Absinthe is perhaps the most misunderstood spirit of them all. It has a history of being banned in many countries, it is rumored to be a hallucinogen, and many people are unsure how exactly to drink it. Absinthe is even blamed for Vincent van Gogh chopping his ear off, which is incorrect on so many levels.
When one even mentions the word “absinthe,” the response is often accompanied by raised brows and concerned eyes. Let’s sift through some of the information and mis-information out there about the liquor known as “The Green Fairy”:
Why Was Absinthe Banned?
First distilled in the late-1700’s as a tonic in Switzerland, absinthe became a wildly popular spirit by the mid-1800’s because it was a much stronger alternative to wine. As more producers entered the market, the spirit became one that was affordable for people of all classes. Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, van Gogh, and many other famous artists were all known absinthe drinkers, and they were partially responsible for its rise in subculture popularity.
While absinthe was experiencing its rise, the grape industry was experiencing a shortage, causing wine prices to skyrocket. This is when absinthe began to experience a backlash. Feeling threatened by this competition, the wine industry helped push an anti-absinthe agenda. There were also many temperance movements, such as the one that led to American Prohibition, with France pushing the most negativity toward absinthe.
Claims of “Absinthe Hallucinations” Spread
Wine lobbyists and supporters of prohibition created a term called “absinthism”, a more serious form of alcoholism. Wine was looked at as the “healthy” alternative for those who wanted to enjoy a drink. Absinthe was claimed to cause epilepsy, hallucinations, and bouts of insanity.
This was spurred on by studies performed by Dr. Valentin Magnan, a physician at an asylum in Paris. Magnan’s work was misleading, and did not prove truly anything about the drink, however. His experiments involved exposing animals to pure wormwood essence. Wormwood is an ingredient in absinthe, and can cause the epileptic symptoms cited in anti-absinthe work. However, the spirit only contained, and contains, slight traces of wormwood, not nearly enough to harm an individual who is drinking the liquor. But the damage to the absinthe name was done.
Horrible Murders Lead to Widespread Absinthe Ban
“News of a particularly ugly tragedy swept across the European headlines in the month of August 1905. A thirty-one-year-old man named Jean Lanfray, a Swiss peasant of French stock, had drunk two glasses of absinthe, taken his old army rifle out of the cupboard, and shot his pregnant wife in the head. When his four-year-old daughter Rose appeared in the doorway to see what was happening, he shot her too. He then went into the room next door, where his two-year-old daughter Blanche was lying in her cot, and blasted her as well…”
The above passage is taken from the prologue to Phil Baker’s The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History. Baker goes on to describe how the European town reacted to this horrific case. Despite the fact that Lanfray was a notorious alcoholic, and had drunk in addition to the absinthe on the day of the murders, a Crème de menthe, a cognac, seven glasses of wine at lunchtime, 2 coffees with brandy, and a liter of wine after dinner, the town focused solely on the absinthe.
This event further pushed along the already growing momentum toward an absinthe ban in many countries over the next few years. From 1906-1914, Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland, the U.S., and France all banned the spirit.
Is Absinthe Legal in the U.S. Today?
The absinthe ban in the United States was lifted on March 5th, 2007, and the first batch of absinthe was sold in the US. This was largely due to a plethora of studies showing that the psychoactive properties in absinthe were largely exaggerated. As with the animal experiments completed by Dr. Magnan, many were made up solely to vilify the drink and those who drank it. Absinthe was declared no more harmful than any other spirit.
It’s important to do your research before venturing out to your local spot to grab a bottle of absinthe. While the ban is no longer in affect, absinthe is not necessarily sold in the liquor store nearest you. Due to the fact that it was banned for 95 years, has only been legal since 2007, and the vast majority of it is imported overseas, many stores are yet to stock a variety of absinthe on their shelves. A misconception, however, is that anything sold in America is not “real absinthe”. This is untrue. American law is stricter on the thujone content in liquor than Europe is. However, the difference is negligible and this does not apply to the vast majority of absinthe anyway. So what exactly is thujone? Back to the hallucination claims...
Does Absinthe Make You Hallucinate?
Part of the reason for the notion of the “absinthe hallucinations” is due to the inclusion of wormwood, and therefore, thujone in the formula. Absinthe, is a distilled, anise-flavored spirit. Traditionally, the spirit is green from the inclusion of green anise, and this is where the nickname, "la fée verte" or “The Green Fairy” comes from. But the actual name of the spirit comes from the plant “Artemisia absinthium” (commonly referred to as “wormwood” or “grand(e) wormwood”) from which absinthe derives much of its flavor. Wormwood contains thujone, which is where the notion that it is a hallucinogen comes from in the first place.
Thujone is a component of wormwood that in very high doses can be toxic. Although absinthe does contain thujone, only trace amounts are present - not nearly enough to cause hallucinations. Its formula has never had enough thujone to act as a hallucinogen. In fact, many top absinthe brands have returned to their original formula from the early 1800s once it was disproved that it was hallucinogenic. With its minor inclusion in absinthe, a person would die from alcohol poisoning long before they would be affected by thujone.
How to Serve Absinthe
Although frequently mistaken for a liqueur, absinthe typically has a much higher ABV than other spirits.This has likely led to many incidents in the past with drinkers underestimating just much alcohol they were putting into their system. Absinthe is typically between 55-75% ABV, which equates to 110-144 proof. Compared with whiskey’s standard of 80 proof, drinking absinthe in excess can be especially harmful.
Excessive amounts of any alcohol can make someone violent, as in the case of Jean Lanfray. Especially due to its high alcohol content, absinthe should be diluted. Performing an absinthe louche adds flavor, presentation, and limits the alcohol intake.
The absinthe taste, which presents strong flavors of anise and fennel, ain’t for everyone. Cocktails such as the cucumber absinthe punch and rattlesnake fizz add a citrusy spin to the spirit, making it a much more approachable beverage.
Absinthe Preparation: Should You Light Absinthe Shots on Fire?
You can if you really want to, Beavis. However, it is definitely not advised. This is known as the “Bohemian style”, and originated in the Czech bars because the absinthe being used was not authentic, and did not work properly for the classic louche technique. It is basically used to distract one’s mind away from an inferior product. It has since been played off as a classic technique in a variety of movies, including From Hell starring Johnny Depp, which is supposedly set in the late-1800’s. Scenes such as this make it seem as though this is a longstanding tradition, but it most definitely is not. Lighting a highly alcoholic liquor on fire is both dangerous and not how the drink was meant to be enjoyed.
To sum things up, no absinthe won’t make you hallucinate, but it is a very strong drink, so drink responsibly. It’s no longer banned in the US, but it still may be slightly difficult to find, so be sure to do your research before heading to your local liquor store. Ideally, absinthe should be diluted, whether in a louche or a cocktail. And lastly, you probably should NOT be lighting your absinthe on fire, for a variety of reasons. Cheers!
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