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Why absinthe was banned

Words by Simon Difford

In the late 19th century, the French and other governments became concerned over the consequences to society of heavy absinthe consumption leading to absinthe being banned: in 1898 in the Republic of Congo, Belgium in 1905, Switzerland in 1910, Netherlands in 1910, USA in 1912, France in 1914/1915 and Italy in 1932.

By the mid-19th century, the Pernod Fils distillery alone was churning out some 20,000 litres a day from 26 alembics. At the height of absinthe distillation in France, 36 million litres a year were produced.

Overconsumption of absinthe was believed to produce a syndrome called absinthism, characterized by addiction, hyper-excitability and hallucinations. Sufferers were drunks and many were alcoholics. But some of absinthe's bad effects were possibly caused by unscrupulous manufacturers adding cheap and often poisonous ingredients such as copper sulphate for colouring and antimony trichloride to enhance the louching effect. Pernod Fils fought legal battles to prevent imitators and published warnings about inferior absinthes.

The myth behind the effects of absinthe going beyond that of just alcohol was supported, and to a large extent, were driven by the flawed scientific studies of Dr Valentin Magnan. He forced laboratory animals to consume pure wormwood oil extract and used the resulting violent convulsions observed as proof of his theories. Modern science recognises that this is akin to testing the effects of drinking coffee by feeding animals massive doses of pure caffeine. So this was far from conclusive evidence. He even asserted that the 'disease' was hereditary, and the detrimental effects of absinthe drinking could be passed on to a sufferer's children.

Absinthe was blamed for Van Gogh's ear-lopping incident and for filling asylums with people made insane by the drink. By 1880, many Parisians were ordering absinthe by asking for "une correspondence", meaning 'a ticket' in English. This was a reference to a ticket to Charenton, an infamous lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Paris.

Probably the most notorious story occurred in 1905 when a Swiss peasant farm labourer called Jean Lanfray, in a drunken rage shot and killed his pregnant wife and two daughters supposedly as a direct consequence of drinking absinthe. The fact that he was a habitual drunk (and that very day had consumed litres of wine and a good deal of brandy) was not considered to have had any bearing on his actions. A second murder a few days later in Geneva, where a heavy drinker named Sallez also murdered his wife led to an outcry throughout Switzerland.

This bad reputation and the rise in the temperance movement led to absinthe being banned, first in 1898 in the Republic of Congo, then by the Belgians in 1905, followed by the Swiss banning its retail sale in 1907, followed by an outright Swiss ban which came into effect in 1910. The Dutch also banned absinthe in 1910, followed by the USA in 1912.

Meanwhile, in France, the impending First World War brought about renewed efforts to ban absinthe and on 16 August 1914 the Minister of the Interior banned the sale of absinthe as an emergency measure. But the drink continued to circulate in spite of the ban, partly because of the large stocks remaining in warehouses. By this time the French government was convinced that absinthism was destroying the country and under pressure from the conservative newspapers, winemaking associations (still trying to recover following the decimation of European vineyards by Phylloxera), the Temperance League and the escalating world war, absinthe was formally banned in France by presidential decree in January 1915. Finally, in 1932, a referendum in Italy led to the ban there.

Absinthe continued to be legally made and consumed in the Czech Republic and Spain (Pernod produce absinthe in Tarragona, Spain until the 1960s), and a little produced illegally in Switzerland, but absinthe was all but forgotten until a man called George Rowley rediscovered it.