Let’s get some things straight: Properly made absinthe does not and has never contained any hallucinogenic properties. Absinthe is not illegal — it’s actually been legally available in the United States since 2007 — and it is not poisonous.
Brian Robinson, an absinthe expert and spirits archaeologist at the Columbia Room, says the myth about absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties attracts two camps of people: recreational drug users who are chasing the next high, and people who are scared away from absinthe because of the same myths.
“It puts absinthe at a disadvantage from the very beginning because you’ve got some people who are destined to be disappointed, and others who are afraid to even try it,” Robinson says.
Nick Farrell, spirits director at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in D.C., agrees.
“Absinthe contains small traces of thujone [a mild hallucinogenic], but the public perception is if you drink a little absinthe, you’re going to see things,” he says.
The thujone found in absinthe comes from wormwood, an herb traditionally used in tonics. Absinthe also contains fennel and anise, which gives the spirit an herbal flavor akin to black licorice.
In reality, the rumors that absinthe causes sickness and hallucinations come from its extremely high alcohol content: The spirit’s proof ranges anywhere from 110 to 144 (for comparison, the average whiskey is about 80 proof).
When prepared properly by diluting the spirit with ice water, a glass of absinthe has a similar strength to a glass of wine.
Dubbed the “Green Fairy” by artists and charlatans of early 19th century Europe who claimed it as their muse, absinthe was cherished as an aperitif spirit by the poor and rich alike. As it gained popularity, wine and beer lobbyists initiated an anti-absinthe crusade to snuff it out.
Robinson, who is also a review editor at the Wormwood Society, an association dedicated to dispelling myths and educating folks about absinthe, says the main misinformation campaign rose out of France and Switzerland in the mid-1800s after an insect plague destroyed most of their vineyards. Wine was suddenly difficult to come by and became extremely expensive, so the masses sought an alternative.
Because anise and wormwood flavors were already popular at the time — paired with the fact that a glass of absinthe is about as strong as a glass of wine — Robinson says it was easy for people to replace wine with absinthe in their daily routine.
“When the French wine industry recovered, they didn’t have as many customers because absinthe was very popular and widely available,” Robinson says. “The wine industry partnered with brewing prohibitionists to vilify absinthe and get customers to come back to wine.”
Spurred by anti-absinthe propaganda, a terror the “absinthe demon” would destroy the world spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to America.
The nail in absinthe’s coffin was a high profile homicide case dubbed the Absinthe Murders.
In 1905, a working class man from a small community in Switzerland woke and started his day with two glasses of absinthe, followed by a crème de menthe and cognac for breakfast.
Jean Lanfray then enjoyed seven glasses of wine and a cup of coffee spiked with brandy at lunchtime. He later consumed an entire liter of wine and polished his meal off with a strong form of brandy called marc.
Drunk all day, Lanfray neglected to milk the cows — and when his pregnant wife reminded him, an argument ensued. He reached for his rifle and shot her in the head, then killed his four and two-year-old daughters before attempting to take his own life.
Despite the copious amounts of wine and brandy he consumed, Lanfray’s defense lawyers blamed his actions on “absinthe madness” even though he only had a few ounces the morning of the murders. In a one-day trial, Lanfray was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After three days behind bars, he hanged himself in his cell.
Absinthe was officially banned in Switzerland in 1908, and most of Europe and the U.S. swiftly followed suit. The Green Fairy remained outlawed for nearly a century until alcohol restrictions began loosening in the 1990s. In 2007, absinthe became legally available in the U.S.
Today, absinthe is less common than other spirits, but can still be found if you know where to look. Many bars include absinthe in cocktails, and larger liquor stores often carry it on their shelves.
Doug Fisher, beverage director at Morris American Bar, says he counted 119 cocktails on his list containing absinthe — whether a rinse, a dash or an ounce. When advising patrons interested in trying it for the first time, Fisher often compares absinthe and other potent, bitter spirits to odd people.
“When you first meet them, they’re strange and you don’t really know what to expect,” Fisher says. “But after you spend some time with them, you realize, ‘Oh, this is why people have liked you for a couple hundred years. You’re interesting and you’re different.’ Absinthe, like any finer things in life, is an acquired taste.”
Traditionally, absinthe is served by dripping iced cold water over a sugar cube into a special absinthe glass. At The Sovereign, a Belgian-style restaurant and bar in Georgetown, Farrell says absinthe fountains are available upon request — and once one goes out, two or three more are certain to follow.
Absinthe is one of those niche spirits, which may remain a mystery to most and coveted by few for years to come. By telling its compelling backstory — and dispelling some of its myths — perhaps more people will find their own muse in the Green Fairy.
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