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Absinthe

by William S. Walsh
from the Handy-Book of Curious Information, 1913
Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1913

Absinthe, in French, means wormwood. The famous liqueur is made by steeping wormwood and other aromatic herbs in alcohol. Wormwood has been defined as the quinine of the poor. "Its bitterness is its principal merit," says a French authority. "It is a tonic, a stimulant, a frebrifuge, and a vermifuge. It is par excellence the herb of pale and feeble women. A slight pinch is sufficient in a litre of water."

Two kinds of absinthe, or wormwood, are used in making the liquor, the great and the small, the first, for its bitter qualities, and the last, which is gathered immature, chiefly to act in giving the delicate green color. The other plants employed in the distillation are balm, caraway, anise, and hyssop. Balm is classed medicinally as an antinervine, an important antidote in a liquor considered generally as acting too forcibly on the nervous system. The qualities of caraway and anise are familiar to every one. The last is greatly used in medicine and in many other ways for its flavor and perfume. The caraway used at Pontarlier comes from the south of France; the best anise from southwestern France and from Andalusia, in Spain. The flowers of hyssop are regarded as stimulating and expectorant.

Pontarlier is the centre of this great French industry, now more rigidly French than ever, for the neighboring countries of Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland have prohibited the manufacture, importation, or sale of the liquor. Belgium led the crusade in 1905, Switzerland followed in 1908. In Holland, where absinthe drinking has never prevailed to any considerable extent, prohibition was voted in 1910 as a preventive measure. The United States in October, 1912, forbade the importation and sale of absinthe.

Absinthe was first distilled on any large scale at Courvet, a little city of Switzerland lying cross the French frontier a few miles beyond Pontarlier, France. After having passed through various hands the distillery was purchased by the ancestor of the principal establishment of Pontarlier, to which place the industry was transferred near the close of the nineteenth century, since which epoch the use of the liquor has been gradually extending.

The principal distillery of Pontarlier, which has its patent from the inventor, is an immense establishment, covering several acres, admirably appointed in every respect, kept with extraordinary neatness, and, for the convenience of transportation, connected with the railroad station, some three-quarters of a mile distant, by a track of its own.

There seems to be no doubt that absinthe as a cordial was made by the French confiseurs of the eighteenth century, but only as a flavor for other beverages. It does not appear to have become a common potation until about the beginning of the reign of Louis Philippe. The balance of evidence would seem to show that the Algerian campaign, in the days when the princes of the Orleans family were fighting so bravely in North Africa, and when the favorite song of the French troops was 'La Casquette du Père Bugeaud,' had a great deal to do with the popularization of absinthe among military men. The operations of war had to be carried out not only under a burning sun, but in all seasons, at all hours, and very often on marshy ground. Nothing is more probable than that some military surgeon, observing the ravages made by brandy on the health of the troops in such a climate as that of Algeria, prescribed as a stimulant diluted absinthe. The soldiers may have made wry faces at first at a beverage which to the uninitiated tastes very like "doctor's stuff," but with disastrous celerity they soon grew to like it and to drink it in excess. From a camp tonic dispensed to recruit exhausted strength, absinthe became the favorite pick-me-up in the Algerian cafés. It soon recrossed the Mediterranean, left its traces at Marseilles and Toulon, and with terrible quickness became domiciled in Paris.

Breakfast in France is little more than a bite of bread and a swallow of coffee. Parisian clerks and workingmen have longer noon-spells than even well-to-do folk take in New York or Chicago. All thoughts of business are put off for a good hour and a half. Master and man go off their different ways intent on meeting their friends at a restaurant. They do not fall immediately to eating, but sit at the little café tables sipping their drink. That drink is absinthe.

The practice is repeated on closing business for the night. Another absinthe is taken as an appetizer for dinner. Perhaps more than one is taken. We are assured that the dinner hour in Paris is growing later and later. Men who formerly dined at 6 or 6:30 P.M. now wait until 7 or 7:30. They wish to sit another hour before their second or third glass. It has been a long-standing complaint that the theatres are suffering from the late dining following on late drinking in the afternoon.

The Parisian article comes in two forms, pure and with gum,--sirop de gomme, as the French call it. In the latter article a sweet syrup is used. Two tablespoonfuls suffice for an ordinary glass, as water and sugar must be added. The glass generally used is an ordinary table goblet. The gum is poured into it,--a thickish liquid of peculiar light-green color. Over the top of the goblet is placed a shovel-shaped spoon with perforated bottom and sides. Upon this rest several rectangular pieces of beet-sugar. A fine spray or jet of cold water is allowed gently to fall upon the sugar from a carafe especially prepared for this purpose. After the gum is poured into the glass a long slender spoon is inserted and left quiet until the water fully dissolves the sugar and falls drop by drop into the absinthe below. With this dropping comes a change in the color of the liquor. What before had been a peculiar green hue now assumes a beautiful amber slightly clouded. With a clever stirring from the spoon the beverage is ready to do its work. It is sometimes, though rarely, drunk "neat" from tiny glasses holding perhaps a teaspoonful.

Absinthe has proved the opening wedge to break up the old wine-drinking habit, said a corresponded of the New York Sun, writing in 1891:

Even more than Paris, the south of France gives an example of this change of ways in drinking. The people of the south of France complain, with reason, that their wine no longer brings its price. Yet they set the most notorious example of neglecting it. The religion of the apéritif lives in more vigor in the south of France than in the capital. From the mouth of the Gironde to the Pyrenees, from the Pyrenees to the furtherst shore of the Mediterranean and to the Alps, the drinkers of absinthe and vermouth are without number. And down there, with a logic which is feminine and characteristic of the South, they cut the Gordian knot by taking their apéritif before and after meals, and even during meals. The innkeepers of the mountains and the plains have all adopted the some methods. It is not one glass of absinthe which they serve to their customers--it is the bottle itself. How many take two glasses, without counting the rincette--the final "rince" which you take free--no one can know. The number must be very high, at least in Perpignan; for in certain large cafés of the city the proprietors have been obliged in their own interest to stop the custom of passing the bottle. Instead they serve a small carafe of absinthe, out of which the client may get two fair glasses. But he is obliged to stop there or buy another protion. When I say two glasses I mean wine glasses. Before this new departure, when they gave the bottle, the proprietors were being ruined.

This exaggerated consumption of absinthe prevails equally in the mining countries of the south. In many of the districts absinthe has become the current drink. It is drunk even at the table, mixed with water. Thus absinthe has become an important factor in social life.

It is estimated that the consumption of absinthe by the French people amounts to a million gallons a year. Government and the more enlightened classes recognize the perils of this growing eveil but are powerless to stop it. Unfortunately for the government, it has been from the beginning an active agent in the spread of the liqueur, deriving a revenue of $15,000,000 annually from its sale. This fact joined to the political power of the wealthy manufacturers stands in the way of prohibition. Morerover scientific authorities assert that any sudden stoppage of the supply would result in hundreds of thousands of cases of madness,--insanity of such maniacal fury as might deluge the country in blood before the army of drug victims could be placed in asylums.