Venerated in artistic circles and widely held as a muse (known as the “green fairy”), absinthe equally became something of a daily popular tradition: it became common practice to gather in bars and bistros for ‘l’heure verte’, meaning ‘green hour’.
Absinthe, a victim of its own success
Absinthe's glory days were back in the 19th Century. Highly praised and lauded as the ‘green muse’ in artistic circles, its consumption soon spread to the masses, giving rise to the daily practice of gathering in bars and bistros for so-called ‘green hour’.
Like many other European cities, Paris was an arena for all types of excess, but it was also the birthplace of a new, marginal lifestyle, sustained by an artistic community and from which the cultural ‘bohemian’ phenomenon began. Vilified by its detractors and prohibition movements, absinthe was banned in many countries, including France in 1915. In reality, it was a lobby of several winemakers suffering from a terrible phylloxera crisis who eradicated the ‘green fairy’ with a media campaign surrounding its toxicity. It was not until 1988, under the aegis of the European Union, that absinthe once more became legal, subject to the control of thujone levels, the ingredient that spurred its controversy.
Thujone, the molecule that makes you mad?
Thujone is one of absinthe's active ingredients. Though appreciated for its digestive properties and menthol aroma, it can cause convulsions and provoke a loss of inhibition and, in strong doses, hallucinations.
However, the risk of convulsions is low: it would require a concentration one thousand times that present in absinthe. As for the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe, these appear to be due to the combination of different compounds from the various herbs used in the spirit’s preparation: fenchone from fennel, anethole from aniseed and pinocamphone from hyssop.
According to research collected to date, the amount of thujone present in traditionally-made absinthe is less than 10 mg/litre. Thuyone does not readily vaporise during distillation and most of it stays behind in the still pot. Only absinthe made from a mixture of grand wormwood essential oils and alcohol could contain a dangerously high concentration of thujone.
The return to favour of the ‘green fairy’
In 1988, the European Union took the first step towards relaxing the law that banned absinthe. By defining maximum levels of thujone permitted in the composition of absinthe, the EU legalised its consumption in Europe. The same year, in order to comply with European regulations, a decree was passed in France: alcohol bearing the name of absinthe and with levels of thujone superior to those fixed by the EU, were forbidden. To bypass this ban, and in order to reintroduce absinthe into France, the drink was sold under the description ‘a spirit made from extracts of the absinthe plant’.
The true resurgence of absinthe during this period took place in countries where it had never actually been banned: particularly in England but also in the Czech Republic which, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, had become a tourist destination popular with artists and the general public. When visiting Prague, tourists also discovered absinthe, but one that was made in the Czech Republic. At the instigation of British importers, the Czech distillery, Hill’s, introduced its ‘Bohemian Style Absinthe’ to Great Britain, a modern absinthe which set the trend.