TIP: S9E01 "Strange Pilot"
That’s what I always say. I say other things too, but I feel like botanists have thoroughly botched things up in the course of history, and they deserve any ire I can toss their way. More like The botany of dis’ ire?
Come back to me. I’ll come up with something better.
Anyway, from English Ivy to Kudzu, green thumbed hubrishas been a scourge on many a landscape. And, if plants that can smother an apartment complex aren’t bad enough, we also have to contend with the hitchhiking insects that were left unchecked.
Phylloxera enters stage left.
Back in the 1850’s some avid botanists and likely avid wine drinkers in England thought it’d be wise to put some American grape vines in their carry-ons, and bring them back across the pond. This wasn’t the first time that grapevines had made a transatlantic crossing, but one potentially crucial factor now, was speed. Steamboats were becoming more common and more powerful, making the Atlantic crossing a much faster trip, thus, it’s hypothesized that in 1858, it was now possible to cross the Atlantic with a grape vine, and plant it while Phylloxera was still alive and well.
Phylloxera is a microscopic, sap sucking insect, related to aphids, which feeds on the roots and leaves of grape vines. Many American grape varieties had become semi-resistant to the little bastard, but like a Mayan with a new blanket, European plants were doomed.
By 1863, Phylloxera was being reported in French vineyards, and over the next twenty years, it would ravish (in the bad way) the wine industry of France and many other parts of Europe (Australia, New Zealand and others, too). The estimated dent in the French economy is around 10 million Francs, which I will let someone else convert into MetricLiteCoin or whatever, but we can agree that it was probably a lot of money in the 19th century, right?
Green Fairy enters stage right.
Stressful economic times can lead to increased alcohol consumption, but what do you do when your recession is caused by an obliterated wine industry? You quickly migrate to the next cheapest spirit, which in the case of France, was the Mean Green Machine: Absinthe.
Absinthe had been made by infusing a high alcohol grape distillate (basically Grappa, which we’ve covered) with herbs and roots that consisted of but were not limited to Wormwood and Anise. The grape distillate was used because of the abundance of grapes in France. Once the grapes were in short supply, Absinthe just moved to other sugar sources, such as sugar beets. With this simple pivot, Absinthe quickly became the cheapest beverage in France for several decades.
A few words should be said here about absinthe:
- It does not make people hallucinate, and it never did.
- Oscar Wilde was just an alcoholic.
- Vincent Van Gogh might have been chewing on his lead-soaked paint brushes.
It does have at least one feature that while not unique, does set a whole class of spirits apart from the rest, and that is something called The Ouzo Effect. Ouzo is a greek spirit that is similar to Absinthe in that it is typically flavored with anise and various other herbs. Along with that anise comes a molecule known as anethole. Anethole is an organic compound that is slightly soluble in water, but highly soluble in ethanol. This means that when anethole is in a high alcohol solution, it will dissolve. When too much water is added to the solution, anethole will become unstable and separate, causing the mixture to go from clear, to cloudy white. This is the Ouzo Effect, and it occurs in many spirits that use flavorings high in anethole, like fennel, star anise, anise, licorice root, magnolia blossoms, camphor, as well as with the related compound, estragole, that can be found in tarragon and basil.
One of the key facts here, is that in order for anethole to dissolve, the ABV of absinthe and other such spirits needs to be quite high, at the very least, much higher than wine. Regardless of the fact that Absinthe is typically diluted with water prior to drinking, the high alcohol content caused systemic issues.
Along with the Great French Wine Blight, came a loss of rural jobs. The industrial revolution had already caused a migration into city centers for work, and the blight compounded the shift. Conflicting lifestyles, high alcohol spirits, and stressful industrial labor, all lead to an environment that easily fueled a “temperance” movement in France, and all across the western world.
Additionally, the wine industry saw Absinthe as an enemy that had stolen its market, and winemakers sought to reclaim their rightful place as Frances #1 beverage, by any means necessary. In this case the means were propaganda about the evils of the Green Fairy. Here is a petition circulated in the early 1900’s on the evils of Absinthe.
"Whereas wormwood makes you mad and criminal, it causes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and kills thousands of French every year, Whereas it makes man a ferocious beast, woman a martyrdom, the child a degenerate, that it disrupts and ruins the family and thus threatens the future of the country, Whereas special defenses are imperiously imperative for France, which alone drinks more than absinthe than the rest of the world, Invite the Parliament to vote 'the following proposition of law: "The manufacture, the circulation and the sale of the absinthe are prohibited on the whole extent of the French territory, under penalty of a fine from 5 to 10,000 francs and imprisonment of one to three months, or only one of these two sentences."
In August of 1914, the French Parliament did just that.
They also declared war on Germany.
Looking back, it was kind of big month.
War time politics, a growing temperance movement supported by a wine industry that was quick to begin supplying the French troops with tolerable ABV wine rations, and Absinthe didn’t really stand a chance.
After the war ended, France still had a problem though. In the 30 years that Absinthe had dominated the French drinking market, the population had become quite fond of the stuff, and began clamoring for it’s return, or at the very least, some sort of stand-in.
No stand-ins ladies and gentleman, feast your eyes on the center ring, where I’m proud to introduce the hero you’ve all been waiting for, the one, the only,Paul Ricard!!!
Do you not know who Paul Ricard is?
Aside from having a racetrack with his name on it. He also was an eccentric millionaire (aren’t they all?), real estate developer of two Mediterranean islands, environmentalist, but first and foremost, the creator of an eponymous spirit brand.
You’ve come this far, and waited this long, without further delay, this week, we’re drinking:
Specifically, “RICARD: pastis de Marseille”
In Provençal, Pastis translates to “mixture”, and perhaps got its name simply because it was a folk drink in rural areas that combined any number of French herbs. Paul Ricard however saw an opportunity with these local spirits. While wormwood had been a suspect that drew much of the ire aimed at absinthe, many of the other flavors of the spirit could still be approximated using other similar ingredients. Paul Ricard began creating his Pastis, so that in Absinthes absence, the understudy could now shine. After much lobbying, and also illegal hawking, in 1932 France relaxed it's alcohol laws, and Paul Ricard was finally able to legally sell his product. Within a few short years, thirsty French, soaking up sun during their newly earned paid vacation, were drinking 2.4 million liters of pastis a year.
I’ve glossed over so many details of this history and science that it's really quite obscene, but we’ve taken up too much time as it is.
- Pour 1 part Pastis into a cold glass.
- Add 5 parts chilled water, and gently stir.
- Add ice cubes if desired.