Absinthe: Myths and Facts

Why You Needn’t Fear the Green Fairy

It’ll make you crazy. It’ll paralyze you. It’ll give you hallucinations. It’ll drive you to murder. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

No other liquor has been the victim of so many misconceptions and outright slander as the herb-infused spirit known as absinthe. You’ve likely heard the myths. Here are the facts:

Absinthe is a high-octane hooch that originated in the late 18th century in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. Typically bottled at 45-74% ABV, it has a flavour profile similar to alpine liqueurs such as génépi and chartreuse, only without the added sweetness. Instead, a neutral spirit base is flavoured with mountain herbs including anise, which provides its distinctive licorice notes, and grand wormwood, aka Artemisia absinthium, which lends both its name and its troubling reputation.

Wormwood contains a chemical known as thujone, which in large quantities can cause hallucinations and renal failure. However, when it is distilled, only microscopic trace elements remain in the spirit. You’ll ingest more thujone in the sage that goes into your turkey stuffing.

Yet based on the myth that wormwood drives people to murder and insanity, absinthe was banned the world over for nearly a century. Why? Call it fake news, spread by a troubled wine industry, a scandalized bourgeoisie, and a media culture happy to latch on to a good villain.

Absinthe arrived in France in the mid-19th century, right about the time a pesky little American aphid called phylloxera landed in Europe. Voracious and indiscriminate, phylloxera devastated vineyards across the continent. It is estimated that it destroyed as much as 90% of Europe’s vineyards; in France alone, wine production fell by two-thirds between 1875 and 1889. Wine, once the daily tipple for rich and poor alike, became a luxury product.

At the same time, a Bohemian demi-monde of artists, writers, their muses, and various hangers-on flooded Paris and other European cities. Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, James Joyce, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe, and others joined the working classes in drinking absinthe, which gave them much more boozy bang for their franc than wine.

They romanticized absinthe as “la fée verte,” the green fairy, and what we would call happy hour as “l’heure verte,” the green hour. Some enjoyed absinthe straight and others in cocktails such as the Sazerac, but most drank it diluted with icy water dripped slowly through a sugar cube poised on a spoon, which created the dreamily cloudy effect known as the “louche”.

Outraged social conservatives came to associate absinthe with loose living, vulgar modernity, decadent art, and a working class that only a century earlier had led France into revolution. However, there was little they could do about it, until in the early 20th century, the vineyards slowly recovered. Absintheurs, who’d lost their taste for wine, continued sipping the pale green spirit. Winemakers and lawmakers alike grew increasingly concerned.

Absinthe, and specifically thujone, had already been blamed for a rise in crime and louche behaviour, though a high alcohol content and poorly-made spirits were more likely to cause any ill effects.

Then one summer day in 1905, a French labourer named Jean Lanfray (who was living in Switzerland) started a day of drinking with a shot of absinthe, followed by a couple of litres of wine and brandy, before killing his pregnant wife and two children. He blamed the absinthe; his crime became known as “the absinthe murder”, the drink itself as “le péril vert”. The jury deliberated less than a day before convicting him–and absinthe. By 1908, absinthe was banned in Switzerland; by 1915, it was banned in most of Europe, across the US and around the world.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that absinthe started making its comeback, thanks to new European Union rules, an emerging cocktail culture, and better science too. (Both absinthe’s alcohol levels and thujone content are much more carefully monitored these days.) By the dawn of the 21st century, nearly 200 brands of absinthe were being produced in a dozen countries, including Canada.
Absinthe fountains once again take pride of place on cool cocktail bars.

Absinthe spoons and glasses are essential bar gear. The Sazerac is considered one of the world’s great cocktails. Craft distillers are rediscovering vintage recipes and creating new ones.

It turns out that, while absinthe won’t make you crazy, you might just go crazy for absinthe.