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How Absinthe Fired Up a Geographical Discovery in France

Absinthe is a spirit distilled from wormwood and is further laced with many other herbs. The drink, first used as a medicine, later changed its course and became a potent alcoholic beverage.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:December 10, 2017, 12:59 PM IST
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How Absinthe Fired Up a Geographical Discovery in France
Representative image (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
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EM Fournier. You hear his name for the first time. He, too, never thought his name would become so famous that you would one day be asked to note him down.

Especially in a page that talks about alcohol.

Fournier had nothing to do with anything intoxicating; history hadn’t handed down to us even the fact that he drank.

But today, we need him here for bizarre reasons.

Well, he was a professor at the University of Besancon, France in the wee hours of the last century. When we find him, he was loitering on the banks of the Loue River trying to find an answer.

Fournier had pitched a revolutionary idea to the scientific world that the river Loue was only a branch of the Doubs. He suggested the possibility of underground channels. But the poor professor could produce little evidence to support his theory.

Desperate, he spent a lot of time on the banks of Loue wondering how he could convince people about the deep but elusive relation that runs between the rivers.

On August 13, 1901, as he was ambling along the river bank, he saw the water turn milky yellow-green. A surprised Fournier scooped up a handful and smelled it. It had the stench of a “drunkard’s breath”.

Fournier suddenly had reasons to smile and he smiled broadly. He must have also profusely thanked a wayward bolt of lightning that hit the earth a couple of days ago in a faraway place; two days back on August 11, Sunday.

In the Pernord factory in the town of Pontarlier, 13 miles from where we left the professor on the river bank, business was going as usual.

The daily production of the Pernod’s celebrity product, absinthe had already touched 125, 000 litres a day and was still scaling up. Excitement was in the air.

You know about absinthe?

Well, it is a spirit distilled from wormwood and is further laced with many other herbs. The drink, first used as a medicine, later changed its course and became a potent alcoholic beverage.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the green coloured drink had become so popular that it took the continent by a storm.

But the storm that brewed over the Pernod factory on August 11, Sunday was not metaphorical.

Towards the dramatic climax, the thunderstorm sent a bolt of lightning down the central dome of the factory; shattering the metal framework. A wave of electric discharge soon reached one of the metals vats which was full of absinthe. It was cut into two.

When the firemen arrived with horse-drawn pumps, the factory was already flooded with floating absinthe fire.

The town was pitched into a bedlam with many people scrambling away with valuables, many others pitching in to save as much as they could from the Pernord. Inside the factory it was virtually a Diwali, with all those bottles and vats exploding in all possible directions.

Not all were scared out of their wits. A gutsy worker, Poimbeuf, had the presence of mind to dash to the cellars and open all the faucets of the vats. He wanted to flush out all the remaining absinthe down to a nearby river.

Once the vats were opened, hundreds of thousands of litres of green absinthe began their journey down through underground channels to the nearby Doubs river, flavouring it with anise for many miles downstream.

Barnady Conrad in his wonderful book on absinthe notes that “one of the 51,000-litre reservoir was burning two days later, and the fire did not stop until August 15, four days after the incident.”

But who wants to remain in the factory now?

All the excitement was in floating with the absinthe-soaked Doubs where the drink had pitched from the factory pipes. Another two days, the water at the Loue, not Doubs, note it, 13 miles away from the factory must turn green to surprise a professor named EM Fournier.

On August 13, Fournier got the green signal from the river to proceed with his theory. Doubs and Loue are connected!
| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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