Drinking of Absinthe: Dancing with the Green Fairy
"QUANTUM SHOT" #824 Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams
The Bohemian Realm of Absinthiana
Absinthiana are the trappings and accessories associated with the drinking of absinthe. This anise-flavoured spirit is made from the flowers and leaves of wormwood, green anise, sweet fennel and other herbs. Absinthe has a natural green colour and was referred to as the Green Fairy, although it can also be colourless. Absinthe has a high alcohol level and is normally diluted with water for drinking. It’s also very bitter and was often poured into a glass of water over sugar on a perforated spoon.
Absinthe was invented in 1797 and by the 1850’s it had become a firm favourite with the upper classes. It was originally a wine-based drink, but the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-19th century destroyed many of the French vineyards. Absinthe was based instead on grain alcohol. This made it more affordable and the Green Fairy became very popular as an alcoholic drink in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early eighteenth century, absinthe would be served in an ordinary glass, with water added from a standard jug or similar container. With the increasing popularity of absinthe, specialty glassware, elaborate spoons, carafes and fountains made their appearance.
Absinthe was said to be both a narcotic and an aphrodisiac. It was adopted by the bohemian culture and Parisian authors and artists claimed that absinthe stimulated creativity. Well-known absinthe drinkers include Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Green Muse by Albert Maignan from 1895 shows a poet succumbing to the dubious charms of the green fairy.
(left: painting by Albert Maignan Pyushhiy "The Green Muse" from 1895; - right: "The Absinthe Drinker" by Edouard Manet, c.1859)
Absinthe was even popular with members of the animal kingdom:
Absinthiana refers to the tools related to absinthe, along with the preparation and drinking of the beverage. At first, absinthe was served in perfectly ordinary glasses, with water was added to the drink using a straightforward jug or carafe. As absinthe grew in popularity, more accessories appeared, including spoons, carafes and specialty glassware. Original copies can today command high prices in the antique market:
The slotted or perforated spoon was used to dissolve a sugar cube in a glass of absinthe. This helped to sweeten the mildly bitter liquid. The bowl of the spoon is flat and can rest on the rim of the glass, by means of a notch in the handle. Another absinthe tool was grille, a perforated metal saucer with small legs that suspended it over the glass (right image above).
Just as the modern alcohol industry engages in brand advertising, many absinthe spoons were stamped with brand names or logos as advertising. Spoons were also marketed for the tourism trade. Some of the most famous absinthe spoons were made for the opening of the Eiffel Tower during the Exposition Universelle or World’s Fair held in Paris from May 6 to October 31, 1889. There are many counterfeit versions of these spoons and it can be hard to determine whether or not they are genuine. Usually the real ones from 1889 have the mark of the manufacturer stamped on the spoon. On the fake spoons, the mark is molded and the image is generally less sharp than if it were stamped onto the metal:
(left and top right images via, bottom right image: "Le Peril Vert" illustration by T. Bianco, via)
The one on the left was apparently made from brass taken from a shell casing. The craftsman added punched in holes reading the date of 1914 and his initials on the handle. The spoon on the right was quite an expensive one in its day, probably being used in fancy restaurants or luxury hotels:
Adding ice-cold water to absinthe causes the liquid to become cloudy, a process known as the “louche” or the ouzo effect in different types of drinks. The adding of the water in exactly the right way was considered almost as an art form. Some establishments had specialists on hand to show new absinthe drinkers how to delicately add the water, one careful drop at a time, from a carafe or pitcher.
Here are a few absinthe pitchers. This grasshopper one dates from around 1910:
The three holes in this bulldog version made it possible to adjust the stream when pouring water. This can be poured slowly into the absinthe through the hole in the mouth. The ones in the nose can pour water so that it makes a swirling effect in the absinthe in the glass:
Absinthe fountains also became popular. A large glass container with between two and six spigots was suspended above the table. A small group of drinkers could prepare their absinthe all at the same time, with a slow drip of cold water, rather than having to really focus on getting the droplet exactly right when poured from a carafe.
The link to the bohemian culture inevitably made absinthe a target for prohibitionists and social conservatives. Here’s another victim of the Green Fairy, in Viktor Oliva’s The Absinthe Drinker, from 1901:
Chronic use of the spirit was said to lead to absinthism, which was widely believed to cause addiction and even hallucinations. Considered to be a leading source of numerous social evils and a general menace to modern society, absinthe was banned in many countries just prior to World War I, including the United States in 1912 and even France itself, the home of absinthe, in 1914. This lead to the popularity in France of other anise-flavoured spirits devoid of wormwood, such as pastis and ouzo. After World War I, the Pernod Fils brand was still produced in Spain, which had not banned absinthe, but production stopped in the 1960s.
In Switzerland, absinthe production went underground, with people distilling the drink at home as a colourless drink, which was much easier to keep secret from the powers that be. The fabled Green Fairy had never been banned in the UK and in the 1990s became popular when absinthe was imported from the Czech Republic. Other absinthes were made in Spain and Portugal, although true connoisseurs weren’t impressed, since they felt the modern versions simply weren’t the same as the classic drink from absinthe’s golden era. In 2000, commercial absinthe was finally distilled and bottled in France for the first time since 1914 and there are now numerous different brands to choose from.
Older absinthe spoons were often beautifully designed. With the modern revival, distillers are also producing interesting designs for absinthe accessories, some for the purposes of advertising and promotion of particular brands.
Les Feuilles d’Absinthe spoons, feature the intertwined leaves of the wormwood plant in the design:
This spoon is decorated with an Edelweiss flower (left). The spoon in the middle is a replica of the Toulouse-Lautrec spoon. The French artist was quite an absinthe fan and was reputed to have a small bottle of the stuff hidden in the walking cane he carried with him everywhere:
Need somewhere to keep your absinthe spoon collection? How about this very nice spoon holder (right image above)? This is apparently a faithful replica of the type of bar accessories that were popular during the golden era of absinthe drinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Absinthe grilles are basically metal saucers with holes on which to place the sugar cube. The supports at the side hold the grille over the top of the glass:
Adding water to your drink remains an important part of the entire absinthe ritual and must be done correctly. This carafe permits the drinker to have a great deal of control over the water flow, whether you’d like small drops or a steady flow (left image):
Absinthe pipes offer an alternative way to drink your absinthe (right image above). Aficionados of this method drop some crushed ice in the bottom of the glass, then add the absinthe, before sipping the drink through the glass tube.
Fountains seem to be a very civilized way to enjoy your absinthe with a group of friends. Absinthe fountains are generally equipped with 1, 2, 4 or 6 taps. This allows for better control over the flow of the water, especially when it comes to the delicate drip that needed to be added to the absinthe in the glass:
And finally, take a look at this beautiful Art Nouveau-inspired "Absynthia" set by architect Dan Slavinsky: various contraptions for the consumption of absinthe in the basement bar "The Bride of Denmark, After the Bachelors" (click to enlarge):
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