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Absinthe: History, Production and Consumption of the Green Fairy in France"

absinthe production and consumption history





Absinthe, also known as the "green fairy", is an alcoholic drink of French-Swiss origin that marked the history of France during the Belle Époque. After being banned in 1915, it was reintroduced in France first in 1999 with a different name "spiritueux à base de plantes d'absinthe", but then, in 2011 to protect the name of the drink due to the fear that the name " absinthe” was stolen and attributed to Switzerland, the green light was also given to be able to recall it with the original name.

Absinthe production was mainly concentrated in the Franco-Swiss region, with Fougerolles in Haute-Savoie and Pontarlier in the Doubs being among the main production sites. Although each producer had his own secret recipe, the production process was the same: maceration, distillation, coloring and ageing.

Absinthe is associated with a ritual of consumption which involves the use of three accessories: a carafe, a measuring cup and an absinthe scoop. The perception of the drink as a mystical and mythical drink derives from the craze for it and its image in the social imagination.
Despite the negative image that has often been attributed to absinthe, it represents a know-how and an art of consumption. The authorization of the production and consumption of absinthe in France testifies to its importance in the culture and history of the country.



where absinthe is born For some, “it was in Switzerland that absinthe was born and it was Switzerland that gave it to France” (cit. Bonneff 1913); for others, it was a French drink introduced to Swiss soil by a French doctor fleeing the revolutionary turmoil of 1789. The truth may be a combination of both theories.

In the early 1780s, a French doctor named Ordinaire settled in Couvet, a small Swiss village in Val-de-Travers (discover our products from the region). It is said that he combined medical practice with that of the pharmacy and that among the natural remedies he offered to patients there was the absinthe elixir, composed of aromatic plants whose secret he knew. After the doctor's death, the recipe was sold and, in 1797, the manufacturing secret was acquired by Henri-Louis Pernod, a Swiss industrialist. In 1805, Pernod established a factory in Pontarlier, France, which would become "Pernod fils" in the hands of his grandchildren.

Meanwhile, the distillate had become increasingly popular in France, especially among the working classes due to its low price. In 1906, Pontarlier had 25 absinthe distilleries. However, its popularity also led to a proliferation of imitations, with many distilleries using the "Pernot" names to market their products. In 1910, absinthe production amounted to 23,800 hectoliters for the "big three" of Fougerolles: Abel Bresson, Lemercier Frères, and Auguste Peureux. Four years later, in 1914, the overall production of Fougerolles reached 55,000 hectoliters.

In summary, it may have originated in either Switzerland or France, and its popularity has led to a proliferation of imitations and distilleries using names similar to "Pernod."


The Misfortune of Wine and the Birth of the Aperitif at the End of the 19th Century

At the end of the 19th century, wine was the leading product on the alcoholic market, with no significant competition. However, the phylloxera crisis that began in the 1860s forced winemakers to uproot their vines, causing a steady decline in wine production. At the same time, rising living standards, attractive advertising, and the spread of pubs and distillers attracted a new clientele to apéritifs, including absinthe.


Wine Crisis and Aperitif Risorgimento:

The wine crisis and the need to replace wine alcohol with industrial alcohol, mainly derived from the distillation of beets, have reduced production costs. In 1880, a glass of absinthe cost 10 cents, compared to 20 cents for a glass of wine. Absinthe became the most widely consumed aperitif drink in the late 19th century, with 238,000 hectoliters drunk in 1900, up from 18,000 hectoliters in 1880. This craze benefited producers, distributors and the state, which in 1914 received 50 million francs in duties and taxes on the product.


The decline:

However, absinthe's success has also led to its decline. The temperance movements and wine lobbies launched a campaign of denigration against the drink, identified as "green peril" and associated with madness and death. Despite this, it has remained a popular drink in France to this day.

The relationship between the wine crisis and the birth of the aperitif at the end of the 19th century shed light on how the misfortune of wine made the aperitif happy and vice versa, in fact the decline of absinthe was born precisely because of the campaigns of denigration against it made by winemakers.

Despite several attacks on its consumption, all bills to ban it have been rejected and its popularity has been amplified by the marketing strategies of producers and distributors. In 1892, French distillers created the Haute-Saône Distillers' Union, with some of them becoming public representatives, such as Auguste Peureux, elected deputy for Haute-Saône in the Chamber of Deputies in 1902.


However, in 1915, the French government issued a decree banning the circulation and sale of absinthe and aniseed liqueurs. This situation lasted until the end of the 20th century, when a 1988 decree authorized and regulated the presence of thujone in drinks and foods, again allowing the production of absinthe in France under the name “spiritueux à base de plantes d'absinthe”. In 1999, production resumed and in 2011, the name "absinthe" was reinstated to counter the Swiss producers. Finally, in 2013, “l'absinthe de Pontarlier” obtained the PGI denomination (Protected Geographical Indication)



The main recipes

main absinthe recipesThis distillate is basically made up of wormwood, absinthe, anise, fennel and hyssop. However, other ingredients such as star anise, lemon balm, mint, nettle, coriander, iris and benzoin can be added to vary the flavour. There were many different recipes depending on the region and the manufacturer, with each one having its own version, adapted to the tastes of its customers and the brand it marketed.

In Fougerolles, the plants used were anise, star anise, fennel, hyssop, wormwood, coriander, lemon balm, mint and nettle, with wormwood accounting for only a small part of the blend. The quantity of essences used (from 1 to 4 g/l) was generally proportional to the alcohol content of the brandy. Around the three main types of absinthe – superior (65-72°), ordinary (50-65°) and common (40-50°) – there was a wide range of products, with producers such as Abel Bresson marketing up to ten different types.

The industrialists of the sector have tried to maintain competition by controlling a large part of the production chain, from the procurement to the marketing of finished products, passing through the selection of raw materials, maceration, distillation, coloring and ageing. The plants used came both from the Fougerolles region and from other parts of France and from abroad. The mugwort grown around Pontarlier and in the upper part of the Besançon district was considered to be of superior quality due to the soil, climate and altitude of these regions.




Rectification of the distillation alcohol

Fermented musts, most often obtained from beets, had to be transformed into pure alcohol for the production of absinthe. This operation was carried out through a distillation process which took place in steam stills. The distillate then had to be rectified to remove unwanted compounds.


Maceration and distillation

The maceration consisted of mixing pure alcohol with selected plants and spices. This mixture was then left to rest for a few days, so that the aromas of the plants and spices could diffuse into the alcohol. Distillation consisted in heating the macerated mixture to separate the pure alcohol from the solid parts. This process produced a distillate, which then had to be diluted with water to obtain the desired alcohol content.


Coloring and aging

The distillate had to be colored to give it its characteristic appearance. Sometimes, coloring was achieved by adding natural dyes, such as caramel, but in some cases artificial dyes were also used. Finally, the absinthe was left to age in wooden barrels, to refine its flavor and aroma.


Packaging and marketing

Once the absinthe was ready, it was bottled and marketed. Marketing took place both through specialized shops and through department store chains. In this way, absinthe production became a thriving industry, generating jobs and supporting the local economy. It is therefore not surprising that many companies have sought to develop their manufacturing capabilities and expand into the market.


Counterfeit Absinthe: A Cheap Market

Some distillers who wanted to exploit the revenue potential of this market did not hesitate to prepare a low-cost version of absinthe by simply dissolving the essences in alcohol. This process, described by Villon in 1902, consisted of adding a specific quantity of different essences to the alcohol purchased from Fougerollais rectifiers.

This practice was denounced by industrial distillers due to unfair competition and the points it gave to absinthe critics, including hygienists, anti-alcohol groups and wine representatives. Abel Bresson, a leader in the French aperitif and digestive market, involved the press in the matter. In 1884, the journalist A. Frœmer published a Flattering portrait of Abel Bresson in “Le Panthéon de l'industrie”, contrasting the company's hygienic products with those obtained through counterfeits and imitations harmful to public health. In 1891, Lemercier Frères also published an article in the same journal.


The Absinthe Ritual

absinthe serviceAbsinthe is not simply prepared as a common appetizer. It is a ritual that requires patience and knowledge, performed with specific equipment such as the absinthe carafe or fountain and the absinthe glass and spoon immortalized in many works of art, including Picasso.

Marcel Pagnol very suggestively described this ritual during the Belle Époque:


“The poet's eye suddenly shone. Then, in deep silence, a kind of ceremony began. He placed a glass in front of him […]. Then he took the bottle, uncorked it, sniffed it and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, the dose of which he seemed to measure with suspicious attention […]. Then he took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, narrow and long, pierced with carvings in the shape of an arabesque. He placed this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and loaded it with two lumps of sugar […]. The Infanta lifted the jug […] and dropped a very thin jet of fresh water [...] on the sugar lumps, which slowly began to disintegrate [...]. In the liquid, the level of which slowly rose, I saw a kind of milky mist form, in rotating twists that finally merged, while a penetrating smell of aniseed deliciously refreshed my nostrils” (Pagnol 2014).

The prohibition of absinthe and the growing concern for public health have had a negative impact on its consumption and production, but also on society's perception of this beverage. However, absinthe has never completely disappeared and today it is finally possible to find high quality distillates, produced with natural ingredients and with the same attention to detail that made this distillate famous in past centuries. Additionally, its use as an ingredient in cocktails and its presence in popular culture have helped keep its memory alive.


In conclusion:

Absinthe has been and continues to be a product that has aroused interest, passion and controversy. Its history, from its inception as a medicine to its popularity as an upper-class entertainment drink, is an example of how perceptions and social norms can affect the consumption and production of alcoholic products.

Find out more about the world of absinthe on the site and associated with the Italian association for the protection of absinthe, I would thus have one available fixed discount of 5% on the purchase of all products in our store as long as you are a member


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