Absinthe is a yellowish-green Swiss liqueur made from angelica root, aniseed, fennel, hyssop, liquorice, star aniseed and wormwood.
Its taste is a combination of anise and bitter.
There are many different brands. Most are green, but some are clear. The green coloration earned it its nickname, “la fée verte” (the green fairy.) A Genuine Absinthe gets any coloration that it has naturally from the herbs in the recipe.
It is usually served with water or in mixed drinks (it turns cloudy when mixed with water.) To serve it, a special spoon with a hole or slots in it is placed over a glass with some Absinthe already in it. A sugar cube is placed on the spoon, then water is dripped slowly over the sugar cube through the spoon holes into the glass. The sugar helps to offset the bitterness. In Britain, it is preferred as an ingredient in cocktails. The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) by Harry Craddock included Absinthe in over 100 cocktail recipes.
Many brewers of Absinthe use two types of wormwood: Grand (aka Common) Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium), and Petite Wormwood, aka Roman wormwood (Artemisia Pontica).
One of the components of wormwood is a compound named “thujone” (also present in the herb Yarrow, and in Sage.) It is thujone that gives Absinthe its somewhat “evergreen bush” aroma. Thujone, and other of the ingredients in Absinthe, are soluble in alcohol, so Absinthe is clear (even if green) in the bottle. They aren’t soluble in water (or wine), though, so when either of those is added, those ingredients clump together, reflecting light away, and in doing so causing the characteristic cloudy appearance.
It came to be believed by most medical authorities in the later 1900s that thujone was present in original Absinthe brands in large enough quantities to cause hallucinations and eventual brain damage. A Food Chemist and Toxicologist, Dr. Dirk W. Lachenmeier, who has published extensively on the topic, says that now, however, there is a growing consensus that amounts of thujone in Absinthe were vastly insufficient to cause such damage; that instead, the effects of Absinthe were owing to either plain, old-fashioned alcohol poisoning (some brands were up to 70% alcohol) or by toxic adulterants in some of the cheaper brands.
Despite that, versions of Absinthe being made now have controlled limits on the amounts of thujone in them. In the EU and in Switzerland, the maximum legal limit of thujone allowed in Absinthe is 35 mg per litre; in Canada and in America, the maximum legal limit of thujone allowed in Absinthe is 10 mg per litre.
A company in the Czech Republic called “Logan fils” claims (as of 2004) to make a full-strength version of Absinthe in the original way. It is 68% proof. This version, called “Extrait d’Absinthe”, retails for about $200 US (2004 prices), and can’t be sold in the EU. With the Czech Republic having joined the EU, it’s not known if or how Logan fils will be able to continue making and selling its version of Absinthe.
In Switzerland, production and drying of Wormwood for Absinthe is a specialty of the village of Boveresse in the Val-de-Travers.
The topic of Absinthe is one that men in particular seem fascinated with. The oldest Absinthe discussion forum on the Internet dates from 1997, at http://www.feeverte.net/ .
In 1797, a man named “Major Henri Dubied” opened an Absinthe distillery in Couvet, in Val-de-Travers valley, in the Neuchâtel region of Switzerland and became the first person to popularize the drink.
Dubied acquired the recipe he used — but how, and who created it? The history of the recipe before Dubied is the subject of much debate and confusion, and we may never be able to get a definitive answer.
All versions of what transpired before Dubied agree that the history starts in Couvet.
The first two versions are what circulate on the Internet today, having been copied in most cases verbatim from one site to the next. They have the appeal of giving readers a quick, satisfyingly-simple take on things:
VERSION ONE: During or before the 1790s a doctor named Pierre Ordinaire devised an elixir, based on wormwood (one source says it was chicory ), which he thought would be good for people’s health. He had two housekeepers who were sisters, the Henriod sisters. Upon his death, they acquired the recipe, then sold it to Dubied. [Ed: Doctor Ordinaire actually didn’t die until 1821, so he couldn’t have left it to anyone in time for it to be sold in 1797.]
VERSION TWO: Two sisters with the last name of Henriod devised the recipe themselves and were selling it by 1769, advertising it as “Bon Extrait d’Absinthe.” Then they sold the recipe to Dubied.
A third version is less common on the Internet, but has the backing of writers from the last half of the 1800s. This version is probably not entirely accurate, as the authors of this account were writing about one hundred years after the events:
VERSION THREE: During or before the 1790s a doctor named Pierre Ordinaire devised an elixir. Upon his death, he left the recipe to his governess, a Mademoiselle Grandpierre, who sold it to the Henriod sisters, who then sold it to Dubied. [Ed: same problem of 1821 death date for the Doctor, versus 1797 sale to Dubied. These three versions are quoted below in the Literature section in their original French.]
A fourth version is a more nuanced one. It is proposed by historian and researcher Benoît Noël.
There were actually separate products involved in the evolution of what we now call Absinthe:
1. A medicial extract designed to be a purgative for use as a remedy against all maladies;
2. A digestif liqueur;
3. An apertif liqueur (which it is now).
In tracing the history of who made what when, Noël cautions that we need to bear in mind that were were different wormwood-based products being made by different people in the village, and in neighbouring villages in the valley of Val-de-Travers. No one had a corner on the market for Absinthe extracts. The main cast of characters in Noël’s theory follows (but bear in mind others in the village may have been making a wormwood-based product as well.)
On 3 January 1787, Suzanne-Marguerite Henriod (1756-1843) married Henry-François Henriod, the Civil Lieutenant civil of Val-de-Travers (1754-1830.) Suzanne-Marguerite was known in the town as an herbalist, and was called locally “Mère Henriod” or affectionately, “Melle Henriod” . Suzanne was the daughter of Jean-Henri Motta, who was a judge and a notary public. They would have five children, three of which were daughters: Suzanne-Françoise (1791-1843), Charlotte-Justine (1793-1866) and Cécile (1796-1868.)
In 1768, Pierre Ordinaire (1741-1821), a doctor and pharmacist, immigrated to Switzerland and settled in Couvet. He was a French Protestant, and so was likely escaping restricted prospects for him as a Protestant back in France.
In 1769, the first advertisement locally for an “absinthe extract” appeared. It was bore no person’s name. It could have been made by Suzanne-Margerite Henriod, or by Pierre Ordinaire who had arrived a year earlier, or, by anyone else locally for all we can know from the facts.
In 1780, Ordinaire married Henriette Petitpierre, whose father Jean-Henri Petitpierre sold furniture to the Henriod family (the small village connections at work.) They must have had children, if the account of there being a governess named Grandpierre floating about is correct.
In 1798, Suzanne-Marguerite Henriod and her family became neighbours with Pierre and Henriette Ordinaire when the Henriods purchased the “l’Hôtel de l’Aigle Noir” next to the Ordinaires.
Benoît Noël proposes that Suzanne-Marguerite and Doctor Ordinaire, both concerned with making remedies from herbs, would have almost certainly exchanged knowledge and tips over the garden fence at the very least, and that both made absinthe concoctions, amongst other things. He proposes that it’s likely that the Doctor would have aimed his absinthe concoction to be a purgative, with medical effects, while Suzanne-Marguerite might have aimed hers to be more of a digestive liqueur to be taken after meals. He feels that the daughters would have learned their absinthe recipe directly from their mother — that there’s no particular reason to feel that they would have had access to the Doctor’s, or for that matter, needed it.
In 1797, Dubied acquired a recipe and opened a distillery to begin production of Absinthe. Most people engaged in the debate agree that he purchased it from some sisters named Dubied. Though, the above-named Dubied sisters would of course have been far too young to be involved in any kind of business.
In 1798, the concentrated “absinthe extract” started being sold mixed with a spirt-of-white-wine base, to reduce the bitterness of the concentrate, and thus making it the apéritif we know today, rather than a medicinal-type concentrate. 
In the Musée de Neuchâtel, there is an absinthe label referring to Melle Henriod, but it is undated. Writer Jacques Kaelsin feels that the label saying “extrait d’absinthe qualité supérieure de l’unique recette de Melle (Mademoiselle) Henriod de Couvet Comté de Neuchâtel” [superior quality absinthe extract from the unique recipe of Mademoiselle Henriod of Couvet, county of Neuchâtel] must apply to someone whom he names as Henriette Henriod, who he says never married. Writer Pierre-André Delachaux goes along with the existence of a person named Henriette Henriod, but gives her the expanded name of Marguerite-Henriette and assigns birth and death dates to her: 1734 – 1801. Historian and researcher Benoît NOËL counters that Marguerite-Henriette Henriod is a fabrication. Kaelsin counters that Major Daniel-Henri Dubied, in his expense books for 1799 (now at the State Archives of Neuchâtel), records that he owes money to a Henriette Henriod for pots of absinthe extract. [Ed: though it’s uncertain why he would be purchasing pots of absinthe extract, when he had a recipe, unless perhaps Dubied was thinking of making variations to his brew and wanted to try other base extract versions?]
In any event, the versions merge with Dubied in 1797. Dubied was originally from the nearby village of Boveresse, where wormwood is cultivated. Dubied was married to Rose-Marguerite Duval (1755-1821); the Duvals are another family sometimes mentioned as having an Absinthe extract recipe.
The recipe that Dubied decided to use, most people in the debate seem to agree, was purchased from some women whose last name was Henriod. He called the company “Dubied Père et Fils”, as he established it along with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Perrenod (1776-1851.) Henry-Louis had married Dubied’s daughter, Emilie (1781-1867) in 1797.
Henry-Louis’s father, Abram-Louis Perrenod, was a clock maker, and maker of remedies; his mother was Susanne Esther Favre (Favre is yet another family name mentioned in connection with yet another Absinthe extract.) It seems Abram-Louis himself had been making an Absinthe concoction. In his notebooks, he had a recipe for Absinthe extract, so Henry-Louis may not have been unfamiliar with the work the new company would be engaging itself in. In any event, he had learnt distillation from his father, and that was the key skill that the new company would need in making their Absinthe apéritif.
Their apéritif proved popular, and they increased production to meet demand, with many sales going across the border into France. In 1805, the company opened a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, and changed its name to Maison Pernod Fils. Having a distillery in France allowed them to bypass the high duties imposed on bringing Absinthe into France from Switzerland. Pontarlier is not far from Couvet. In fact, it is in the same valley, only about 20km on the French side of the border with Switzerland. From high enough up, you can just about see Couvet from Pontarlier.
In the same year, 1805, Henry-Louis changed the spelling of his last name from Perrenod to Pernod.
The drink grew steadily in popularity until the 1840s, when French troops returning home from Algeria began asking for it in their local bars. They’d acquired a taste for it in Algeria, because it had been prescribed to them as a malaria preventative. The popularity of Anise ratcheted up again in the 1860s, when wine supplies were affected by the decimation of French vineyards by the parasite phylloxera.
By this time, 5pm in the afternoon had come to be known as l’heure verte (“the green hour”) in bars and cafés around France.
Artists, including Oscar Wilde, loved their “Green Fairy” because they felt that drinking it gave them hallucinations which inspired them.
Absinthe’s peak of popularity in the late 1800s coincided with the advent of the large lithographic advertising poster. Innovations by a man named Jules Cheret made possible the production in the hundreds and thousands of posters of high artistic quality and detail. Absinthe posters were amongst the first to be produced and because it is very hard to reproduce the stone printing technique in lithography, are highly desired as collectibles today.
As health side-effects became suspected, Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1906, in Switzerland in 1908, in The Netherlands in 1909, in America in 1912, in Italy in 1913, in France in 1915 and then in German in 1923. It was never banned in Britain.
Studies published in the 1980’s and 1990’s said that Absinthe had contained thujone amounts up to 260mg per litre. Later, actual analysis of surviving bottles showed that the range between brands was actually between .5 and 48.3 mg / litre, with a median of 33 mg a litre. 
Reduced-thujone Absinthe was allowed back into the EU in 1981. The Swiss ban was lifted in June 2004. (At that time, ten distillers in the Val-de-Travers valley who had continued operating in secret, in barns, since 1908, made themselves known again.)
The Belgian and Dutch bans were lifted in 2005. In 2007, America began allowing the sale of Absinthe with no more than 10 mg thujone per litre. The first Absinthes (legally) back on the market in America in 2007 included St. George Absinthe Verte (made in Alameda, California), Kübler Absinthe Supérieure, and Lucid.
The liqueur Pernod was developed as an alternative.
Literature & Lore
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.” Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
These are the three accounts of the creation of Absinthe which are probably not accurate — they were written about one hundred years later:
Vers la fin du siècle dernier, un médecin, dont je n’ai pu réussir à retrouver le nom, vint s’établir à Couvet pour y exercer son art. Selon l’usage de ses confrères éloignés des villes, il préparait lui-même les remèdes qu’il prescrivait ; cela était d’autant plus nécessaire que dans tout le Val-de-Travers on aurait vainement cherché l’ombre d’une pharmacie… panacée était l’élixir d’absinthe, où entraient différents exemples de plantes aromatiques, d’après une recette dont lui seul connaissait le secret. Le médecin de Couvet mourut après avoir fabriqué son élixir pendant quelques années, assez pour le faire connaître avantageusement. Ce commerce ne l’enrichit pas, car à sa mort, il ne possédait que le secret de sa « recepte » et il le légua à sa gouvernante qui lui était resté fidèle jusqu’à sa mort. La gouvernante, Melle Grandpierre, vendit la recette aux demoiselles Henriod, qui se mirent immédiatement à fabriquer l’élixir d’absinthe et préludèrent ainsi à l’exploitation d’une industrie qui devait prendre plus tard le développement qu’on lui connaît aujourd’hui… Au commencement de ce siècle, les demoiselles Henriod vendirent leur recette à M. Pernod fils qui, le premier, inaugura une fabrication sérieuse et y employa son intelligence des affaires et son activité à trouver des débouchés importants…” — Louis Favre : L’extrait d’absinthe dans la revue Le Musée neuchâtelois, 1864.
“La fabrication de l’Extrait d’absinthe au Val-de-Travers… remonte aux dernières années du XVIIIè siècle, et ses origines sont françaises… Un réfugié français, le médecin Ordinaire, choisit Couvet pour le lieu de son exil et le siège de son activité médicale ; il y élut domicile à l’Écu de France…. À sa mort, le médecin Ordinaire légua sa mystérieuse recette à sa gouvernante, Melle Grandpierre, qui la vendit aux filles de M. le lieutenant Henriod. Cultivant elles-mêmes les herbages nécessaires dans leur jardin, elles les distillaient au foyer paternel. On ne comptait alors la fabrication de l’élixir que par quelques pots qui se vendaient d’abord assez difficilement par la voie du colportage. La recette fut vendue à M. Pernod fils au commencement de ce siècle, et c’est de cette époque que date l’entrée de l’extrait d’absinthe dans le commerce…” — Alphonse Petitpierre : Un demi-siècle de l’histoire économique de Neuchâtel (1791-1848), Neuchâtel, Librairie Générale Jules Sandoz, 1871.
“D’après un livre ancien datant de près d’un siècle, l’invention de l’extrait d’absinthe serait due à un médecin du nom d’Ordinaire…. Chassé de France pour des raisons politiques, il s’établit à Couvet où il exerça la profession de médecin et celle de pharmacien, qui lui permit de travailler à son élixir. Il mourut, laissant son secret à sa servante ; celle-ci le vendit aux filles du lieutenant Henriot, qui fabriquèrent alors l’extrait d’absinthe en lui donnant une extension assez grande pour une découverte aussi récente. Peu de temps après, en 1805, Henri-Louis Pernod fonda, à Couvet, une usine qui fournissait 16 litres d’absinthe par jour ; puis, comme les droits d’entrée en France étaient très élevés, il vint monter, à Pontarlier, une seconde distillerie d’absinthe ayant la même production que celle de Couvet…” — A.M Villon – Ingénieur-chimiste : L’Absinthe – Histoire – Fabrication… Veillissement – Contrefaçons, La Nature, 2 June… and 4 August 1894.
The word Absinthe comes from the scientific name for Wormwood, “artemisia absinthium.”
Nicknames for Absinthe have included “The Green Fairy” (La Fée Verte), “L’atroce sorcière”, and “The Green Deity.”
 “… un dépuratif à base de chicorée de même couleur que l’absinthe.” Edmond Quartier-La-Tente in “Le canton de Neuchatel – Revue historique.” 1895.
 It’s disputed that the “Melle Henriod” referred to Suzanne. Researcher Jacques Kaeslin says that “melle” is short for “Mademoiselle”, and never would have applied to a married woman, even back then, as Madame or “Mère” were titles of greater respect.
 Pierre-André Delachaux : L’absinthe au Val-de-Travers : recherches sur ses origines, La revue historique neuchâteloise, janvier-mars 1997.
 “Thirteen samples of authentic absinthe dating from the preban era (i.e., prior to 1915) were analyzed for parameters that were hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of the spirit, including naturally occurring herbal essences (thujone, pinocamphone, fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony. The total thujone content of preban absinthe was found to range between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/L, with an average concentration of 25.4 20.3 mg/L and a median concentration of 33.3 mg/L. The authors conclude that the thujone concentration of preban absinthe was generally overestimated in the past. The analysis of postban (1915–1988) and modern commercial absinthes (2003–2006) showed that the encompassed thujone ranges of all absinthes are quite similar, disproving the supposition that a fundamental difference exists between preban and modern absinthes manufactured according to historical recipes. Analyses of pinocamphone, fenchone, base spirits, copper, and antimony were inconspicuous. All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome “absinthism”.” — Chemical Composition of Vintage Preban Absinthe with Special Reference to Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphone, Methanol, Copper, and Antimony Concentrations. Lachenmeier, Dirk W., David Nathan-Maister, Theodore A. Breaux, Eva-Maria Sohnius, Kerstin Schoeberl, and Thomas Kuballa. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, April 2008.
Noël, Benoît. La fée verte se joue d’un généalogiste. Retrieved August 2012 from http://www.heureverte.com/tribunes/benoit-noel/41-la-fee-verte-se-joue-dun-genealogiste
Jarvis, Alice-Azania. Absinthe minded: The ruin of bohemians is back in all the best bars. London: The Independent. 31 March 2011.
Kaeslin, Jacques. Mère Henriod n’est pas Mademoiselle Henriod. Web page. 20 October 2010. Retrieved August 2012 from http://www.musee-absinthe.com/artmerehenriot.htm
Kaeslin, Jacques. Qui était la Mère Henriod ? Web page. 20 October 2010. Retrieved August 2012 from http://www.musee-absinthe.com/artquihenriot.htm
McGee, Harold. Trying to Clear Absinthe’s Reputation. New York Times. 3 January 2007. Page F6.
Wells, Pete. A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback. New York Times. 5 December 2007. Page 1.