktail recipes known to exist, dating to before 1850, becomes a completely different-style drink with the inclusion of absinthe instead of Herbsaint.
1 teaspoon absinthe
1 teaspoon sugar, 1 sugar cube, or 1 teaspoon simple syrup (recipe follows)
1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 lemon peel twist
Chill an old-fashioned glass by filling with crushed ice or refrigerate or freeze for at least 30 minutes. Add the absinthe to the glass; swirl it around to coat the entire sides and bottom of the glass. Discard the excess.
In a cocktail shaker, add 4 or 5 small ice cubes, sugar or syrup, rye whiskey and bitters. Shake gently for about 30 seconds; strain into the prepared old-fashioned glass.
Twist lemon peel over the drink and then place in the drink.
Boil 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water together until all the sugar dissolves. Cool, and refrigerate.