Crazy about absinthe?By Becky Paskin
Believe it or not, but a 100-year-old myth that absinthe drives drinkers to insanity still has legs in the present day, and is hampering the growth of one of the world’s most historically interesting spirits.
The belief that indulging in numerous glasses of the green liquid would trigger a psychotic disorder, dubbed absinthism, was so strong in the early 20th century that it was blamed for violent behaviour and banned in its native Switzerland.
In 1905, a farmer’s “absinthe-fuelled” shooting spree of his family was blamed on his consumption of two glasses of la fée verte, but the fact that they were preceded by a day-long wine, Cognac and brandy binge was overlooked. As a result, a campaign to ban the spirit gained momentum, and three years later the Swiss government prohibited absinthe production and consumption. The move later influenced the US and every European country – except the UK, Spain and Portugal – to follow suit.
The assumption that absinthe drives drinkers to insanity – it is even blamed for Vincent Van Gogh’s decision to lop off his own ear – is still ingrained, despite scientists proving absinthe to be harmless when consumed sensibly, and many countries lifting their bans in the last few years.
“People, especially in France and Switzerland, are still aware of absinthe’s background and even nowadays throughout the world there is still a strong impression that absinthe turns you mad,” explains absinthe historian Marie-Claude Delahaye. “There is an obvious need for a lot more education, which is the only way the situation will change.”
According to the IWSR, the absinthe category reached a high of 222,000 nine-litre cases in 2008 – months after the ban was repealed in the US. However, the volume has since sunk back to around 140,000 nine-litre cases in 2010.
The excitement surrounding the reintroduction of absinthe, and the flurry of distillers rushing to produce it, are perhaps the reasons behind the 2008 volume boom.
But, as consumers became disillusioned with the product, either by failing to experience the touted “green fairy effect” or through a dislike of its acquired aniseed taste, the numbers soon fell with the advent of low-end brands. Some were little more than green vodka labelled as absinthe – and they dropped out of the market altogether.
“People enter the category thinking it’s fun, but it doesn’t deliver on its promises: they get too drunk and swear never to touch it again,” says Alan Moss, commercial director at Artemisia. “Exactly the same thing happened to Tequila 20 years ago when everybody was abusing the drink by doing the salt and lemon ritual. Now people have moved onto the higher quality, 100% blue agave Tequilas and are appreciating the taste more. The same thing is happening with absinthe, albeit on a shorter timescale.”
With a return to classic cocktails and speakeasy bars trending in countries like the UK, US and Australia, absinthe is expected to grow to 199,000 cases by 2016. Ironically, France, the breeding ground for absinthe in the 19th century, is not expected to play a part in absinthe’s rebirth due to the overwhelming popularity of pastis, which became the drink of choice following the ban of drinks labelled as absinthe in 1915.
Emerging markets showing an increased interest in absinthe include India, Japan, South-East Asia, Eastern Europe and even parts of the Middle East, and producers are also starting to make inroads into South America, although the continent has a cap on alcoholic content at 54% abv.
Growth in terms of volume remains at a slow recovery pace, but the green fairy seems to be flying out to all corners of the globe. However, the general consensus – from all brand owners – is that education is key not only to the category’s growth, but to its survival too.
“Education will help the category,” says Peter Fuss, general manager of German distributon firm LogisticX. “We started trying to educate people last year because we are concerned that people do not understand the difference between absinthes. If people understand that different regions in Europe produce different styles of absinthe, they will be interested and find that absinthe is right for them. But it’s all down to education, particularly of bartenders.”
If the category has its own way, every suitable bar would stock at least three or four absinthes, with the spirit being a feature ingredient in at least two cocktails. Bartenders would know the difference between each style and the best way to serve each one, whether through a fountain, a sugar cube, pouring straight on ice, or as a long drink.
The notion is that if bartenders are sold on the spirit, they can pass that passion onto the consumer through recommendation. It all seems too easy, but while brand owners are actively educating bartenders in their target countries, the collective message communicated is somewhat jumbled, with each brand doing its own thing.
“The biggest barrier for the category is to get everyone working on the same drink strategy and not to spoil it with shots,” says Guillaume Pétavy Meynier, international brand development manager at Pernod Ricard. “For some brands it is the easy way to go, but it’s also the easiest way to kill the category.”
Jean-Pierre Trouillet, export manager for Distilleries et Domaines de Provence agrees, claiming that brands need to discourage absinthe’s shot culture. “A warm shot of absinthe is terrible – you won’t be able to taste it properly,” he says. “That’s why we educate bartenders about how to serve it, even if it’s on ice, as a small amount of water can lengthen the flavours. Do shots with something else.”
Working on the same message is all well and good, but many believe there must be a strong brand – a Smirnoff or a Bacardi – to lead the category in terms of vision. Is that Pernod’s role?
“We must be category captain,” says Meynier. “It is important that we lead the category in terms of education because we are the only brand that has the ability to be global. Lucid is the biggest brand in the US, but it is not active overseas. It falls on us.”
Pernod, which currently sells 10,000 nine-litre cases worldwide, is taking its position very seriously – educating bartenders aside, it is shedding its notorious reputation of the past by forging new associations with the world’s creative community by partnering with big name fashion houses and art galleries.
“The idea is not to go back to our Montmartre roots, but to capitalise on this new generation of creative personalities,” Meynier explains. The company is also collaborating with a group of French distillers to define absinthe as a spirit in the EU for the first time, to gain a sense of a collective within the category and to end public confusion.
“We want to build the brand and the category slowly, but surely. It’s not about volume and there is no pressure to get it. This is about working together to get absinthe listed and drunk properly,” says Meynier.
So which rumours about absinthe are true, and which ones are false? Follow our mythbusting guide to absinthe, and don’t forget to leave a comment if you feel there are any we’ve missed out!
Bouts of Madness
Thujone – a by-product of distilling grand wormwood – has in the past been blamed for causing absinthe drinkers to descend into madness. Scientists have since found levels of thujone in absinthe to be minute, even in the 19th century. It’s now thought that absinthe’s hallowed hallucinogenic effect on drinkers is more likely caused by the over-consumption of alcohol.
Some modern sceptics believe that, when drunk neat, absinthe crystals form in the stomach and settle there. The story goes that when drinkers reach for a glass of thirst-quenching water the following morning, the liquid reactivates the crystals and causes a tipsy sensation. But does it really? There’s no direct scientific evidence to support the theory.
It was thought that continued over-consumption of absinthe would cause epilepsy, seizures and bouts of lunacy – a syndrome known as absinthism. While ingesting high levels of wormwood oil has been proven to cause seizures, the amount present in absinthe is negligible and scientists are unable to distinguish the syndrome from simple alcoholism.
Absinthe was first consumed in the 19th century as an all-in-one wonder cure for a number of ailments, including malaria. It was later used to stimulate the appetite as an aperitif, and at one time women even saw it as an aid to breast enlargement. Of course, none of these claims – appetite stimulant aside – has ever been proven.