THEY say absinthe makes the heart grow fonder... but that’s not all the say about the famous la fée verte (the green fairy).

King of wit, Oscar Wilde once described a glass of absinthe as “poetical as anything in the world”. Artist Paul Gaugain, in a letter to a friend in 1897, wrote: “I sit at my door, smoking a cigarette an sipping my absinthe, and I enjoy every day without a care in the world.”

For writer Ernest Hemingway the power of absinthe was summed up in just nine words: “Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.”

Deliciously decadent spirit or powerful hallucinogenic? The history of absinthe is as absorbing as it is controversial - and one that has been shrouded in myth and rumour for 200 years.

When we think of absinthe, images of the Moulin Rouge, Bohemian Paris and icons of the Belle Epoque are conjured up – and for good reason. This elegant elixir was indeed once the passion of painters and poets, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Lord Byron.

Absinthe hit its popularity peak from1880-1910 when it was a quintessential part of French society - in fact the French consumed far more absinthe than any other country.

In 1874 the French downed 700,000 litres of absinthe. By 1910, this figure had shot up to 36,000,000 litres of absinthe per year.

The spirit became a symbol of artistic awakening and it is thought that many famous works of art were directly inspired by the drink, including some of Edgar Degas’ and Vincent Van Gogh greatest masterpieces, as well as the first cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque.

But when the anise-based aperitif began to irk the temperance movement, became too cheap and easily accessible for the working classes and affected sales of French wine, it was banned in several countries, including France, Belgium and Switzerland and America for several years - although never in the UK.

In recent years, however, there’s been a renewed interest in all things absinthe across Europe especially.

The absinthe renaissance has even trickled down into Essex where the county’s first dedicated - and very aptly named-absinthe bar has recently opened in Southend.

‘Dr Legba’s Emporium of Cocktails & Curiosities’, is secreted away beneath the Royal Hotel’s popular ground floor cocktail bar. Reached via a private narrow stairway from the High Street to basement level, the stylish, intimate bar with a ‘speakeasy’ feel offers a range of absinthes as well as absinthe infused cocktails.

Created in the late 18th century at the same time as the Royal Hotel was built, absinthe is traditionally a green coloured anise-flavoured spirit made with the holy trinity of herbs - grand wormwood, green anise and fennel (absinthe also means grand wormwood in French).

The drink is known for its high alcohol content - commonly between 55 per cent and 72 per cent compared to gin and vodka’s 40 per cent. However there are absinthes at both lower and higher strengths.

At Dr Legbas, customers can expect to taste a variety of absinthe concoctions.

“The name of the bar is in keeping with absinthe’s historic reputation as a dangerously addictive drink, which led to it being banned in many countries resulting in numerous clandestine drinking dens,” explained Terry Garrett, director of the Royal Hotel.

“Because of the claimed harmful effects prohibitionists managed to get the spirit banned across much of Europe and the US, driving continued consumption underground into secret bars and speakeasies.”

Were those dangerous properties exaggerated? Possibly yes. Contrary to the popular belief of the 1900s the spirit, although highly alcoholic, does not cause mind-altering fits or provoke epilepsy and tuberculosis

Either way, even though consumption of absinthe is completely legal today, Dr Legbas Emporium of Cocktails & Curiosities still conjures up the atmosphere of an elegant, yet secretive, bar where sipping the illicit “Green Fairy” can continue unfettered and beyond the watchful eye of the authorities.

Surrounded by highly polished green Venetian plaster work on the walls and gold on the ceiling, the sparkling natural oak bar top is adorned by a traditional absinthe fountain imported from Switzerland, the historic home of absinthe.

“On view, behind the bartender, is a complex system of copper pipes bringing cold fresh water to drip gently into the glasses of absinthe, diluting the spirit and creating the drink’s typical cloudy appearance,” added Terry.

“From the very outset we wanted to create a quirky bar in our basement area to complement the popular ground floor Cocktail Bar and first floor Ballroom Restaurant.

“Earlier in the year we ran through a number of concepts but come the summer we decided on an absinthe bar with a speakeasy theme.

“It is something highly unusual, rather than the gin and rum bars which have become popular in recent years. Once more, there was a great deal of restoration and development to be undertaken at the Royal Hotel to bring our vision to life in the basement but we are delighted and excited with the result.”

Dr Legbas is usually open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until 1am, although, perhaps in keeping with the underground speakeasy atmosphere, it is worth checking in advance.

A call to the Royal Hotel’s usual number (01702 899 222) will get potential customers guided to those “in the know of the Green Fairy’s availability”.

“Of course, you don’t have to drink the Green Fairy to enjoy Dr Legbas as we have a full bar of other spirits, wines, beers, cocktails and soft drinks. And in the New Year we will offer a variety of small food dishes to complement the spirits and cocktails,” added Terry.

“We think the new bar will prove an ideal location at any time of the week for private parties of up to 40 people. It is completely secluded and we can cater for any event as long as it’s decent and legal.

“Also, in this intimate atmosphere, the highly experienced staff will be offering occasional Cocktail Masterclass sessions to small groups who want to learn how to impress other friends and family members with both innovative and traditional cocktails created to the Royal’s exacting standards.

“That can make for a great and unusual present or inventive reward for a successful team at work.”

Absinthe facts...

  • Absinthe in its earliest form is thought to have been invented by retired French physician, Dr Pierre Ordinaire in 1792 in Switzerland.
  • In its early days it was actually marketed as a medicine and was said to cure just about anything from epilepsy, gout and kidney stones, to colic, headaches and worms.
  • While travelling in Switzerland lace trader Major Henri Daniel Dubied came across Ordinaire’s drink. He changed the recipe and made it into more of a pleasant-tasting aperitif.
  • French demand for the new drink became so great that an absinthe factory was built in Pontarlier, France in 1805. The company was run by Dubied’s son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. Pernot Absinthe was to become one of the largest and most successful companies in France.
  • The French troop fighting in Algeria in the 1840’s used absinthe as a fever preventative, and upon their return to France, they brought the taste for absinthe with them.It became an instant success. The bars and bistros where crowded by people drinking absinthe, and every day at around 5pm was declared “l’Heure Verte” - the Green Hour.
  • In its heyday everyone drank absinthe – from society ladies, gentlemen and businessmen to politicians, artists, musicians and ordinary working people
  • Edgar Degas’ famous painting “L’Absinthe” (1876) is the definitive depiction of the drink. It shows a man and woman sitting in a café - faces vacant, eyes glazed over as a glass of absinthe sits on the table. Under its original title, A Sketch Of A French Café, the painting was not well received. But when it was exhibited in the Grafton Gallery under its new title - L’Absinthe - the painting enjoyed huge controversy and publicity.