Absinthe was a popular and renowned herbal liquor decoction especially in France, right up until it became vilified. If you’ve ever heard of it before, you’d know it as “the green fairy” of infamy, made popular worldwide by famous artists and writers.
Much disinformation was spread about absinthe which led to its eventual ban in the United States and elsewhere, similar to the propaganda leveled against substances like cannabis today: that it is addictive, hallucinogenic, causes infectious diseases or makes one insane or violent. All of these claims being largely unfounded, of course.
While absinthe has a unique “buzz” compared to your typical liquors or other alcoholic beverages, absinthe is a lot more tame than it has been made out to be. Thankfully, it’s making a resurgence thanks to recent lifts on absinthe bans, but the drink still needs to shed its bad reputation.
History and ban of absinthe
Forerunners of absinthe were prepared by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians with various preparations including the herb wormwood, which is reported to have medicinal properties (more on this in the next section.)
Absinthe in what most closely resembles its modern form was distilled in France in the early 1800’s. Then it became popular among soldiers who were given the beverage as a means of preventing malaria. By the mid-1800’s, the soldiers and just about everyone else in France from all walks of life had acquired a taste for the spirit.
From France, absinthe was exported far and wide and grew popular in many countries including the United States. New Orleans, Louisiana has its own cultural history associated with absinthe. Its Old Absinthe House was once frequented by figures like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley.
However, near the end of the 19th century, absinthe began to earn an undeserved reputation as a vile and powerful intoxicant. It’s suggested that the ban in the United States was related to the temperance movement, and elsewhere the ban was related to winemakers whose product was directly in competition with the ever-popular absinthe.
Additionally, cheap absinthe producers began to add poisonous copper as a colorant to turn their bargain product green to appear like legitimate absinthes whose deep green naturally came from the herbal extracts found in the alcohol.
Bunk experiments were performed to prove the harmfulness of absinthe and its thujone contents, even though it is now known that the LD50 (lethal dosage at which 50% of subjects die) is well beyond what would be consumed in absinthe. You would die of alcohol poisoning before you managed to get enough thujone in your blood.1
Fortunately, absinthe laws have become more lax worldwide, and you can now purchase absinthe and absinthe-like liqueurs and spirits in many establishments that sell alcohol.
The sale of absinthe was banned in the United States until 2007, where you can now find it in most stores. The only stipulation you’ll find in the US is that the sale of absinthe with a thujone content above 10 parts per million is banned, meaning the wormwood used in American-made absinthe is virtually thujone-free.
Laws on the thujone content of absinthe will vary around the world from completely open to similar restrictions as the United States, with the European Union permitting the sale of absinthe with a thujone content at or below 35 parts per million.
Applications of absinthe
Originally, absinthe was dispensed as a way to prevent malaria.2
While there is nothing in the drink that suggests it could prevent this disease, there are a few herbal components commonly found in most absinthes that have some interesting properties:
Wormwood – the main carrier of the psychoactive thujone – bitter in flavor3
The intensely bitter, tonic and stimulant qualities have caused Wormwood not only to be an ingredient in medicinal preparations, but also to be used in various liqueurs, of which absinthe is the chief, the basis of absinthe being absinthol, extracted from Wormwood. Wormwood, as employed in making this liqueur, bears also the name ‘Wermuth’ – preserver of the mind – from its medicinal virtues as a nervine and mental restorative. If not taken habitually, it soothes spinal irritability and gives tone to persons of a highly nervous temperament. Suitable allowances of the diluted liqueur will promote salutary perspiration and may be given as a vermifuge.
- Anise – expectorant and digestive aid that gives certain absinthes their licorice-like taste
- Fennel – similar to anise, used to clear cloudy vision, lower blood pressure and soothe digestion
Wormwood is again, the main carrier of the psychoactive thujone, which gives absinthe its intriguing psychoactive effects that are somewhat similar to Kava Kava.
The effects of thujone are as a GABA antagonist. Substances which inhibit the action of GABA tend to be stimulating in modest amounts, but in higher dangerous doses can become a convulsant.4 Fortunately, the amount of thujone found in absinthe is not enough to have that effect.
Thujone’s stimulating effects may lend absinthe to its association with creative types compared with the sedative effects of other alcoholic beverages.
Preparing and enjoying absinthe
Ever since I tried a cheap absinthe I once came across at a local liquor shop and bought out of curiosity, I was hooked.
Granted, I didn’t have any of the special equipment needed for preparing absinthe in the “traditional” way with the absinthe sugar-spoon and the proper glass5, but a salad spoon made for a decent makeshift absinthe spoon. Unless you’re at a specialty store, it’s hard to find the traditional equipment for absinthe, so you can typically find it online. But if you’re just trying it out, don’t worry about it until you really get into absinthe.
I simply measure out an absinthe serving with a shot glass, about 1 oz. or 1/4 cup. Usually you add 1 part absinthe to anywhere from 3 to 8 times the volume of ice water. I personally stick to about 5 or 6 depending on the brand and style.
The water helps to “space out” the complexity of the flavors and aroma of the absinthe, and the sugar is optional but can help to take the edge off of any bitter elements that may exist in the absinthe due to its wormwood content. Ice water helps to make it more enticing to the palate. All of these elements come together in a sort of “ritual” which is lacking in most other alcoholic beverages today. Preparing absinthe becomes a recreational activity and it makes for a nice novelty to share with other people.
When you drip the water into a true absinthe, you’ll notice the translucent green or clear absinthe becomes a ghost-like opaque cream color. They call this the louche6, which is part of the aesthetic appeal of absinthe.
The louche happens when adding water because many of the compounds extracted from the herbs in absinthe are only ethanol-soluble. However, being soaked in alcohol, and seeing as alcohol blends readily with water, the essences of the herbs in the liquor create an intriguing interplay between the molecules, causing them to become opaque.
There are other ways to prepare absinthe, such as drinking it neat (not recommended.)
Thanks to movies, most people are familiar with the newer “Bohemian” or “Czech” style of preparing absinthe, which involves dipping the sugar cube in the undiluted absinthe, then setting it on fire and then diluting with water. It’s a cute little trick but doesn’t add anything to the drink itself, plus there is the risk that your whole drink can go up in flames. Don’t do it.
To try out a good absinthe, expect to spend over $20 on a bottle, or try a custom sampler set. Some of the better ones in larger quantities (750 ml) will cost about $60 or more. There is imitation absinthe with artificial flavoring and color, so do your research if you plan on purchasing a big bottle.
Some people are put off by the anise (strongly licorice-like) flavor of many absinthes; fortunately there are absinthe blends which do not feature the powerful mouth-numbing effect or licorice flavor of anise.
Effects of absinthe
As I explained before, the buzz you get from absinthe is not at all like what you feel from your typical alcoholic beverages. Absinthe’s effect on the mind is more lucid, clear and bright. The thujone is a mild, calm stimulant by way of its GABA interaction, and with this it becomes very easy to see why hopeless bohemian creative types7 and people of all walks of life preferred absinthe.
The wormwood in absinthe seems to turn down “left brain” thinking in people that causes them to become “squares” — overworked and overstressed from following orders all day or living mundanely. This is no different from other psychoactives used for creativity-enhancement, although absinthe is very mild and enjoyable compared to those which simply disrupt normal thought processes that hinder one from thinking differently than they normally do.
The only drawback of this stimulating lucidity offered by absinthe’s thujone is that is easy to be more intoxicated than you are led to believe. Absinthe typically has a higher alcohol percentage than most liquors, and the herbal content masks the pungency of the alcohol.
Because of this, do not drink more absinthe than you would drink of shots of liquor or glasses of beer. I have yet to overdo absinthe, but a healthy respect for the Green Fairy will keep you from making a fool of yourself.
One interesting effect I noticed from drinking absinthe is that it almost always gives me very vivid dreams when I sleep. Maybe absinthe is good for enhancing lucid dream states?
Absinthe – Controversy ↩
Absinthe – Rapid growth of French consumption ↩
A Modern Herbal | Wormwoods ↩
Ask Erowid : Is the buzz from absinthe really any different from plain liquor? ↩
with a reservoir at bottom for measuring your absinthe ↩
pronounced “loosh” ↩
Picasso was a talentless hack — and you can be too! (absinthe, art and creative genius) ↩