Few spirits carry a history as riddled with misunderstanding as absinthe. Sure, there’s tequila, which some people hold responsible for those regrettable late-night texts to ex-lovers, and whiskey supposedly makes you frisky, but absinthe has shouldered the blame for a spectrum of misdeeds throughout history, ranging from hallucinations to even more grave accusations like murder. At one point, it was banned in many countries.
In the 1990s, countries in Europe lifted the ban on absinthe, and it underwent a resurgence, even hitting Australia. Soon, ‘the green fairy’ became an underage drinker’s night fuel after being spotted in the likes of movies and in the hands of Marilyn Manson. I guess you could say it was the cool drink at the time.
However, within a decade, ‘the green fairy’ became ‘the green devil’, and it was all but forgotten once again. Now, it’s back once again.
Welcome to Papa Gede’s
Today, in a dimly lit bar hidden under Sydney’s bustling streets, absinthe is making a quiet yet intriguing comeback. However, if you ask Papa Gede’s co-owner, Lara Dignam, “absinthe never left.”
Papa Gede’s is a New Orleans-style bar with a dash of voodoo and one of the biggest absinthe collections in Australia. Here, you sip from an absinthe fountain and spoons — which is the right way to drink absinthe — and tap into Lara’s knowledge of the spirit that was the drink of choice for artists during Belle Epoque France.
“Absinthe didn’t always have a bad reputation. It was a clever marketing ploy that branded absinthe as we know it today,” she says.
How Absinthe Got Its Reputation
The conversation veers into the history of absinthe, dispelling some of the myths and legends that had tarnished its reputation. Lara recounted how absinthe had been unfairly maligned during the late 19th century in France. Factors such as unregulated production and a grapevine epidemic had contributed to its notoriety.
“There was no wine to drink after an epidemic almost wiped out France’s vines, so people turned to absinthe,” she says. “It became the drink of choice for artists, poets, and writers — even when wine was back in the rotation.
“Although wine producers, eager to win back customers, spread false stories of absinthe-induced hallucinations and madness, which, of course, gave the spirit a bad name,” says Lara. “It also didn’t help that some absinthe was made in a bathtub, similar to what happened with bathtub gin. It was coined for degenerates.”
Years after absinthe was banned all over Europe, it suddenly became popular again, although no one knows why. Guesses are that it was being served under the counter during its prohibition, and the pale green liquid was thriving in the countries that didn’t ban it.
Absinthe and Ritual
According to Lara, it was never banned in Australia, though it wasn’t until the 90s that we saw the green fairy step into the spotlight, which is part of the problem today.
“For many, absinthe had been a youthful folly, consumed recklessly without an understanding of its complexity,” says Lara. Her bar Papa Gede’s, aims to change this perception.
The key to this revival is the ritual involved in absinthe consumption. “People don’t know how to drink it. We all remember being 18 and throwing back a shot of Green Fairy,” says Lara. “But that’s why people don’t touch it again.”
At Papa Gede’s, absinthe is served in a traditional glass-blown fountain. The fountain, an elegant apparatus, dispenses ice water with individual taps for each glass. “People love watching the delusion transformation of the drink when water is slowly added,” she says. The once-clear liquid turned cloudy is a mesmerising sight that adds to the allure of the absinthe ritual.
As Lara continues her explanation, she clarifies the components of absinthe. It is a strong, high-proof spirit infused with various herbs. The essential ingredient is wormwood, but it also includes anise, fennel, and other botanicals.
The elixir was invented in Switzerland as a general cure-all by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French physician, in 1972. The recipe was passed around and sold as a medicinal elixir for several years after the fact. The recipe has changed today, and you can find various types of absinthe, including one made in Australia.
“We have absinthe from around the world, but we also work with local distiller, Demoiselle Absinthe, who make their spirit with native botanicals in Sydney.”
Curious drinkers can sample the various absinthe at Papa Gede’s either through the fountain or in a cocktail.
“One of our most popular cocktails is the ‘Divine Intervention,’ which blended absinthe with apple juice and passion fruit, offering a unique twist on the traditional absinthe experience,” she says.
“We wanted to create a sense of occasion and reverence around absinthe consumption. The ritualistic aspect, combined with the mystery and complexity of the spirit, has fueled its revival. Although, as I said before, it never went anyway; it’s always been hiding in plain sight, waiting for its next moment.”