November 28, 2017 – In the summer of 1905, Jean Lanfray, a farm worker in the French-speaking Swiss canton of Vaud, started the day with “copious amounts of wine and brandy”. Later he had more wine and brandy for lunch rounding off with a couple of crème de menthes and two glasses of absinthe.
Unfortunately, he got into an argument with his pregnant wife that he settled by grabbing a rifle and shooting her, and then he shot his two daughters. Turning the rifle on himself he shot his jaw and survived his injury.
The massacre was immediately dubbed the “absinthe murder”, inspired by “absinthe madness” and was quickly seized upon by the anti-absinthe lobby, to borrow a modern phrase, leading lawmakers in Vaud to ban absinthe in 1906.
And so began the demise of absinthe, France’s national drink favored by the poets and artists of the Belle Époque – the Beautiful Period.
Absinthe: The Exquisite Elixir written by Betina J. Wittels and T.A. Breaux is a compelling and entertaining read. Its 144 pages are encased in a soft cover that feels like suede and in homage to La Fée Verte, the Green Fairy as absinthe was known, the cover is various shades of green and adorned with the beautiful scrolls and filigree of the era. The book is a treasure trove of color reproductions of posters, advertisements, cartoons, bottles, labels and the antique accoutrements for serving absinthe.
The history and culture of absinthe is documented in rich and lively detail as we meet many famous figures of the era who dabbled in absinthe and in many cases, virtually drowned in it. Verlaine and Baudelaire the poets; Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso the artists. Oscar Wilde, author and British bad boy. The story moves from Switzerland to France, to England, to the U.S. where New Orleans was the country’s absinthe capital, to Spain where the absinthe-laced Champagne cocktail was dubbed “Death in the Afternoon” in homage to Ernest Hemingway’s book about bull fighting. Hemingway was seriously acquainted with the Green Fairy.
The eventual ban on absinthe’s sale and consumption in France, the last country still making the elixir, was the result of an unlikely alliance between the temperance movement and the French wine industry, a curious story in itself. The law was passed in 1914 and went into effect in 1915 but with World War I raging, while its demise was noted, response was less voluble than one might expect. The Belle Époque had come to an end. It is noteworthy that the French also banned all high alcohol spirits to avoid drunken soldiers in the trenches. However every fighting man was guaranteed a ration of wine.
Ersatz absinthe flourished but often it was little more than green vodka.
Eventually, in the late 1980s the ban began to be lifted in various countries leaving the U.S.A. as the last country where the green curse was absent. Finally in 2007, after 96 years, the French brand Lucid, a genuine absinthe, was approved for distribution. T.A. Breaux, scientist and Master Distiller and co-author of Absinthe: The Exquisite Elixir, spent 20 years researching absinthe and was responsible not only for lifting the ban in the United States in 2007 but also reversing the last vestiges of the original 1915 French ban the following year.
This is a book that will delight any history buff or liquor consumer with a curiosity about the story behind this mysterious drink and its dark history. A chapter of recipes for both cocktails and food dishes using absinthe is included, plus reviews of absinthes from around the world that are mostly available in the United States.
Copies autographed by T.A. Breaux can be purchased for $29.99 at