Absinthe in France: Legalising the 'green fairy'

By Cordelia Hebblethwaite
BBC News

  • Published
25th March 1939: A French publican in London, Victor Berlemont, preparing a drink of absinthe
Image caption,
The traditional method of preparing absinthe: pour iced water over a sugar cube until it dissolves into a glass of absinthe underneath

Green, incredibly alcoholic and some say mind-altering - these are the qualities that led to absinthe being banned in France almost 100 years ago. But all that's about to change, after the government voted to allow sales of the drink nicknamed the "green fairy".

"I will not be seen as a drug addict anymore," says Clement Arnoux, an absinthe drinker and enthusiast.

"It changes everything from the point of view of my friends and family," he said.

The green, anise-flavoured spirit is associated with many of the country's most famous and esteemed artists and writers - like Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Verlaine - but it was banned in France in 1915 for its alleged harmful effect.

Absinthe is distilled with the leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, known as grande wormwood, which contains the drink's "special ingredient", thujone, which reputedly has mind-altering effects.

Later, the rule was relaxed, allowing the drink to be sold as long as it was not called absinthe, and instead labelled "a spirit made from extracts of the absinthe plant".

Now the ban is expected to be lifted entirely any day now, after the French Senate voted in favour of the move in mid-April.

While drinkers like Clement Arnoux are relieved that the stigma of illegality has gone, not everyone sees the change of law as cause for celebration.

Absinthe is usually around 60 or 70% alcohol, though it is not designed to be drunk neat, but mixed instead with water, much like pastis.

For some, the drink's high proof is part of its appeal. Young people are "always looking for something more", says Laurent Legay, who works with people with drink problems in the Pas de Calais region.

"I've had young people in secondary school who have told me that they are on the hunt for absinthe because it's a strong alcohol," he adds.

'Redundant' law

Absinthe was made legal in the rest of the European Union in 1988, provided the amount of thujone falls within the agreed limit of 10mg/kg, or 35mg/kg for absinthe bitters.

In France, a decree was passed allowing absinthe to be sold but only if it was not actually called absinthe.

"It was a bizarre situation," says George Rowley, Managing Director of La Fee Absinthe, who - though British - was one of the key people behind the resumption of absinthe production in France.

"You could distil absinthe in France, bottle it, label it for the rest of the world as absinthe, but you couldn't do that for France.

"It was ridiculous; it was a redundant law that needed to be swept away," he said.

Queen of the boulevards

Absinthe's heyday was in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Image caption,
Pablo Picasso painted absinthe drinkers

"Absinthe was the queen of the Parisian boulevards," says Marie-Claude Delahaye, director and founder of the Museum of Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Artists would hang out in the Parisian cafes to escape the chill of their studios, and a whole social scene developed around the drink, which was nicknamed la fee verte, meaning the green fairy.

Absinthe conveniently filled a gap left by the wine industry, which had been decimated in previous years by the vine disease phylloxera - but it also had its own attractions.

"It was cheap, it was an industrial alcohol, and it was very easy to buy," says Jad Adams, author of Hideous Absinthe: History of the Devil in a Bottle.

"It was the drink of the poor, and if you were a poor artist, like Vincent Van Gogh, you were going to take the cheapest kind of alcohol you could."

By the late 19th Century, France - like other countries in the Europe - was in the grip of a serious alcoholism problem, and this prompted a backlash, the repercussions of which have lasted to this day.

"For the French, it's clear," says Marie-Claude Delahaye.

"When you ask anyone, 'what is absinthe?' they reply 'it makes you mad'.

"The anti-alcohol lobbies really rammed home the message that absinthe makes you crazy and a criminal," she says.

"So that has stayed within the collective memory; people are afraid of absinthe."

The widely held view that absinthe is mind-altering or hallucinogenic has been "greatly exaggerated", according to Ted Breaux, a research scientist and commercial distiller in France who has spent 17 years researching the liquor.

He notes, however, that some drinkers report a "sensation of mental clarity" before the alcohol kicks in.

One big question, though, is whether the absinthe available now is the same as that drunk by the big names in the 19th Century - and that is contested.

Absinthe producers insist they are carefully following original recipes and the drink is exactly the same - they even cite papers printed in scientific journals.

Others argue that the few remaining pre-ban bottles will have degraded so much over time that they are now impossible to assess.

There was no regulation of absinthe in the days of Van Gogh, meaning there was probably "significantly more thujone" than would be allowed under modern-day EU rules, according to Jad Adams.

Swiss challenge

Absinthe was first made, not in France, but just across the border in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland.

And a Swiss judge recently approved a request to give the region exclusive rights to produce it. For the moment, this ruling applies only in Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union - and so has limited impact.

But because of Switzerland's close ties with the EU, it is possible that the Swiss could seek to extend the ruling across the block.

Producers say that this is what has galvanised the French government to lift the ban now.

France would be the biggest loser if such a ruling were to be extended, but with the drink still technically illegal at home, it would have found it virtually impossible to contest.

Absinthe drinker Clement Arnoux hopes that many more bars and shops will start to sell absinthe now.

But most of all, he wants France to reclaim what he sees as part of its heritage.

"We have forgotten that for half a century, absinthe was the national spirit in France, not wine.

"So for us to be the last to authorise it, is not just ironic, it's almost insane!

"We have forgotten almost everything about it, and are re-learning it from foreigners," he laments.

"That part is sad."

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