The highly potent green drink – widely associated with Belle Epoque artistic figures such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh – was banned in France in 1915 because it reputedly sent people mad.
It was allowed back on sale in 2000 after manufacturers agreed to reduce the quantity of certain ingredients, but this week has taken another step towards respectability after the EU awarded a Protected Geographical Status label to Absinthe de Pontarlier.
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The Absinthe drinker by Pablo Picasso – the drink's reputation made it the subject of many works of art. Photo: AFP
That means that anything branded Absinthe de Pontarlier must now have been made according to the traditional methods in the commune of Pontarlier – part of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region that nestles on the border with Switzerland.
Philippe Chapon, vice president of the Route de l'absinthe group, said: “This label is a guarantee that says: in Pontarlier and its surroundings, we distill real absinthe that has been grown here, in the Arlier plain, and that is made according to such quality principles.
“That's a hell of a step forward!”
The aniseed flavoured green spirit is made from a mixture of herbs including green anise and fennel, but to be true absinthe it must contained wormwood.
It is the active ingredient in wormwood – thujone – that was reputed to be the ingredient that caused people to hallucinate and display strange behaviour, although the extremely high alcohol content of absinthe (up to 74 percent proof) was probably also a factor.
The levels of thujone have now been reduced, although the wormwood is still used to give the drink its distinctive taste. Scientific tests in the 1970s determined that there are no hullucinogens in absinthe.
“It was mainly the alcohol content and the huge quantities of absinthe consumed during the Belle Époque that caused serious damage.”
Traditional absinthe producer François Guy. Photo: AFP
Absinthe has been made in France since at least the 1700s but grew in popularity from the 1840s, when it was given to French troops as a malaria preventative.
Although it is often associated with the artistic set of Belle Epoque Paris, the drink was highly popular right across France – by 1910 the French were drinking 36 million litres a year of it.
Mass production made it cheap and it was a regular sight on bar and café terraces. Advertising campaigns by prominent artists of the day helped raise its profile and it also acquired a nickname – la fée verte (the green fairy).
However the party came to an abrupt end in 1915 when the French government banned it over due to health concerns, following in the footsteps of many other European countries which had already forbidden the drink.
After the ban pastis – which also has an aniseed flavour – grew in popularity.
After several decades of campaigning from traditional absinthe makers the ban was finally lifted in 2000, after they had agreed to lower the alcohol content and the amount of wormwood.
The standard size of a serving also decreased and today absinthe is usually drunk with water, and sometimes a sugar cube. There are also several absinthe cocktails available such as the absinthe frappé.