Absinthe: The Drink of Aesthetes

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Bottles of absinthe at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans // Courtesy of Southern Food and Beverage Museum

Absinthe—the naturally green liquor derived from wormwood and herbs like anise or fennel— was the drink of choice for such artists as Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso filled the glasses of cafe patrons with absinthe in their paintings. Absinthe, it seems, was a drink of aesthetes.

Yet for as much as artists enjoyed the mysterious liquor, it was necessity, not art, that first helped popularize absinthe. French army doctors issued absinthe to soldiers for the prevention of fevers and treatment of dysentery, and it was included in the rations of French soldiers sent to colonize Algeria in the 1840s.

Soldiers soon began drinking absinthe for nonmedicinal purposes, too, and it quickly became a fashionable beverage in Algerian cafes and nightclubs. Soldiers brought it back to France with them after the war and it helped fill the void of wine: The French wine industry was collapsing owing to a vine-killing aphid. It seems absinthe was in the right place at the right time.

Since its arrival in the drinking scene, the French have developed a ritual for drinking absinthe, one that gave rise to some of the greatest liquor paraphernalia—known as absinthiana—around.

More on absinthe’s history can be found at NPR


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