Exploring The Myth And Reality Of Absinthe

A century ago, absinthe was at its peak in drinking and popular culture. As temperance campaigns aimed to vilify the drink, its mythos only grew. Citizens were warned that it would lead them down the path of villainy until it was finally banned. Still, the elixir’s mystical status only increased. Soon, stories of La Fée Verte took hold and were passed around as fact.

But was it all just exaggerated? Is there any truth to the tales of the “Green Fairy?”

Just Really Strong Alcohol

Absinthe is a spirit. It’s often been confused with a liqueur, which it’s not. Liqueurs are a blend of alcohol and sugars, but Absinthe is actually simpler than all of that. Developed by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire around 1792, absinthe ordinaire is a high proof grain alcohol that’s basically the same as a really strong gin. The choice in flavoring the alcohol is where absinthe and gin diverge. Absinthe uses macerated botanicals, which flavor the 72% ABV distillate into what’s called La Bleue or Blanche absinthe. The green version you’re most familiar with requires a second maceration of the three key botanicals: green anise, grande wormwood, and sweet fennel. The length of the steep of the second maceration and whether or not the roots of the botanicals are used can cause the color to vary from a deep green to a muddier brown.

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The notion that the drink is a psychedelic comes from one of the botanicals used in the classic recipe — grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Grande wormwood has a trace amount of thujone, which, in large doses, is known to effect the system much like THC. However, recent studies proved that by the time you’d swallowed enough absinthe to feel the effects of the thujone, you’d be dead several times over from alcohol poisoning. In the end, absinthe is really just a high-alcohol spirit and nothing more.

The History Of A Myth

So how did we get to this point? Two main factors are at play. The first is that absinthe became a huge part of drinking culture during the Belle Epoque and late 19th century European society. As with any popular beverage, advertising and popular culture latched on the booze-of-the-moment and built a whole world around it. The green fairy was borne from the exact same mentality with which beer is sold today. In those times, a nouveau fairy was like a modern day model in her underwear implying that MGD will get you laid. People loved it. It got them super drunk really fast, due to the high ABV. It’s what the cool kids drank and that helped — Toulouse-Lautrec was basically his era’s Drake. In fact, Parisians referred to 5PM as “the Green Hour” because that’s when you’d have a quick absinthe before dinner.

Society’s love of absinthe did not go unnoticed by the Temperance Movement. By the early 1900s, the French were drinking 36,000,000 liters of absinthe yearly. That was SEVEN times their annual wine consumption … in France. The Temperance was built on the aim of banning all alcohol and recreational drugs around the turn of the 20th century, and absinthe quickly rose to become public enemy number one. They claimed that, “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.”

Their proof? The Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray’s murderous rampage in 1906. Lanfray did indeed murder his wife and two daughters (who were 4 and 2 at the time) in a rage over not getting his shoes shined. After dispatching his family, he shot himself in the face and lived. His trial was all anyone talked about at the time. On the day of the murders, Lanfray had been drinking since dawn — wine, brandy, coffee, creme de menthe, cognac, and absinthe. Although Lanfray had basically drunk bottles of brandy and wine, the temperance movement latched onto the absinthe as the culprit — which turned Lanfray into a ‘ferocious beast of a man.’

Within two years the Swiss would amend their constitution to ban the production and sale of absinthe in their country. By 1914, most of the world had followed suit and absinthe was illegal. Eventually the Temperance movement would succeed in getting all alcohol banned in the USA, which turned out super not awesome.

Suddenly, there were studies claiming the thujone levels in absinthe were enough to cause hallucinations, convulsions, and death. They all turned out to be misleading or misrepresentative. Authors and artists who drank the green stuff on the sly in the back of Parisian salons would talk about the sensations they’d feel throughout their bodies. Most of them probably omitting the cocaine and heroin they’d been mainlining while hooking down an absinthe or two.

It would take the EU and their regulatory commissions for food and drink to bring absinthe back to us.

In the early 2000s, governments around Europe started to reexamine their own bans on the green fairy. Once they found that the bans were predicated on hysteria and propaganda over any real science or study, things opened up. Eventually, absinthe distillers were able to reopen their long shuttered family stills in France and Switzerland. On March 1, 2005 — almost 100 years after the Lanfray murders — absinthe was once again available in the district that birthed the spirit in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland.

During the same time, the US lifted its ban on absinthe and suddenly Sazeracs could be made with the real stuff again. In the years since, two distinct absinthes have re-emerged — French Absinthe and Bohemian Absinth. The French version is the traditional distillate with a recipe that hasn’t really changed since 1797. The ceremony of drinking an absinthe hasn’t changed much since then either. An absinthe glass is filled with shot of absinthe then a slotted spoon with a sugar cube is lain over the glass as ice water is dripped in. The absinthe will become a cloudy white. This is called the louche. Bohemian absinth does not louche.

The Bohemian version eschews all the botanicals except for the grande wormwood, which technically makes it a wormwood bitters more than an “absinthe.” Since the Bohemian version doesn’t louche, Czechs devised a new ritual in the 1990s. It still uses the glass, spoon, and sugar cube, but replaces the water with a flame. The sugar cube is dipped in the absinth then lit on fire to caramelize before being plunged into the green bitters below.

You’ve been able to get absinthe in the USA since 2000. That year, a product hit the market called Absente. It circumvented the US ban by replacing the grande wormwood with southernwood and added some sugar, making it a liqueur. As of 2007, the ban on wormwood and absinthe was lifted and the product became available in the States. Even Absente switched their recipe back to grande wormwood by 2009. Some stills are starting to distill their own absinthe in the USA these days — though there is still a lot of power in the mythos.

Pacific Distillery‘s Pacifique Absinthe Verte Supérieure is made just north of Seattle, WA, and sells their bottles for $65 a pop. However, if you’re looking for the old school real-deal French recipes, try Pernod Absinthe or Vieux Pontarlier, which both retail for around $60. Use the Pernod for mixing drinks like a Corpse Reviver no. 2 or the stone-cold classic, Sazerac.

If you want to go through the ritual and louche, use the Vieux Pontarlier. You won’t trip, but you’ll get super-duper drunk. Which, in reality, has been the point all along.