Absinthe: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Green Fairy
Absinthe is a simple drink. Proper preparation consists of very slowly diluting it with dripping iced water—whether dripping from a specially made absinthe fountain, or by hand from a carafe—to a ratio of approximately three to five parts water to one part absinthe, and sweetened to taste.
A measure of absinthe, around 1 to 1.5 ounces, is poured into a glass. Absinthe glasses were, and are, often made to indicate the level of a proper “dose.” Lacking an absinthe glass, a properly sized wine or water glass will do. Then a flat, perforated trowel-like absinthe spoon is placed on top of the glass and a sugar cube placed on top of the spoon. The perforations allow the water and melting sugar to pass into the glass of absinthe below.
The slow addition of water causes the herbal oils to gradually come out of solution and the drink takes on a turbulent, cloudy, opalescent “louche.” A good louche—not too thin, not too opaque—is a point upon which absinthes are judged.
Although some purists frown upon it, ice may be added. This should be taken into account while determining the dilution ratio and when pouring.
Legend has it that absinthe, as we know it, first saw light in Switzerland, dripping from the small still of an exiled French doctor by the name of Pierre Ordinaire, in 1792. This was just three years after the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
Although there is scant evidence of his actual existence, Dr. Ordinaire is an indispensable fixture in the legend of absinthe. Pernod Fils reports in their catalog from 1896:
“We cannot resist the urge to reproduce the portrait drawn of him by a Swiss writer. He was, apparently, an eccentric, of great height, riding through the Val de Travers on a small Corsican horse known in the region as the Rocket. His unusual appearance did not fail to surprise the village populations; it gave rise to many jokes and persistent astonishment among the children. Ordinaire did not appear to be concerned with this; the gravity of his character was not affected. He was a doctor not without talents for his time, and he did a good job of bringing the medical art to the Val de Travers. He joined the practice of medicine to that of pharmacology; the majority of doctors of the countryside did no differently. Mr. Ordinaire did not scorn the panaceas; he employed one in particular, the elixir of wormwood, composed of aromatic plants of which only he knew the secret. Many people, having made use of it, declared themselves radically cured and the doctor could not pretend to be other than pleased and to prescribe its use. Dr. Ordinaire would have been well astonished if anyone had predicted the high destinies to which his elixir would be called. At his death the mysterious recipe passed into the hands of the young Henriod ladies of Couvet. Cultivating the necessary herbs themselves in their garden, they distilled them in the family home. The production of the elixir at the time amounted only to a few pots, which were sold with some difficulty by hawking. Little by little, however, thanks to its fragrance and pleasant taste, the elixir came to the attention of not only the sick, but to that of more and more fans, so that the recipe had already acquired monetary value when Mr. Henri Louis Pernod acquired it to exploit it commercially.”
According to one Swiss version of this legend, it was the Henriod sisters who were the original inventors and Ordinaire was a scoundrel who stole the formula, selling it to a Major Dubied, who in turn employed Henri Pernod, who would later become Dubied's son-in-law.