The history of absinthe is amazing, from its birth, through its development in the 19th century, its demise in the early 20th century, and then its recent renaissance. And throughout all this, the growth, decline and re-birth were in large part caused ... by accidents:
ABSINTHE BOOMED, DIED AND WAS RE-BORN HELPED BY A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS. FIRSLY IT WAS CHOSEN AS A MEDICINAL SUPPLEMENT TO PROTECT FRENCH SOLDIERS IN ALGERIA, THEN IT BECAME A REPLACEMENT FOR WINE AND COGNAC WHEN AN AMERICAN VIRUS DECIMATED FRANCE’S VINEYARDS FROM 1868 ONWARDS, THEN ITS VERY SUCCESS AND A FEW ACCIDENTS ARISING FROM ALCOHOLIC OVER-INDULGENCE LED TO ITS BAN, AND FINALLY, THE EU BUREAUCRATS RE-LEGALISED IT BY MISTAKE (the last of these is recounted in more detail here).
The individual events are well-known to absinthe historians and followers, but the accidental nature of the series of events has not really been detailed. The fact that French soldiers were given absinthe in Algeria was, I am sure, chance. Unless the corporate officers at French absinthe companies in the 1830's really planned a Coca-Cola style of colonialism which worked in a different way (Coke established soft drinks bottling lines in Europe during World War 2 to keep the troops motivated ... and to supply the locals after the war finished). 110 years earlier, the victorious French soldiers returned to Paris with a love of absinthe and demanded that café owners find it for them. Genius ... or accident?
I am sure that the phylloxera outbreak of 1868 was accidental, and it was this that really caused absinthe sales to boom in France (and elsewhere). In fact, if this had not happened, then maybe absinthe's growth would have continued, albeit less spectacularly. And thus absinthe might not have become the enemy which led the wine companies and the temperance movement to form their unholy alliance against it. In short, the accident that led to its amazing growth also contained the seeds of its death.
Assisted of course by one or two accidents involving over-indulgence, such as Jean Lanfray, the Swiss labourer who in 1905 consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. He returned home drunk with his father, and drank another coffee with brandy, and then shot his wife and daughters. And absinthe became the scapegoat and was then banned.
It's good to know that today, most of the companies who make and sell absinthe are taking charge of their destiny, by not allowing accidents (like Lanfray) to happen again. Properly made absinthe (and not the bath tub sort that became popular when demand exceeded supply in Paris), responsible marketing (no over-indulgence), and well thought-out strategies will hopefully continue to prevail in the 21st century. Au revoir aux accidents!
For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.
For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.
For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.
For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.