The Truth About Absinthe: Dispelling the Myths

Absinthe

Absinthe has suffered from the burden of a bad reputation for over 100 years, but I’m here to tell you the real story of absinthe, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to try it. They say that absinthe has psychedelic effects, and that you will see green fairies; but here are some facts about this oft misunderstood drink that might just change your mind!

“I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well” – Oscar Wilde

A Short History of Absinthe

Absinthe was invented in the small town of Couvet, in the Val-de-Travers in Switzerland.  Dr Pierre Ordinaire created absinthe in around 1792 to use as a medicinal elixir.  The recipe was sold on, and eventually ended up with Henri-Louis Pernod, who took it to production over the border in Pontarlier, France. By 1805, 7 million litres of absinthe were being produced (and consumed)!

Fast forward to the hey-day of absinthe, the Belle Epoque, where it became the favoured drink of artists and dilettantes. This is perhaps where the romanticism around the ritual of absinthe became both a blessing and a curse. The artists and poets embraced it, not only for the lovely heady intoxication it provided, but because it was cheaper than wine.

Glasses of absinthe
Glasses of absinthe (CC2.5 photo by Eric Litton)

Fun Fact: Between 1876-1900 the French consumption of absinthe averaged over 21 million litres each year!

It was this riotous popularity that started to cause issues for the fated drink.  They say that the Temperance Movement was partly to blame for the vilification of absinthe – but they were against all hard liquor in general.  The wine industry is also said to have influenced the rumors and claims that absinthe was ‘dangerous’ – after all, the wine industry in France was tiny in comparison, so they would have everything to gain in that situation.

But it was a rather gruesome event that began the downfall of absinthe.

Why Was Absinthe Banned?

In 1905, a Swiss man named Jean Lanfray, went out on the town and drank many absinthes, he also had some beer and some crème de menthe.  He came home and shot his entire family.  Everyone blamed the absinthe. If it were me, I’d blame the crème de menthe – what a horrible drink that is!  By 1910, absinthe was banned in its own birthplace of Switzerland. By 1915 it was banned in both the USA and France.

Fun Fact:  Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, absinthe has never been banned in the UK! Or Spain, Portugal or Denmark for that matter.

An absinthe fountain
An absinthe fountain (photo by Hannah Henderson)

What is Absinthe and Does it Cause You to Hallucinate?

The main herbal ingredients are grand wormwood, green anise and sweet fennel.  It is the grand wormwood that has thujone in it, and this is the ingredient which is blamed for the psychedelic effects. During the 19th century, the vilification of absinthe (and thujone) continued, with flawed research indicating that thujone caused hallucinations and seizures.  The truth of the matter is that you would have to drink around 150 glasses of absinthe for thujone to act as a neurotoxin – so alcohol poisoning would kill you first!

During the prohibition of absinthe, many families kept the tradition of distilling absinthe alive by bootlegging it instead. It was here that the Swiss had the advantage, as they preferred the ‘blanche’ (white) absinthes over the green-tinged ones. By only macerating the herbs once, the liquid came out clear instead of green, and could be passed off as vodka! The more common ‘verte’ (green) absinthes were harder to conceal.

During the 1990s, faux absinthes started appearing in places like Prague, as the emerging market for stag-weekends grew, as did the appearance of fake absinthes made from 90 proof alcohol and green food colouring. This, as you can imagine, did not help the reputation of absinthe.  In fact, the misconception about the drink was willfully proliferated as some odd marketing ploy during this time – apparently there is a market for holidays where you get so drunk you don’t remember anything. That’s not my idea of a holiday, but to each their own!

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Is Absinthe Legal Now?

By 2005, the ban was lifted in Switzerland, and the USA followed in 2007.  The final partial bans were lifted in France in 2011. By then, the modern drinking population only knew absinthe to be a bright green drink that you set on fire and got hammered with. Needless to say, it will take a generation or more for this 100 years of vilification to wear off.

Since the ban lifted, the birthplace of absinthe, the Val-de-Travers, has flourished as a tourist destination for those who want to learn about real absinthe. There is even an ‘absinthe route’ that takes you up the valley and over to Pontarlier to all the distilleries.

Learn more:  The absinthe festival happens every June.

How to Properly Serve Absinthe

To serve absinthe (properly):  to one-part absinthe (I recommend La Clandestine or the Jade range), slowly drip or pour ice cold water (either in a jug or via a fountain) into the absinthe – this is called ‘the louche’.  The oils in the absinthe are released and the drink will become cloudy.  You can pour the water through a sugar cube (sat upon a special slotted spoon) if you prefer it sweeter.

An absinthe drip
An absinthe drip (photo by Hannah Henderson)

Fun Fact:  To tell real absinthe from fake absinthe, slowly drip in cold water – if it doesn’t turn cloudy it’s not proper absinthe!

Want to see more? Check out this Zagat video on how to serve the perfect glass of absinthe:

I do hope that after reading this you will give absinthe a try, or at least be assured that it isn’t dangerous.  I have survived 6 years of attending the absinthe festival and am alive to tell the tales, so it can’t be that bad!  There is nothing lovelier that sitting high in the Swiss mountains, listening to the tinkling of the cow bells, and sipping on a long ice-cold absinthe.  You should try it sometime.

About the Author:  Hannah is a travel writer and president of the Edinburgh Absinthe Club.  Her passion for dispelling the myths about absinthe is second only to her passion for travelling.  Hannah splits her time between Edinburgh and France, and makes a point of trying local food and beverages wherever she travels. You can find more of her writing at Hannah Henderson Travel.

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Learn the truth about Absinthe and dispell the myths that have haunted this liquor for almost 100 years
Learn the truth about Absinthe and dispell the myths that have haunted this liquor for almost 100 years

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