Absinthe has long captivated the minds of drinkers, in part because of it's rumored hallucinogenic properties and its green fairy accompaniment. But aside from all that, what is absinthe?
It’s forever associated with the Belle Epoque and its luscious Art Nouveau style. Writers from Baudelaire to Hemingway would use it, and Oscar Wilde once believed he felt a field of tulips brush his legs when leaving a bar under its influence, philosophizing:
“After the first glass of absinthe, you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
Known with fondness and dread as the green fairy, absinthe has been linked with artists and writers for decades, and its bottle-green hue has always suggested a link to insanity. But for all its mystical connections, its methods are deeply terrestrial.
So, as a spirit, what is absinthe?
Absinthe is extracted from wormwood, creating a licorice-like libation similar in taste to anise, with a fairly high alcohol content of 110 to 144 proof. The otherwise clear liquid takes on the characteristic Kelly green when other herbs and flowers are added, depositing chlorophyll (other colors are possible too, even hot pink).
It gets its hallucinogenic reputation from the chemical thujone, which occurs naturally in the drink. Thujone can cause convulsions and even death in high enough concentrations, but they are practically unattainable from drinking absinthe casually. A devotee of the green fairy is much more likely to suffer alcohol poisoning well before overdosing on thujone–one distiller estimated that a person would have to drink three bottles to feel the effects of thujone.
Indeed, this is where the true root of society’s fear of absinthe found soil.
The turn of the 20th century found a deep audience in temperance, and absinthe was thereby named the boogeyman of intemperance. One flyer read:
“Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant. It disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
When a Swiss man named Jean Lanfray killed his family, the fact that he was under the spell of absinthe was found as the cause (apparently he’d been drinking a lot more than absinthe, but the green fairy was held guilty by association).
Soon absinthe was banned across Europe and in America. A resurgence in popularity came with more lax rules from the European Union in the 1980s, and the States eventually reneged (although it must be sold “thujone-free” here).
At the end of the day, most experts believe thujone isn’t to blame for insanity under absinthe, but a toxic cocktail of alcohol and possibly the lethal colorings to enhance the verdancy in its early days.
Hallucinogenic or no, the green fairy still flies, with thirsty drinkers willing to be caught under her spell.