Absinthe Minded

By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel

There is no spirit veiled in more mystery and misinformation than absinthe. Known as the “green fairy,” this potable is famously alleged, and widely believed, to be hallucinogenic and has been accused of making men go mad—driven to commit unthinkable acts. Vincent Van Gogh was supposedly in an absinthe-induced stupor when he cut off his ear, and absinthe was deemed the culprit in the notorious 1905 Absinthe Murders (even though the murderer had ingested large amounts of several other types of alcohol prior to, and after, the absinthe).

Absinthe’s antagonists cautioned that consumption of the spirit would cause the disease absinthism, with such unpleasant symptoms as hallucinations, convulsions and tremors.

These are harsh accusations for an elixir that emerged from the early European pharmaceutical tradition of concocting herbal tonics for purported medicinal benefits.

Absinthe dates to the latter half of the 18th century and finds its spiritual homeland in the village of Couvet, in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. Across the French border, in the town of Pontarlier, the legendary Pernod Fils company began commercially manufacturing absinthe in 1805. Though absinthe was initially compounded as a medicinal elixir, there is evidence that from this early time it was also used as a recreational beverage—and a very popular one, at that. The Pernod distillery alone produced upwards of 20,000 liters a day by the middle of the 18th century.

The method for making absinthe is similar to the one for making gin—a number of botanicals are macerated in a neutral spirit and then redistilled. Likely taking its name from the Latin name for wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, absinthe was originally made from grape spirits and the holy trinity of botanicals: grand wormwood, fennel and green anise. Numerous other botanicals are used to create distinction amongst absinthes, including star anise, coriander, lemon balm and hyssop. Traditional verte absinthe attained its color from the naturally occurring chlorophyll in the botanicals, though many modern absinthes use artificial agents to intensify or stabilize the green color. Blanche absinthe is clear in appearance.

In addition to being the spirit’s namesake, wormwood is also one of its defining ingredients. Wormwood contains the essential oil thujone, which is one of the ingredients that gets absinthe into trouble. Taken in very high doses, thujone is said to have hallucinogenic properties, and can even be toxic or fatal in extremely high doses. Though thujone also appears in other common herbs such as sage and oregano—and though the amount of thujone present in absinthe is not enough to cause the supposed hallucinations—this reality was not enough to stop the crusade of absinthe’s detractors.

This isn’t to say that absinthe isn’t extremely intoxicating—many absinthes clock in at 120-plus proof, making absinthe as much as 50 percent more alcoholic than most of the tequilas, whiskeys or vodkas we drink today. In addition, the spirit wasn’t regulated as tightly as other French wines and spirits of the day, so an unscrupulous manufacturer could have tainted his product with any number of adulterants—including poisonous ones—adding to absinthe’s rap sheet.

The reasons for absinthe’s demise are complicated and numerous. One contributing factor was that the temperance movement leading the march towards prohibition in the U.S. was also active in Europe. The movement was looking for a scapegoat for the societal ills of industrialization, and the relative newcomer absinthe, with its bohemian clientele, was an easy target—unlike wine, which had long-established cultural roots.

The wine industry was in no hurry to come to absinthe’s defense. In the mid- to late 1800s, Europe’s vineyards were devastated by a pest known as phylloxera. As the producers made their way back from the damage, they realized that some of the consumers who previously drank wine or brandy were now hooked on absinthe. It was not in their best financial interest to allow the absinthe distilleries to gain the regulatory legitimacy sought by reputable firms such as Pernod. The absinthe prohibitionists made great use of negative PR from incidents such as the Absinthe Murders, and there was a world war under way (alcohol production typically suffers during such times). By 1915, absinthe was banned in the U.S. and much of Europe.

The good news is that absinthe has crawled out from the shadows. Traditional, artisanal European absinthe became available in the U.S. in 2007 with the introduction of the French-made Lucid, and dozens more brands have followed. There are also several craft distilleries such as St. George and Germain-Robin making modern American absinthes of exceptionally high quality. Whether you take your absinthe in the traditional way, with ice water and a sugar cube, or as a component in a classic or modern cocktail, there are now more quality absinthes on the market than there have been in almost a century.