11 of the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Absinthe, Answered

Absinthe is a light green, anise-flavored spirit that was once banned for purportedly causing social ills. However, absinthe’s dangerous effects have been largely exaggerated, the realization of which led to the spirit’s revival in the 1990s. Absinthe originated in Switzerland in the late 1700s, and slowly gained popularity across the Western world, but especially in Paris. By the turn of the 20th century, absinthe was the ultimate bohemian drink, enjoyed by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Lord Byron, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde. 

An 1876 painting by famed French artist Edgar Degas portrayed the so-called moral degradations of absinthe-drinking. Later titled L’absinthe (pictured above), the work shows a woman and a man sharing a glass of the spirit. The two are vacant, lethargic, and sad; Victorian critics called the painting brutal, ugly, and disgustingDegas was far from alone in his fascination with absinthe. Van Gogh, Picasso, and Manet… were all legendary artists who drank or were addicted to absinthe. 

By 1915, though, the United States and most European countries had banned absinthe, cementing its mythological status. Many questions continue to swirl around this mysterious, legendary drink. We’re here to clear them up by answering 11 of the most frequently asked questions about absinthe. 

1. What is absinthe?

Absinthe is a distilled spirit made from wormwood, green anise, fennel, and an assortment of other herbs. It has an iconic light green color and usually has an ABV between 45% and 74%. 

The word absinthe is derived from the Latin absinthium, which means ‘wormwood.’ Wormwood is a herb with some medicinal properties, and it can be used to combat an upset stomach, Crohn’s disease, and IgA nephropathy. It contains a chemical compound called thujone, which was blamed for absinthe’s supposed neurological effects. 

Absinthe is said to have been created around 1792 by a French doctor in Couvet, Switzerland as a medical elixir. A man named Major Dubied bought the formula in 1797 and produced and sold the spirit until absinthe was banned in France in 1914. 

2. How is absinthe made?

Absinthe is made by macerating herbs in a neutral pre-distilled liquor (like vodka), before it is redistilled one or more times. Along with wormwood and anise, herbs and botanicals used to make absinthe include hyssop, melissa, and chlorophyll, which gives absinthe its distinct green hue. 

Absinthe used to be made with wine as a base, but it was replaced during the wine shortage of the 1880s with cheaper grain-based alcohols. Some modern-day absinthes are made using a process called cold compounding, which means that it is flavored with oils and artificial coloring rather than distillation. 

3. When you drink absinthe, wow does it taste?

Thanks to its infusion of anise and fennel, people generally compare absinthe’s flavor to black licorice. High quality absinthes only have a subtle hint of the flavor, however. Overall, the main taste of absinthe is bitter and herbal, though some fall on the brighter, occasionally lemony, minty, or floral side. 

4. Is the drink absinthe illegal?

Short answer: No. This controversial spirit, though previously banned in some countries for almost a century, is no longer illegal. The first place to ban absinthe was the Congo Free State, in 1898; in the following two decades, it was outlawed in the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, and France. Countries like England and Spain, however, never banned it at all. 

In 1914, the U.S. government passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which made it so difficult to produce and sell absinthe that it was effectively banned. Prohibition, beginning in 1919, came quickly on the heels of the Narcotics Act, cutting Americans off from (legal) alcohol completely. 

However, in 2007, the American government lifted some of the tax and trade restrictions on absinthe, which meant distillers and importers could sell the liquor as long as it followed FDA guidelines. For example, the FDA has restrictions on how much wormwood can be added into food and drinks, and they require it to be thujone-free. So all legal American absinthe is thujone-free, though some sticklers question whether it can still be considered absinthe in the traditional sense. 

5. Why was the drink absinthe banned?

What, you may ask, did absinthe do that was so bad it had to be banned for nearly a century? 

In an anti-absinthe campaign egged on by the Temperance Movement (also known as the Prohibition Movement), the liquor became linked with violence, social havoc, and immorality. One French psychiatrist in particular, a Dr. Valentin Magnan, even believed that it was the cause of what he saw as the decline of French culture in the late 1800s. To prove his theory, Magnan tested thujone and wormwood oil on mice and dogs. One dog barked at a brick wall for an hour after being given a vial of wormwood oil, leading to the claim that absinthe causes hallucinations. Magnan’s experiments fed into the belief that absinthe — or more specifically, thujone — was psychoactive and dangerous. 

Nowadays, Magnan’s conclusions have been proven incorrect. Though it is true that thujone, in pure, large quantities, does have certain toxic effects. Absinthe itself has very low amounts of the chemical. Certainly not enough to make it worse than alcohol itself. 

Growing worries about the effects of absinthe reached a head in 1905, when a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and two children in an alcohol-induced rage. Lanfray was an alcoholic who had had two glasses of absinthe the day of the rampage (as well as seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, brandy-laced coffee, and two crème de menthes, though this was all overlooked). 

His murders were attributed to the absinthe alone, and more than 82,000 people signed a petition for an absinthe ban in Switzerland. In 1908, a voter referendum in the country turned the prohibition into law. The Lanfray murders fed into the Temperance Movement’s campaign, and soon absinthe was banned in much of Europe and the U.S.

6. Will absinthe get you high or make you hallucinate?

According to a study done in 2008, absinthe’s purported hallucinogenic or mind-altering effects were simply due to the fact that it was such a strong alcohol. Prior to its ban, the absinthe being consumed all hovered around 70% ABV. 

Artists who frequently enjoyed absinthe credited it with their creativity, reinforcing the belief that it somehow altered their psychological states. Many of these artists, however, were addicted to the spirit, and their symptoms can be attributed to excess consumption or withdrawal. 

7. Is absinthe actually dangerous?

Even though it is no longer illegal, absinthe should always be consumed carefully. Though it has been proven that absinthe does not have the dangerous, psychotic, mind-altering properties that were once attributed to it, it still has a very high ABV. 

As with all other liquors, overconsumption of absinthe can be dangerous. The American CDC recommends two drinks or less for men and one drink or less for women per day. You should also remain aware of your own alcohol limits, especially due to absinthe’s potency. 

However, absinthe is nowhere near as dangerous as many Temperance proponents had people believe in the 20th century. 

8. Can you drink absinthe straight?

For most people, absinthe is much too strong to drink straight. Just think about (most brands of) rubbing alcohol, which has the same ABV as the strongest bottles of absinthe. Straight absinthe can also ‘burn’ your taste buds, and it will quickly intoxicate you. 

You can drink absinthe straight if you have a bottle with relatively low (~40%) ABV, though most brands of the liquor hover around at least 60% ABV. 

9. What’s the best way to drink absinthe?

The most common — and traditional — method of drinking absinthe is the ‘absinthe drip.’ To best recreate the perfect absinthe drip, you will need a specialized absinthe glass, spoon, and fountain. But a short, stemmed glass, a fork, and an olive oil dripper will work in a pinch. 

Using this method, the resulting drink will be diluted and less bitter. The drip will also result in a louche, which is the name for the cloudy appearance of water mixed with absinthe.

The absinthe drip is a veritable ritual meant to create an entire experience for the drinker. The steps to the perfect absinthe drink are:

  1. Pour about a shot (1-1.5 oz) of absinthe into the glass
  2. Position the absinthe spoon or fork across the rim of the glass
  3. Put a sugar cube on the spoon or fork
  4. Saturate the cube slowly with ice-cold water, and allow the cube to begin to dissolve
  5. Continue pouring slowly until the sugar dissolves and you have a 3-5 to 1 ratio of water to absinthe
  6. Allow to rest, and then stir in all the sugar

Another method of drinking absinthe involves lighting the sugar cube on fire. Although this method is more showy (and more difficult to do at home). The absinthe drip can also be performed with the inclusion of crushed ice and club soda, depending on preference. 

10. Why was the drink absinthe so popular in the 19th-20th century? 

At its peak, absinthe was known as La Fée Verte — the Green Fairy — because of all it represented, as creative inspiration, as altered perception, as something almost magical. Oscar Wilde himself said, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”

Though it may be hard to believe, absinthe’s popularity came from humble origins. In the 1840s, when French troops were fighting a bloody war in Algeria, they were given absinthe as a treatment against malaria and dysentery. They soon developed a taste for it, and when they returned home victorious, absinthe became a symbol of French triumph. The clear green liquor had an almost exotic appeal. There were rumors about its supposed hallucinogenic effects abounded. Most of those tales were due to artists who claimed it was the source of their inspiration. But, as expounded above, this was just the result of heavy intoxication. 

Absinthe, however, became more and more popular through the mid-1800s. By the 1860s, the liquor was so popular that the time between 5pm and 6pm was called l’heure verte, or ‘the green hour.’ By 1910, France was consuming a stunning 36 million liters of absinthe a year. Even as warnings and smear campaigns against the spirit arose, its popularity endured. Absinthe was thrilling: a little dangerous, a little euphoric, like a dip into the dark side. 

11. Why are some absinthes greener than others?

The absinthe distillation process varies between countries and companies, leading to a range of green hues in the spirit. In films and TV, however, absinthe is commonly depicted as bright green, almost neon. But those bottles are definitely full of food coloring or other dyes. 

In France, the maceration of herbs during the absinthe-making process lasts longer. This allowed more chlorophyll to leech into the resulting spirit. Thus, French absinthes are usually a darker green, though not quite the vivid color of film-absinthe. On the other hand, Switzerland absinthe makers specialize in a variety called blanche — ‘white’ — absinthe, which only goes through one distillation, leaving it relatively clear. There are many other styles of absinthe, including hibiscus-flavored red absinthes and barrel-aged absinthes.

Consider these fun facts when you next drink absinthe. Interested in other spirits? Learn more fascinating facts about alcohol at DistilleryNearby.com

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