Once a symbol of creativity and enlightenment, absinthe became a symbol of madness. Over a century later, BC distilleries have a new-found love for the devil in a little green bottle
Tom Balog // Contributor
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Coralie Mayer-Traynor // Illustrator
The stench of death filled the street of a small Swiss village in 1905. Standing before the bodies of his dead family sobbing, like a man walking to the gallows was Jean Lanfray. “Please, tell me I haven’t done this,” he pleaded against his memories as empty as the litres of wine bottles he drank the previous night. Lanfray’s crimes blazed across the headlines of Europe. His murder dubbed a result of madness, the Green Demon it was called, something so insidious the U.S. Food Board declared it “one of the worst enemies of man.”
I stroll down the cobbled streets of Gastown on a brisk evening. Yellow streetlights illuminate 19th-century red-brick buildings and the trees awaiting spring. Some of the original spirit is still here, at the bottom of a glass or in ghost stories. Tonight, I’m chasing the most demonized alcoholic spirit in history — absinthe.
Before the press, the temperance movement and wine industry transformed it into the Green Demon, la fée verte (the Green Fairy, a nickname used affectionately among many esteemed enthusiasts) was a spirit revered by artists, poets and bohemians alike. By 1914 absinthe was banned across Europe and the United States, where it remained banned for over a century. Despite finding a resurgence in BC distilleries and bars, the aftertaste of absinthe’s bloodied history is still hard to chase.
I find my way into Pourhouse, a busy bar on Water Street filled with well-dressed people conversing in low light. I wait patiently. The hostess leads me to a corner spot at the bar, next to a vintage gas lamp and Remington Rand typewriter. “First time?” The bartender asked. “Yeah,” I respond. “Alright, let’s have some fun with this.” He grabs a small ice water fountain, tall stemmed glass and pours in my drink of choice. Finally, he places a slotted spoon over the glass with a single sugar cube on top. Two men in business suits look over at the commencing ritual in front of me. “Let us know if you see our futures,” one of them mumbles. The bartender gently twists open the valve on the fountain and ice water begins to drip, slowly and intentionally. Before imagining the future, it’s important to dwell on the past.
“Absinthe is very heavy on rituals and tradition,” says Simon Buttet at the Alchemist Distillery in Summerland, BC. Buttet is the soft-spoken Francophone behind The Green Frog, an absinthe inspired by the traditional recipe of his hometown, about 50 kilometres from absinthe’s birthplace in France. He describes the use of sugar cubes as more of a pre-prohibition artifact, when absinthe was significantly more bitter than it is now. That bitterness comes from absinthe’s eponymous ingredient: wormwood, also known as artemisia absinthium. It’s the second most bitter herb in the world next to rue, and by itself the kind of bitterness that lingers longer than Trump running for office again in 2020.
Wormwood has been used in herbal medicine for thousands of years, but the infamy comes from thujone; a neurotoxic chemical purported to be behind absinthe’s alleged psychotropic properties. A bit like Trump’s politics, wild tales of insanity, debauchery and hallucinations encase absinthe’s lore. Vincent van Gogh’s infamous severed ear episode is rumoured to be a result of the spirit. The flamelike appearance of thujone containing thuja trees frequent his Auvers paintings. Pablo Picasso also featured absinthe in many of his paintings and sculptures. “Got tight on absinthe last night, did knife tricks,” Earnest Hemingway penned in a letter after a night on the town in Key West, Florida.
Thujone isn’t exclusive to wormwood, it can be found in things like sage and even vermouth. However, “only absinthe is tracked for [the] thujone, and all of that is very political,” explains Buttet. The thujone in absinthe is relatively as benign as caffeine, but certain absinthe brands will falsely market their spirit as containing 100 percent thujone based on reputation alone. “I end up having this conversation a lot,” says Neil Campbell. Campbell is one of three distillers, and part time volunteer firefighters behind Psychedelic Jellyfish absinthe from Tofino Distillery in Tofino, BC. To Campbell, the tales of psychedelic experiences still following absinthe aren’t the result of thujone, but belief, “the power of belief is a big thing.”
Absinthe’s political significance traces back to its widespread use as medicine among French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian war. The end of the Franco-Prussian war birthed the Belle Epoque, which was France’s own artistic and spiritual enlightenment. With wine out of the way for a decade thanks to pest-ravaged vineyards across Europe, absinthe became France’s muse. World War I ended the Belle Epoque in 1914 and with it, the era of absinthe. Angry wine moguls partnered with the temperance movement to run smear campaigns, vilifying absinthe as the reason behind everything from brutal crimes like the Lanfray murders, to France’s unpreparedness for World War I. “It has a terrible past, but a wonderfully artistic past based in an immense mountain of war,” muses Campbell.
In roughly 40 years, absinthe went from medical tincture to a demon drug supposedly causing many of the ailments it was originally used to treat. I calmly watch the ice water slowly dissolve the sugar cube as the gas lamp flickers beside me, creating an aura of elegance and temporary sophistication. “You’ll see the absinthe go from clear light green to cloudy white, it’s known as the ouzo effect,” the bartender tells me. The drink is typically diluted with ice water anywhere from a 1:1 to 1:5 ratio depending on individual tastes. Oils from the herbs are soluble in the high percentage of alcohol and once diluted in water, they are released to create the louche or cloudiness.
The story of absinthe is, ultimately, a war story of social polemics between alcoholism, public and political ideologies. Absinthe, like Lanfray, and by some extension Germany after WWI became the devilish symbol people needed during intense conflict. Take Taboo, the absinthe distilled by Okanagan Spirits in Kelowna, BC – It’s a Polynesian word that etymologically expresses itself in prohibition and restriction. There’s a Freudian idea where the taboo behaves like a contagion, the prohibited desire becomes displaced to the unconscious motivations driving them. Arguably, it’s within taboos that the real history of society is revealed, when all those prescriptive labels are peeled back.
“I think there’s a romance associated with the taboo,” says Campbell. In a way, Campbell’s Psychedelic Jellyfish is a love letter to the Belle Epoque spirit. “[Absinthe] has such a brooding, solemn history, we wanted to introduce it again as a fun spirit,” he said. From the namesake to its fully certified organic ingredients, Psychedelic Jellyfish incorporates the lighthearted glow of Tofino and its own bohemian-esque history. “We follow a recipe from 1858,” Campbell added, “it’s as authentic as any European absinthe.”
Ted Bureaux is the eccentric microbiologist behind the beginning of absinthe’s North American Renaissance, with his own award-winning absinthe Jade 1901. Almost a mystic in his own right, Bureaux believes, “we’re living in a golden age of the green stuff.”
Alchemist Distillery and Tofino Distillery are part of the seven distilleries in BC making traditional absinthe. Aside from Dillon’s absinthe in Ontario, BC is the only province in Canada making absinthe. “It’s intensive labour, but we believe in it and enjoy putting it out in the world,” Campbell says. He pauses for a moment, his voice shifting playfully to ask about the unusually bright February sun blanketing the sky. “We’re just trying to make it fun again, it’s a cultural experience.”
As Hemingway wrote in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “absinthe is […] idea changing liquid alchemy. It’s supposed to rot your brain, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.”
Alchemist Distillery, Tofino Distillery and Oakanagan Spirits can be found at BC Distilled on April 4 at the Croatian Cultural Center, a showcase of BC’s unique micro-distillery culture.