One indication of a continued connection between New Orleans and Paris was the popularity of absinthe in both cities. With its high alcohol content, its ritual, and its mysterious ability to louche or become cloudy and greenish in color, absinthe was the drink of choice of the demimonde. Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were among those on the Continent who were companions of la fée verte. Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe were known to consort with the Green Fairy, as absinthe was called. They and other bohemians enjoyed its so-called dangerous nature, feeling the frisson of naughtiness for drinking the stuff and experiencing its effects, basking in the disapproval of conventional society.
Absinthe gets its name from Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, a silver-leaved, bitter, anise-flavored herb that had been used since the Egyptians as a vermicide. The spirit’s green cast comes from a high amount of chlorophyll. Traditionally, it was drunk with a lump of sugar and water and with great ceremony. The paraphernalia and preparation rite no doubt added to absinthe’s mystique and appeal.
A fountain with spigots was used to pour cold water in a controlled stream or to skip it slowly over a sugar cube. A decoratively pierced spoon held the lump of sugar over the drink glass, allowing the water to filter the absinthe below. If there was no fountain, water could be slowly poured from a pitcher or carafe. French cartoons make fun of the heights from which the water was poured to ensure a proper louche. The oils from the herbs that are macerated in the spirits (and that give the absinthe its flavor) dissolve in the alcohol. Where there is sufficient water in the glass, the oils become cloudy and change color.
Although absinthe was available in many coffeehouses and saloons in New Orleans, Old Absinthe House, at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon Streets, was graced with legendary fountains. Built in 1806, the building was used as a food wholesaler, an épicurie, and even a bookshop before it became home to Aleix’s Coffee House in 1846, run by Jacinto Aleix and his family. Like other coffeehouses in the city, it served alcohol. Later, bartender Cayetano Ferrér began serving the popular Absinthe Frappé. In 1874 Ferrér, who had leased the place, renamed it the Absinthe Room. Later it was names the Old Absinthe House.
The building was nailed shit during Prohibition, and it remained dark. But the marble bar, the cash register, the familiar paintings, and the fountains were removed from the building by Piece Cassebonne. who bought them to created the Old Absinthe House Bar on Bourbon Street. In 2004, the furnishings were returned to their original home, where they can be seen today. The most important features are the green marble fountains, each topped with a bronze figure and equipped with spigots for dripping. Notable features of these fountains are their extremely pitted limestone bases. Some explain the pitting as the result of gallons and gallons of water dripping drop by drop onion the limestone, eroding depressions into the surface. Others believed the pitting is too extensive to have been caused by the simple dripping of water. It is also speculated that the fountains may have been used as a seltzer fountain. The acidic nature of seltzer would have gradually eaten into the limestone, causing the pitted surface.
Because of health concerns associated with the compound thujone found in absinthe, the spirit was banned in the United States in 1912, and was not legal again until 2007. Ted Breaux, and environmental chemist originally from New Orleans, reverse-engineered pre-ban absinthe. Breaux determined that absinthe made with wormwood contains only minute quantities of thujone. Thujone was considered toxic and was incorrectly thought to be responsible from the erratic behavior of some absinthe drinkers. Breaux determined that the government ban on absinthe was based on pseudoscience; he used real science, in the form of a mass spectrometer, to prove that thujone was not present in sufficient quantity in absinthe to have any deleterious effects. Breaux now produces his own absinthe at a distillery in Saumur, France.
Two New Orleans brothers, Ray and B. J. Bordelon, recently became fascinated with absinthe, as well as its paraphernalia. They love the taste of absinthe, and they have become historians of the drink and collectors of the special artifacts surrounding its ritual. In 2003, they created the Absinthe Museum in a shop on Royal Street. The shop closed in 2010, and the brothers reopened La Galerie d’Absinthe inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. The exhibit is one of the largest collections of absinthe artifacts on display in the United States. The exhibit also educated museum visitors on the history of absinthe in New Orleans, including the famous people who imbibed the drink in the city, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Lafcadio Hearn.