The return of the ‘Green Peril’

Anti-absinthe poster

L'Absinthe c'est la Mort (Absinthe is death), 1905. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

After nearly a century’s banishment, one of the most notorious of all alcoholic drinks is set to return to its… er… spiritual homeland, France. Distinctively green and extremely powerful, sales of absinthe have been banned there since 1915.

Absinthe poster

Poster for Absinthe Robette, by Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

Its geographical origins may lie in Switzerland, but absinthe is forever associated with the bohemian and artistic circles of Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that it was a peculiarly French habit. With its main ingredients of fennel, anise and the herb wormwood, it was imbibed across much of Europe and the United States. Initially considered a drink of the aristocracy, ‘absinthe fever’ rapidly spread to all social classes during the second half of the 19th century.

Iced water dispenser

Dispenser for holding iced water to mix with absinthe, France late 1800s (Science Museum)

Nicknamed ‘the green fairy’, ‘the atrocious sorceress’ and ‘our lady of forgetting’, absinthe developed a fearsome reputation for mental and physical ruination. As such, it eventually became a public health cause celebre, its particular demonisation fuelled by virulent campaigning by temperance groups. They saw it as a easy target, whose abolition might be a first step towards the wider banning of alcoholic products.

Anti-absinthe postcard

Le peril vert (the green peril), postcard c.1910 (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

While its negative social effects and alleged hallucinogenic properties may have been overstated by those opposing its availability, it is a very strong drink. Alcohol levels are over 80% in some brands – twice the strength of whisky. 

And, at the height of its popularity, inferior versions started to appear which found a market among the more desperate drinkers. Just as gin became culturally linked with degradation and death in 18th century London, so absinthe did in the eyes of many Parisians by the end of the next. 

In France, the First World War proved to be a final tipping point in the campaign against the ‘green peril’. Portrayed as a threat to national efficiency at a time many thousands of Frenchmen were fighting on the Western Front, it was prohibited during 1915. Similar bans were applied in other countries around the same time.

Poster announcing ban

Proclamation banning absinthe, 1915. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

The ban was effectively lifted by EU regulations in 1988, but in France it could only be sold if it was not actually labelled with the name absinthe! The recent vote in the French Senate looks set to remove this anomaly so the nation can once more order a glass of the controversial drink Oscar Wilde considered “as poetical as anything in the world”.

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