Absinthe is no ordinary alcohol — at least, that’s what legend would have you believe.
Whimsically dubbed the “green fairy” due to its verdant hue, absinthe has long been associated with hallucinogenic effects. It’s been blamed for everything from psychosis and seizures to dangerous behavior and murders among those who dare to drink it, and over the years, this lore has shrouded absinthe in mystery.
Now, inquiring minds must know: Is absinthe really any different from other hard liquors?
What Is Absinthe?
Absinthe is an herb-infused alcohol derived from fennel, anise, and the leaves and flowers of a small shrub called wormwood (otherwise known as Artemisia absinthium).
Absinthe is typically between 90 proof and 148 proof, but it's possible to find 179 proof absinthe — this proof means that it contains a formidable 89% alcohol. By comparison, common liquors like vodka and whiskey generally contain 40% alcohol. Due to its high alcohol content, absinthe is best diluted with water before drinking.
How Is Absinthe Distilled?
Traditionally, absinthe is distilled from dried herbs and wormwood. After mashing the wormwood and herbs together, the mixture is distilled in a water or steam bath until the distillate reaches an alcohol volume of 60% to 80%. At this point, more wormwood and herbs are added to the clear, colorless distillate to give it that characteristic green color. Finally, the distillate is diluted with water to make the absinthe drinkable.
What Does Absinthe Taste Like?
Absinthe is a strong alcoholic beverage, and it has a strong taste to match. In his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway likened absinthe’s flavor to licorice. Many would agree with this comparison — but the Wormwood Society argues that quality absinthe should never taste like licorice candy. Instead, it should have a slightly bitter, dry, and astringent flavor that’s both complex and subtle.
History of Absinthe
Long before it gained popularity as the star ingredient in absinthe, wormwood was used medicinally. The first recorded use of wormwood in medicine dates back to 1552 B.C., and absinthe itself was initially used to treat illness — but its potential didn’t go unnoticed for long. Here’s a timeline of absinthe’s tumultuous journey from medical invention to banned booze (and back again):
- 1789 — While living in Switzerland, French doctor Dr. Pierre Ordinaire develops the first recipe for absinthe (which he intends for medicinal use).
- 1798 — Dr. Ordinaire’s recipe is repurposed for industrial production of absinthe as a recreational alcohol, which begins with the founding of the Pernod-fils distillery.
- 1840s — Absinthe hits the shelves in France.
- 1849 — In France, 26 distilleries are producing 10 million liters of absinthe.
- 1850s to 1890s — Absinthe gains popularity partly due to its mystique and partly because it packs a punch — people find its high alcohol content makes it more effective and affordable. Absinthe becomes the drink of choice among Europe’s bohemian creatives, like Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile, a growing group of people from the medical community and temperance groups attempt to prove its inherent evil.
- 1869 — Psychiatrist Valentin Magnan, physician-in-chief of France’s primary asylum, publishes research that shows that inhaling wormwood oil causes seizures in animals. Although his study draws prompt criticism after its publication, he (along with many others) believes it proves the legitimacy of “absinthism.” Magnan concludes that the negative effects of drinking absinthe are due to absinthism, not alcoholism.
- 1905 — Following a drinking binge that starts with two shots of absinthe, a man murders his wife and children in Switzerland. His lawyers cite “absinthe madness” as his motive, and anti-absinthe sentiment seizes Europe.
- 1905 to 1915 — Absinthe is banned in an increasing number of countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the U.S., and finally France. It remains legal in some countries like Spain, the U.K., and the Czech Republic, but its popularity takes a hit there as well.
- 1990s — Decades later, countries slowly begin revisiting and revising their absinthe bans to allow the production of absinthe with limited amounts of thujone, among other caveats.
Switzerland lifted its absinthe production ban in 2003, and France followed suit in 2011. Gradually, absinthe has made its way back into bars around the world — but an air of caution still surrounds the controversial booze. For instance, the U.S. only permits thujone-free absinthe, and France doesn’t allow the word “absinthe” to appear on bottles unless they’re to be exported.
After all this time, you have to wonder: Is there any legitimate reason to fear absinthe?
Is Absinthe a Hallucinogenic Alcohol?
Does absinthe have hallucinogenic effects? In short, no.
Wormwood contains a psychoactive compound called thujone that’s long been linked to its purported hallucinogenic properties. In fact, absinthe is often defined by two time periods: “preban” and “postban” (i.e., before and after the absinthe ban). This is mainly due to the belief that the thujone concentration in absinthe was significantly decreased upon its reintroduction. But it turns out that the amounts of thujone in preban absinthe were generally overestimated — in reality, both preban and postban absinthe contain similar amounts of thujone.
Not only that, but a 2008 study confirmed that thujone is not responsible for the reported psychedelic effects of absinthe. The concentration of thujone in preban and postban absinthe simply isn’t high enough to have any hallucinatory effects, even if you guzzled a liter of absinthe (not that anyone is recommending that you do that).
This same study determined that one absinthe ingredient could explain absinthism: ethanol. Ethanol is also known as the chemical compound that puts the alcohol in alcohol. In all likelihood, heavy absinthe drinkers were suffering from the negative effects of chronic alcoholism or alcohol poisoning. Even if there was reason to deem absinthe a hallucinogen, alcohol was not to blame. But it's possible that preban absinthe drinkers were reacting to, or even poisoned by, toxic additives in certain absinthes.
Contrary to urban legend, a couple shots of absinthe won’t prompt a visit from a green fairy or cause temporary insanity. Drinking modern-day absinthe will get you drunk, but that’s about it. As with any potent alcohol, you should consume absinthe responsibly. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to accidents, injuries, alcohol poisoning, addiction, memory loss, and death.
In the days of preban absinthe, though, it's possible that absinthe drinkers experienced other effects due to poor quality control and ingredient regulation. While top-tier preban distillers made absinthe without additives, some less reputable manufacturers used toxic additives like methanol, tansy, and sweet flag. Antimony was another common addition to preban absinthe. Although it was intended to decrease the absinthe’s toxicity, it likely had the opposite effect, as antimony can cause nausea and toxic effects of its own.
Is Absinthe Legal?
Yes, absinthe is legal. Most countries lifted their absinthe bans by the early 2000s. If you live in the U.S., though, absinthe is only legal if it’s thujone-free.
Is Absinthe Safe?
Bottom line: Absinthe is safe when consumed in moderation. Don’t forget to dilute it with water, drink responsibly, and enjoy!