All About Absinthe:
Its History, Effects, Laws and More in Brief
In late 19th-century Europe and early 20th-century United States, absinthe was all the rage. This 140-proof, bitter-tasting green liqueur was fancied by artists, poets and intellectuals alike. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe all fondly partook in “the green fairy.”
Absinthe is traditionally prepared by pouring 1 ounce of the spirit into a glass, placing a slotted spoon over the top and slowly pouring ice cold water over it. This turns the mixture a milky color. Sometimes a sugar cube is placed on top of the spoon and allowed to dissolve into the mixture as well.
Ernest Hemingway was also a notable absinthe drinker, and his now famous cocktail recipe, “Death in the Afternoon,” which he contributed to a collection of celebrity recipes in 1935, has been widely circulated. Hemmingway wrote:
“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
First made in 1792 in Switzerland, absinthe was initially used as a medicinal tonic for stomachaches, but soon took on a more recreational allure. It is made from herbs including fennel, anise, and Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, the ingredient from which absinthe gets its name — and mystique.
Wormwood contains a chemical called thujone. This is the constituent that gives absinthe its evergreen fragrance and causes it to become cloudy when it’s diluted. It’s also the active ingredient that was blamed for “absinthism” — the nervous or mental disorder that was said to result from drinking too much absinthe.
In the 19th century, absinthism was thought to cause hallucinations, mental problems and criminal activity (and was even a theory for why Van Gogh may have cut his ear off).
Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life With Absinthe.” (Paris 1887)
“It is truly madness in a bottle, and no habitual drinker can claim that he will not become a criminal,” one U.S. politician is reported to have said according to Wired.com.
The turning point came in 1905 when a Swiss farmer reportedly killed his pregnant wife and two daughters after drinking two glasses of the “green menace” (although he had also drank crème de menthe, cognac, seven glasses of wine plus a full liter of wine, and coffee with brandy, according to Wired).
Soon after, the beverage was made illegal.
The Resurfacing of Absinthe
You may have spotted absinth, absinthe essence or another similar product on the market and wondered if it’s the real thing. The truth is, absinthe has been popping up all over the market, in quality and not-so-quality forms, ever since new food regulations were adopted by the European Union in 1988.
The regulations inadvertently left out absinthe, and new distilleries began to produce the re-legalized beverage (although some maintain that many of the newer absinthes are not as good as the pre-ban versions).
Just as in the past, absinthe once again became popular among artists and celebrities, with Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp both speaking of its virtues.
What about absinthism and the effects of thujone? It turns out that this hallucinatory illness may have been nothing more than common alcohol poisoning, according to a study by a German researcher, Dirk W. Lachenmeier, and colleagues.
He tested the thujone concentrations in absinthes produced according to historic 19th-century recipes, as well as in vintage absinthe. What he found was that they contained either relatively low concentrations of thujone, or levels that were not even detectable. Lachenmeier concluded that absinthe is no more harmful than any alcoholic spirit, and that “absinthism” was likely alcohol poisoning (as some absinthe can be nearly double the strength of typical alcoholic beverages).
Interestingly, U.S. law now allows absinthe that contains less than 10 parts per million of thujone. According to Lachenmeier’s study, the historic absinthes that he tested would also conform to these maximum limits.
If you decide to test out some absinthe for yourself, remember to do so responsibly: absinthe can contain up to 70 percent alcohol. And, try to answer Oscar Wilde’s notorious question, “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
Forensic Science International Volume 158, Issue 1, Pages 1-8
Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy