The absinthe drink is a very versatile beverage; it can be drunk the traditional way (louched with water), in cocktails, as an aperitif or served as the featured drink of a hip party. But during the Belle Epoque, the most popular time to indulge was the Green Hour (L’Heure Verte or L’Heure Absinthe) - the time starting at five o’clock when the French took absinthe as their favourite aperitif.
Absinthe, the magical drink of the green hour, whose jade flower blossomed on every terreace.
The Green Hour began as a thoroughly middle class affair in France. This was a bourgeois practice considered rather smart due to absinthe’s popularity amongst the colonial military. Although it was considered impolite to drink more than one absinthe, the rule was easily circumvented by what we call today “bar hopping”.
Ernest Downson’s friend Robert Sherard tells it how it is:
He takes his first drink at one café, his second somewhere else, and his tenth or twelfth at a tenth or twelfth other cafe. I know a very distinguished musician who started at the Café Neapolitan and finished up the Gare du Nord.
Whilst the Green Hour was a time for chic and polite Parisians to drink a small absinthe aperitif along the imposing boulevards, the practice also spread to the more risqué area of Montmartre, the haunt of artist and poets. As one writer commented:
The absinthe hour of the Boulevards begins vaguely at half-past-five and ends just as vaguely at half-past seven: but on the hill it never ends.
One can easily imagine how the evening might start with one absinthe drink in dignified elegance and descend into the riot of cocottes (tarts) and arts in hip Montmartre.
Absinthe, The Green Fairy, was never content to remain in an exclusive gilded milieu; she moved through society like a fever. Absinthe drinking was also not confined to the men folk but crossed the gender barrier with ease, prompting the anti-absinthe zealot, Henri Balesta, to comment about that it was man’s weakness for the emerald liquid that caused the creation of that most shocking of sights: “the absinthesuse”, the female version of the absinthe drinker “the absintheur”.
Hilariously, it has been reported that the ladies would take the absinthe drink neat due to their “inherent weakness” and susceptibility to the wicked liquor, and also because too much water might bloat them and course their corsets to burst! Whether it was the menfolk who paid or whether the “weaker” sex was allowed to buy absinthe is unclear. In any case, the censorious moralist was outraged and that was half the fun — the Green Fairy, the very epitome of the modern woman!
Absinthe was therefore shocking as well as dangerous, as it threatened the status quo. As the Green Fairy moved through society, she moved from being the triumphal toast of colonial militarism to the source of social disorder. Quite a transformation, but then transformation was always at the very heart of the Green Fairy.
The party stopped suddenly in 1915 as the liquid of social alchemy was banned.
Interestingly, there is a small market for vintage, pre-1915 absinthe and this is attractive to both to the absinthe connoisseur who admires the distinctive aged profile of the spirit, and to the romantic. To recapture the very essence and glory of a warm summer evening on a Parisian boulevard and achieve some kind of communion with L’ Heure Verte is very much part of the attraction. The Green Hour may have passed but the joy of that fabled drink absinthe has not - it’s back with a vengeance.