It’s hard to overstate absinthe’s cultural impact, or to imagine a contemporary equivalent. Arthur Rimbaud called the drink “sagebrush of the glaciers” because a key ingredient, the bitter-tasting herb Artemisia absinthium or wormwood, is plentiful in the icy Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. That is where the legendary aromatic drink that came to symbolise decadence was invented in the late 18th Century.
The spirit was a muse extraordinaire from 1859, when Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker (above) shocked the annual Salon de Paris, to 1914, when Pablo Picasso created his painted bronze sculpture, The Glass of Absinthe, (shown below – click to enlarge). He, also, created a painting called The Absinthe Drinker.
During the Belle Époque, the Green Fairy – nicknamed after its distinctive colour – was the drink of choice for so many writers and artists in Paris that five o’clock was known as the Green Hour, a happy hour when cafes filled with drinkers sitting with glasses of the verdant liquor. Absinthe solidified or destroyed friendships, and created visions and dream-like states that filtered into artistic work: it also shaped Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism.
Dozens of artists took absinthe drinkers as their subjects and the ritual paraphernalia: a glass, slotted spoon, sugar cubes – sugar softened the bitter bite of cheaper brands – and fountains dripping cold water to dilute the liquor.
Absinthe was, at its conception, not unlike other medicinal herbal preparations such as vermouth. Its licorice flavor derived from fennel and anise, but it was also capable of creating blackouts, pass-outs, hallucinations and bizarre behaviour. Contemporary analysis indicates that the chemical thujon, from wormwood, is present in such minute quantities in properly distilled absinthe as to cause little psychoactive effect.
Writers such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Emile Zola and Oscar Wilde were also enthusiastic absinthe drinkers. Baudelaire also used laudanum and opium; Rimbaud combined it with hashish. In his 1857 poem Poison, Baudelaire expressed a preference for absinthe over wine and opium: “None of which equals the poison welling up in your eyes that show me my poor soul reversed, my dreams throng to drink at those green distorting pools.”