The Devil in a Little Green Bottle: A History of Absinthe

T. Bianco, Le Peril Vert

Le Peril Vert depicts absinthe ravaging the French population. The artist, T. Bianco, was a well-known satirical illustrator.

L'Heure de L'Absinthe

The Hour of Absinthe, by Gilbert Martin. Published in the satirical journal Don Quichotte.

Absinthe was not always the devil in a bottle. The French name derives from the Greek absinthion, which the Greeks used not as an intoxicant but as a medicine. Typically made by soaking wormwood leaves (Artemisia absinthium) in wine or spirits, this ancient absinthe supposedly aided childbirth. Hippocrates, often considered the first physician, prescribed it for menstrual pain, jaundice, anemia, and rheumatism. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes chariot-race champions drinking absinthium, its taste reminding them that glory has its bitter side—a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by later enthusiasts.

Throughout the centuries wormwood remained a folk medicine. Galen, a physician during the second century CE, suggested it for stomach relaxation and as a remedy for swooning. British herbalist John Gerard wrote in 1597, “Wormewood voideth away the wormes of the guts.” This evocative connection helped solidify Artemisia absinthium’s common English name. When the bubonic plague returned to England in the 17th and 18th centuries, many people burned wormwood to fumigate infected houses.

For centuries wormwood drinks remained primarily medicinal. (More recreational concoctions occasionally appeared, such as wormwood wine and crème d’absinthe.) Then in 1830 France conquered Algeria, beginning its expansion into North Africa. As local resistance grew, the French army sent reinforcements, amounting to 100,000 soldiers by 1840. The heat and bad water took their toll, with fever tearing through the ranks. The men received wormwood to quell fevers, prevent dysentery, and ward off insects. They took to spiking their wine with it, which cut the bitterness and provided an alcoholic punch. Returning to France, they brought with them a taste for the drink, dubbing it “une verte” for its distinctive green color. And soon civilians, eager to align themselves with their newly victorious empire, began asking for “a green.”

At first absinthe remained a middle- and upper-class indulgence. But it had an exotic appeal; legends grew about its long history and supposedly hallucinogenic effects. As prosperity spread, more people partook of l’heure verte, the “green hour” of early evening when the unique smell of absinthe wafted through the air. Savvy customers realized that with its high proof, absinthe delivered more force for the franc. Diluted with water (virtually no one could drink it straight), it went even further. By 1849 the 26 French absinthe distilleries were producing some 10 million liters, a small fraction of the prodigious amount of alcohol consumed in France.

A minority of artists and poets evangelized loudly in favor of the Green Fairy. Absinthe became synonymous with mad genius as literary luminaries like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud sang its praises. In 1859 Edouard Manet painted The Absinthe Drinker, a realistic portrait of a street bum clad in rags and wearing a gnarled top hat, his left foot thrust forward in defiant insouciance. Next to him sits an emerald glass.

Manet’s painting was rejected from that year’s Salon of Paris. It caused his mentor, Thomas Couture, to shake his head: “My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker. It is you who have lost your moral faculty.” Manet had dared to portray absinthe intoxication realistically; indeed, his painting lent its subject an insolent grandeur. His new mentor, poet Charles Baudelaire, had declared, “One must be drunk always. . . . With wine, poetry, or with virtue, your choice. But intoxicate yourself.” The absintheurs idealized intoxication. Polite society did not.

The absinthe mythology— of the Green Fairy of liberation, of altered perceptions and unveiled meanings—appealed to creative libertines around the world. Vincent van Gogh was a convert, as was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Playwright Alfred Jarry sought his destruction in absinthe; Pablo Picasso dabbled in it for a time, painting The Absinthe Drinker and the cubist breakthrough The Glass of Absinthe, but never gave himself over to it. Oscar Wilde declared, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”

Even Ernest Hemingway, not especially known for decadence or dandyism, embraced absinthe. He called it “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy,” saying, “It’s supposed to rot your brain out, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.” Hemingway succinctly captured the danger and allure of the pale-green drink. To enthusiasts it promised new ideas. To the unconverted it symbolized madness—“une correspondance pour Charenton,” a ticket to Charenton, the insane asylum outside Paris.