The Return of the Green Fairy

Absinthe, that spirit of scandalous repute, was adored by Belle Epoque artists, condemned by anti-alcohol leagues, and long outlawed in Europe and the United States. But ten years after the ban on its production and sale was lifted in France, the “green fairy” is back with a bang, co-opted by mixologists and lovers of vintage drinks. In America, it even has its own celebration, National Absinthe Day, observed on March 5 every year!
© Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Theodore Breaux was a microbiologist in New Orleans when he became interested in absinthe in the early 1990s. This curiosity led to a new vocation: proving that this spirit, made by distilling several plants including grand wormwood, green anise, and fennel, which had been banned in the United States since 1912, was not as dangerous as people thought. In doing so, he managed to recreate a two-hundred-year-old drink that had all but disappeared.

On March 5, 2007, after years of laboratory tests, research in France, and negotiations, the absinthe ban was lifted in the United States. This decision has since been commemorated every year on National Absinthe Day. Several months later and in collaboration with high-end liquor company Viridian Spirits, Breaux launched Lucid Absinthe Supérieure. Distilled in Saumur, it was the first absinthe to be sold on the U.S. market for almost a century. Since then, he has produced several other absinthes, sold under the Jade Liqueurs brand.

Mother Henriot’s Elixir

In the late 18th century, absinthe was little more than a plant known for its medicinal properties. A healer known as la mère Henriot from the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel used it to create a miraculous elixir. A certain Major Dubied then bought the recipe from her and founded a distillery in Pontarlier, on the other side of the border, with his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod in 1805. This marked the start of mass-produced absinthe – and the launch of the leading group in the spirits market.

Absinthe was used as a remedy against malaria and dysentery during the colonization of Algeria in 1830, before making its way to Parisian cafés. Customers enjoyed its anise flavor profile and mysterious green color, which inspired its nickname (la fée verte, or “the green fairy”) and the “green hour” ritual of drinking absinthe as an aperitif. In an effort to dilute the spirit, which could be up to 150 proof or 75%, iced water and sugar were added. This ceremony was captured by painter Jean Béraud in his work The Absinthe Drinkers, exhibited at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.

Jean Béraud, The Absinthe Drinkers, ca. 1909. © Musée Carnavalet

Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, and Degas also featured the “green-eyed fairy” in their work, as did Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Zola. In the early 20th century, France alone was consuming more absinthe than all other European countries combined. So-called “absinthism” was wreaking havoc. Not to mention the producers selling adulterated spirits or batches cut with copper sulfate. The drink was accused of causing convulsions and hallucinations, tuberculosis, epilepsy, and madness. It was a “poison to avoid” and, in the context of World War I, “the other danger” looming over the nation. On March 16, 1915, it was outlawed in France, which sparked the creation of another, lighter anise-based drink that we know as pastis.

The First American “Green Fairy”

This ban was eventually lifted in 2011. Countless producers have since made forays into the market. Today, there are approximately 15 distilleries in France churning out around 800,000 liters of absinthe every year (but a drop in the ocean of the 36 million liters produced in 1910!). Notable names include the historic Pernod, which relaunched its own absinthe in 2013, the Juras-based distillery Marguet Champreux, whose Fée 69 won first prize at the last Absinthiades absinthe-tasting fair in Pontarlier, and the Californian micro-distillery St. George Spirits, which began selling the very first American “green fairy” in 2007.

At the Old Absinthe House, one of the longest-standing bars in the French Quarter of New Orleans, curious bystanders silently observe the absinthe ritual which has remained unchanged for more than 200 years. At Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, and at La Fée Verte and Lulu White in Paris (whose slogan is “Absinthe & Dancing”), this unique drink is also enjoyed in cocktails. Popular recipes include absinthe frappéed with ice and mint, served with cider, elderflower liqueur, and chartreuse in a D-Day Swizzle, or blended with rum, pineapple juice, and coconut for a French revisit of the Piña Colada! According to one Parisian observer, “Younger generations no longer consume pastis. Absinthe has taken over.”

Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.