Absinthe: Uncovering the Truths Behind the Myths

Also known as the green fairy, the green muse, and the green goddess, among others, absinthe has been – and continues to be – the subject of much speculation.

Absinthe has gained a reputation for causing hallucinations and illicit and violent behavior which has led to its prohibition in countries like the United States, Switzerland and France, among others, in the early 1900s. Tales of family massacres, children-turned-criminals and instantaneous death follow the unlucky absinthe beverage, but are rumors of the effects of absinthe accurate?

Absinthe Ingredients and Process

Traditional absinthe contains anise, fennel and wormwood. Some recipes add various herbs and flowers to the absinthe mix. These ingredients are then soaked in alcohol and then they go through a distillation process which causes the herbal oils and alcohol to evaporate, and during this time, they separate from the water and bitter essences that are released by the herbs.

In a cooling area, the fennel, anise and wormwood recondense with the alcohol, after which, the distiller then dilutes the liquid produced to whatever proof the absinthe is supposed to be. The absinthe is clear at this point, with many manufacturers adding herbs to the mixture following the distillation process to achieve the classic chartreuse hue from the chlorophyll.

Wormwood, in particular, thujone (the chemical component of the plant), has taken the brunt of the blame for absinthe’s bad rap. Thujone can be toxic in very high doses; however, there is not enough thujone in absinthe to hurt you. In fact, there is very little thujone left in absinthe by the end of the distillation process.

Dispelling the Myth

The green fairy liquor rose to popularity especially among artists – writers, painters and sculptors, to name a few – in the late 19th century, particularly in France. These artists claimed that absinthe caused either a mental clarity, euphoria, numbness to pain and hallucinations. Indeed, the drink has earned the nickname the green muse as these creative types began crediting absinthe beverage as the source of their inspiration and creativity.

However, absinthe developed a reputation as a dangerous and hallucinogenic drug. Excessive absinthe drinking was believed to cause insanity and the term ‘absinthism’, a syndrome that was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations, was coined. However, much of the alarm over the effects of absinthe came from animal experiments conducted by Dr. Valentin Magnan, a chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris, which were flawed since they involved exposing small animals to large qualities of pure wormwood essence. In contrast, the absinthe liquor for sale commercially contained a relatively small amount of the chemical.