Before it became a symbol of fin de siècle decadence, absinthe was simply an herbal cordial with an attractive green hue. Like sarsaparilla, absinthe was considered to be medicinal; French soldiers in Algeria were given the stuff as tonic against fever. Unlike sarsaparilla, absinthe was roughly 140 proof, and the soldiers apparently developed quite a taste for it. Although absinthe had been invented in 1792, and Pernod Fils, owner of the original recipe, opened its first French distillery in 1805, it wasn’t until the solders came marching home in the 1840s that the drink achieved popularity. It soon became a recognizable symbol of the demimonde: Van Gogh painted it, Rimbaud wrote about it, and Oscar Wilde quipped about it ("After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second glass, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."). But it was also popular among France’s upper and middle classes; cocktail hour was l’heure verte. In 1905, when Swiss peasant Jean Lanfray went on a murderous rampage after drinking a minibar’s worth of liquor, newspapers seized upon it as an "Absinthe Murder." As if to confirm the prognosis, an absinthe drinker in Geneva killed his wife with a hatchet. Tens of thousands of signatures were collected on petitions to ban the drink. In France, La Fée Verte would soon be a memory. The flavoring agent that gives absinthe its name is wormwood, artemisia absinthum. Long associated with bitterness (absinthe itself had to be poured over a sugar cube to be potable), the herb itself is poisonous in quantity. Recent research has shown that thujone, the psychoactive agent found in oil of wormwood, really is awful stuff. Many people have serious doubts about whether there was enough wormwood in absinthe to make much of a difference; Poe and Verlaine and the rest were probably suffering much worse damage from marinating their livers than they possibly were from imbibing minute quantities of neurotoxin. But one of the backers of the anti-absinthe movement was the wine industry, and an indictment of alcoholic spirits in general was the last thing they wanted. So, it was decided, wormwood must go; in 1915 France banned absinthe. Henri-Louis Pernod reformulated his apertif into the wormwood-free pastis that bears his name today. Most Western nations followed suit.
It might have remained there, with absinthe just a fond memory and a presence on lovely Beaux Arts posters, if legislation could curb alcohol’s popularity. Beyond America’s example, consider the case of the London gin craze. As two recent books note, London in the early eighteenth century was far and away the largest city in Europe; along with this distinction came was the first appearance in Europe of urban blight. When English distillers began masking the taste of their products with juniper berries, cherries, and other fruits, "Geneva waters" — gin — began selling in huge quantities to the urban working class, who drank it by the pint. In Craze, Jessica Warner writes that London was home to twenty thousand gin shops by 1736. The drink was accused of breeding crime, wrecking the health of the nation, and causing spontaneous human combustion (as well as lewd behavior in women). But attempts to regulate and tax the selling of gin just drove its consumption underground; the laws were routinely ignored, and those who attempted to make a living by informing on gin sellers were often the target of angry mobs.
There were never absinthe riots, but writers like Poppy Z. Brite and other people who wanted to get their fleurs des mals on kept the mystique of the green fairy alive. An enterprising British fan discovered both that the United Kingdom had never formally outlawed absinthe and that the stuff was still being manufactured in the Czech Republic. He began importing it, and although Hill’s is apparently a pretty sorry excuse for absinthe (it doesn’t even louche!), it sold quite well in British clubs. A whole absinthe subculture began reasserting itself: a market for higher-quality absinthe appeared, chemists attempted to replicate old formulas, absinthe was made with biotech-altered wormwood, the spoons that held sugar cubes over which absinthe was poured became collectable. And yet in the United States, absinthe remained technically illegal. Enter the underground.
Those interested in absinthe know that Pernod is basically absinthe less the wormwood. A certain portion of this group therefore thinks, "Why not add the wormwood back in?" Recipes for absinthe (1, 2, 3) have floated around the Internet for some time. Enter Chuck Taggart, who, when not writing the weblog Looka!, maintains a wonderfully extensive New Orleans food site. Among Crescent City’s signature drinks is the Sazerac; Sazeracs traditionally contained a small quantity of absinthe for flavor. Chuck duly reported this and wrote a small page on absinthe’s role in the city’s culture, which eventually got Chuck mentioned in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine. Someone (who, from his letter to Chuck, doesn’t sound like an idiot, even if he was mocked as such in the pages of Business Week) miscalculated the amount of wormwood oil he was adding to a homebrew recipe and sent himself to the hospital with acute renal failure.
Still, it could be worse. Prisoners make jailhouse wine, or "Pruno" (link via Archipelapogo), from the scrapings of their lunch: oranges, raisins, sugar packets from their coffee, even Jello and frosting. And when grain shortages prevented English distillers from using quality wheat and barley to make spirits, Jessica Warner reports that they used pig slops. Still, Mr. Acute Renal Failure nearly killed himself not for alcohol which was otherwise impossible to obtain but simply for a fashionable buzz; absinthe drinker Oscar Wilde, who said both "There is no sin except stupidity" and "Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason," would have been proud.