Though not often discussed outside the spirits industry, spirit history often intersects with some of the most familiar historical episodes and personages. For example, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were tight on Stone Fences when they took Fort Ticonderoga; the notorious mezcal worm is, in a round about way, a vestige of World War II; and the iconic Hemingway was as prolific a drinker and drink-maker as he was a writer.
One other such intersection is the connection between Gustave Eiffel and spirits–particularly Absinthe. Eiffel was already a renowned engineer when he won the competition for the centerpiece of Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle. And while Eiffel’s tower captured the industrial imagination of the Fair’s 32-million visitors, absinthe captured their palates. The spirit was, arguably, at the peak of its positive cultural esteem and still in the first half of its explosive market growth. For a brief period, the two shared the position of peak cultural expression for France’s industrial and cultural revolution.
Absinthe was such a celebrated part of French culture in 1889, in fact, that an absinthe course was served at a dinner to honor Eiffel that spring. On April 13 (just two weeks after the tower’s official inauguration), a dinner was hosted to celebrate Eiffel at the Hotel Continental—a seven-course, state affair with full pomp. Sorbet à l’Absinthe was served at the end of the Entrée course, a palate cleanser prepared to celebrate France’s other industrial icon.
This bit of esoterica is often celebrated by absintheurs, who point to it as kind of a terminus ante quem for absinthe’s respectability. The argument is, essentially, ‘Absinthe still must have (still) been viewed with respect to put it in the context of the State’s celebration of Eiffel.’ After just a few more years, absinthe was so embroiled in political drama it would have been unthinkable to serve it as so prestigious an event. Also in 1889 we find the appearance of the Eiffel Tower spoon, an absinthe spoon in the shape of the tower, an instantly recognizable collectors’ item.
(Fun fact, artificial Eiffel Tower spoons abound on the antique market even today, though tell-tale signs are easy to spot if collectors know what they’re looking for. Such is the enduring popularity of the Eiffel-Absinthe connection.)
Presumably some short time afterwards, in the 1890s (information from Combier isn’t clear), Eiffel was commissioned to design the still room at Combier distillery, in Saumur, in the Loire Valley. Maison Pernod’s Model Factory had set the bar high for a well-designed, spacious still room, lined with stills and perfectly engineered to maximize output. Combier was established in 1834 to produce triple sec but overhauled their still room in the 1890s to increase output, though one imagines renovations were also intended to project a chic, cutting edge brand image. According to the distillery, Combier started producing absinthe in 1899. Today, Combier continues to produce absinthe in the same distillation hall, boasting Eiffel’s original infrastructure, now painted cherry red. Combier also has the distinction of using original Egrot alembics from the Pernod facility in Pontarlier, beautifully displayed in their Eiffel-designed still room.
Before his project with Combier, Eiffel was contracted by the Violets, a family in the south of France, to work on an infrastructural expansion of yet another massive distillation factory. Lambert Violet took over the family company 1891. That company was BYRRH, who produced the cinchona-infused aromatized wine. The company and its facilities in Thuir, France, had grown dramatically throughout the 1870s and 80s. After taking control of the company, Lambert built a massive railway connection to link the factory to railway infrastructure and maximize shipping volume. The person he hired to design this hub: Gustave Eiffel.
The rail depot at Caves Byrrh, in Thuir, certainly cements Eiffel’s connection with the drinking culture of the very late 19th century, but that relationship was further emphasized in the 2010s. After national laws caught up to EU regulations, Pernod Ricard established their absinthe distillery at the Caves Byrrh. Their facilities are entered through Eiffel’s depot.
Of course, these are all fun coincidences, and not that hard to understand: in the 1890s, French spirits companies had beaux coups money; their brands were polished and improved by technologically advanced facilities and through industrial, engineering impressions. Whereas today, many brands gain exposure through influencers and celebrities, in the Belle Époque exposure was won through technology…and also celebrity. There’s little wonder Eiffel would come up in this vein of architectural and commercial history.