ABSINTHE IS NOT A HALLUCINOGEN OR A POISON,
AND NEVER WAS.
The moral of this story: never underestimate marketing.
For me, there are two reasons the absinthe story is interesting. The first, is that a simple marketing ploy was able to almost completely wipe out the absinthe industry. The second, is that the story of absinthe is the most common spirits misconception for consumers (second to thinking bourbon comes only from Kentucky).
Before getting into the story, I would like to thank the Wormwood Society for their commendable research and movement in clarifying the fallacies of absinthe. Fortunately, we can now enjoy this notorious anise-flavored elixir in peace.
Most of us have heard that absinthe will make you hallucinate. Not true. Before we get into how this all came about, let’s talk about what it is. Absinthe’s key component is a plant called wormwood, aka Artemisia absinthium, hence the spirit’s name. Wormwood is an extremely bitter and floral plant that you might actually recognize, and is named wormwood for the historically medicinal use as an anti-parasitic. This ornamental plant is commonly grown in gardens across the US. In addition to wormwood, absinthe must contain fennel and anise, known as the “trinity of absinthe.” La Fee Verte, The Green Fairy, is a reference to the color of absinthe and a common nickname. The green is derived from the chlorophyll of the botanicals that occur during the second maceration process in the making of absinthe.
Absinthe was created in the early 1800’s in Switzerland. Commonly drank by soldiers during the war, it quickly began to trend. And this is where the drama starts. The wine industry took a big hit by an aphid-like epidemic, known as the Phylloxera vitifoliae, which almost completely wiped out all Vitis vinifera (wine grape varieties). Livelihoods, families and the wine industry were shaken to the ground. Wine prices went up while the cheap and high alcohol by volume of absinthe dominated the market share. The wine industry was not having it.
This leads us to the real reason absinthe was banned – to eradicate the disruption of the wine industry.
“Absinthism, is the condition of alcoholism … A fictitious syndrome created by the anti-absinthe temperance movements in the 19th century.” Basically a French physician named Velentin Magnan tested the effects of thujone. Thujone is a key chemical component of wormwood known for the false alleged psychedelic effects of absinthe. Magnan’s thujone investigations were conducted by practically suffocating mice with high dosages of wormwood vapor. That’s right, suffocated. Not exactly the right way to pull off a scientific method. Here’s the kicker, thujone is found in sage, oregano, juniper, mint and numerous other plants. However, a written conclusion from a doctor on the fatal toxicological effects of thujone was precisely what the wine industry ordered. Dubbed “absinthism,” this was one of the greatest lies ever told. To further embellish the tale, a very intoxicated man in a drunken rage killed his entire family including his pregnant wife. At the time (1905), the headlines notoriously blamed the killings on “absinthism” even though the lunatic had 7 glasses of wine, 6 glasses of cognac, 1 coffee laced brandy, 2 créme de menthes and of course 2 glasses of absinthe. This event became wildly known as the Absinthe Murder. Bad press, strategic marketing and heightened fear generated the public ban of absinthe. Utilizing a series of events to protect the wine industry initiated a ban that lasted a century. When done right, marketing does possess the ability to stimulate action worldwide!
Now that modern science disproves this hogwash, the ban was lifted and absinthe is legal in the states. As a digestive, it has a calming effect on the body and makes a great after-dinner drink. My favorite way to enjoy it is over ice with a splash of water. Keep in mind that this infamous spirit is higher in alcohol with an approximate 70%abv, so sipping is recommended.
When I choose absinthe, I look for the real deal. It also must louche properly. Louching is a chemical reaction that occurs when the hydrogen molecules in water bond with the oils prevalent in anise. This causes the mixture to turn cloudy. If it doesn’t turn cloudy, that’s an indication that something didn’t go right in the production process or it might be fake. I tend to go for the craft renditions since they actually use real wormwood. I hope the next time you decide to sip this notorious spirit, you consider the lifespan of absinthe and the great lengths fans have endured in order to lift the ban.