What Is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a strong alcoholic spirit with a distinctive anise flavour produced using a process very similar to gin. It is typically distilled from white wine eau-de-vie and undergoes several macerations with a variety of botanicals including grand wormwood, green anise, and Florence fennel.
During its short but colourful history, absinthe has experienced unparalleled acclaim as well as an international ban that spanned nearly a century. Today, absinthe continues to be produced predominantly in France and Switzerland as well as the Czech Republic.
The History Of Absinthe
Although the medicinal use of wormwood can be traced back to Ancient Egypt as well as an Ancient Greek wormwood wine called “absinthites oinos”, the first production of absinthe was recorded as recently as the 18th century.
The development of absinthe is often credited between Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, the Henriod sisters, Major Daniel-Henri Dubied, and Abram-Louis Pernod. In most cases, absinthe is associated with the Swiss Val-de-Travers region, which is also famous for watchmaking.
Specifically, documents suggest that absinthe production began in the village of Couvet as “extrait d’absinthe” during the second half of the 18th century. Dubied Père et Fils is supposedly one of the earliest commercial distilleries, which opened in 1797 using a recipe by the Henriod sisters.
Meanwhile, Pontarlier just across the border became an absinthe production hub in France with distilleries like Pernod Fils opening as early as 1805.
Absinthe was issued to French troops as a malaria treatment during the 1840s before it was eventually replaced by quinquina. However, this launched absinthe’s popularity when returning officers ordered it in cafés.
Indeed, absinthe became so prevalent that it even had its own 420! 5pm was often referred to as l’heure verte or “the green hour”. When the production of absinthe industrialised by the second half of the 19th century, its demand boomed.
Before it was banned, France consumed 35 million litres per year compared to only 5 million litres of wine.
Absinthe’s Relationship With Art & Literature
During the Belle Epoque, absinthe became associated with the Parisian artistic bohemian subculture. As a result, it often inspired or was even featured in the works of a variety of artists, including the following:
- Charles Baudelaire
- Émile Cohl
- Aleister Crowley
- Edgar Degas
- Ernest Dowson
- Paul Gauguin
- Vincent van Gogh
- Ernest Hemingway
- Alfred Jarry
- Édouard Manet
- Guy de Maupassant
- Amedeo Modigliani
- Pablo Picasso
- Arthur Rimbaud
- Erik Satie
- August Strindberg
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
- Mark Twain
- Paul Verlaine
- Oscar Wilde
- Émile Zola
Depictions of absinthe by the bohemian crowd were usually of affection. However, some artists and authors, including Degas and Zola, illustrated its addiction and supposed psychological effects.
References to the “green fairy” were popular by both its advocates and its opponents in the press. However, the green fairy didn’t appear in the film or literature until much later.
Indeed, absinthe’s mysterious lawlessness and seductive bohemian imagery has persevered and often plays a reoccurring theme in film and literature. For instance, it played an essential role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview With The Vampire (1994), and From Hell (2001).
In most cases, absinthe represents the dark forces of seduction, addiction, and delirium. However, it also has more lighthearted representations such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and EuroTrip (2004).
Absinthe’s association with bohemian culture likely made it a target for social conservatives and prohibitionists. After all, bohemians were often the subject cause of controversy, and the period was experiencing growing crime and anti-social behaviour.
For instance, Vincent van Gogh allegedly cut off his ear during an absinthe hallucination. Similarly, the relationship between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine dramatically ended when the latter was imprisoned for shooting the former in the hand.
As they were both known heavy drinkers of absinthe, the drink was blamed by the press.
Absinthe Effects & Hallucinations
French & Swiss Absinthe Campaigns
Likewise, a string of other alcohol-related murders and violent crime was blamed on absinthe in particular. As a result, conservatives regarded what they referred to as “absinthism” as a more severe form of alcoholism.
Meanwhile, French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan studied alcoholism and experimented with wormwood oil during the 19th century. In his observations, he discovered that the pure oil caused seizures in animals.
As absinthe contains trace amounts, he concluded that it was the cause of the hallucinations and violent behaviour in alcoholics. This lead to the discovery of thujone, a chemical compound found in wormwood oil.
Indeed, it was then believed that absinthe contained around 300 milligrams per litre of thujone. Yet, more recent studies indicated that pre-prohibition bottles contained only trace amounts with an average of approximately 25 mg/l.
Indeed, it’s more likely that the few recorded cases where absinthe was to blame may have been caused by producers using copper salts to artificially create absinthe’s green colour. Similarly, butter of antimony, a known toxin, was sometimes used to cheaply reproduce the louching effect when adding water.
Therefore, it was first banned in France and Belgium in 1906 as well as Switzerland by referendum in 1908. Numerous European countries followed as well as the USA in 1912.
Is Absinthe Legal In The USA?
Although absinthe production continued illegally in parts of Switzerland and France, it was still legal in a few countries such as Spain and the Czech Republic. Indeed, Spain initially continued to make absinthe, but a fall in demand caused production to cease.
Meanwhile, Czech absinthe persisted. In the 1990s, the UK started importing absinthe as it had never officially banned the spirit. Over the following years, the renewed interest in absinthe grew and prompted a slow revival.
Initially, only Czech, Spanish and Portuguese absinthe was imported, but they often left enthusiasts wanting. At the turn of the century, France was the first to repeal the ban and begin producing it again. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland soon followed between 2004 and 2005.
Eventually, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau partially lifted the ban in 2007. However, it came with certain caveats that apply to domestic liquor stores and bars.
While thujone content in absinthe is limited to 35 mg/l in the European Union, the FDA’s new thujone content regulations require absinthe to be “thujone free”. Needless to say, this is technically impossible for genuine absinthe even with a 10 mg/kg threshold.
Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that this legislation only strictly applies to liquor stores and bars. Indeed, the importation of genuine absinthe for personal use is now perfectly legal!
What Does Absinthe Taste Like?
Although there are several varieties of absinthe, absinthe can usually be recognised by a characteristic anise flavour. However, compared to light anisette such as Greek ouzo and Italian sambuca, absinthe has a fuller body with a greater level of herbaceousness.
Indeed, absinthe also uses the aforementioned wormwood, which provides both viscosity and complexity. Consequently, absinthe has a bolder flavour. Furthermore, traditional absinthe isn’t sweetened so its palate is particularly dry.
For this reason, it’s often served with a sugar cube. Meanwhile, the anisette varieties mentioned above are often made with sugar. Greek ouzo may contain very little but even a small amount will completely change the flavour of anise.
High-quality absinthe shouldn’t be overly anise-forward. In fact, it’s sometimes seen as a weakness if this flavour is too dominant. Instead, it should be a harmonious accord of its herbs with notes of fennel, wormwood, liquorice, and anise all working together.
Absinthe Substitutes & Similar Drinks
If you’re looking for a similar experience to absinthe but are still concerned about thujone, there are several possible substitutes.
For instance, pastis is a French spirit that was developed following the absinthe ban. Pastis is produced using star anise and liquorice root, which results in a distinctive herbal flavour. Like absinthe, it is typically diluted with water.
Interestingly, pastis was actually invented following the absinthe ban as a legal alternative. While most absinthe enthusiasts regard it as a poor imitation, pastis has grown to become one of the most popular summer drinks in France!
Meanwhile, the aforementioned ouzo and sambuca are two other anise-flavoured spirits from the Mediterranean. Both have a longer history than pastis but their sales soared when absinthe became illegal. Otherwise, akvavit is a Scandinavian spirit that occasionally uses anise during the maceration process.
However, if you’re looking to avoid the anise flavour, you may instead consider a neutral spirit such as gin or vodka as absinthe substitutes.
Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Absinthe?
Despite the controversy, wormwood does have some benefits in small doses. Indeed, excites the central nervous system and has several therapeutic uses. For instance, it can help with digestion problems such as intestinal spasms and loss of appetite.
Similarly, it has been known to help treat fevers, liver disease, and memory loss.
Otherwise, you needn’t be worried about its thujone content. Indeed, studies indicate that you would have to consume over half a litre of EU regulation-level absinthe in order to experience any impairment due to thujone.
At that point, the thujone is the least of your worries!
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Absinthe
Authentic absinthe is gluten-free, so those with a sensitivity to the protein can happily enjoy it. However, be mindful that cheaper absinthe often uses added flavourings and ingredients so there may be some exceptions.
Additionally, wormwood is occasionally used to treat Crohn’s disease as well as a kidney disorder called IgA nephropathy.
Otherwise, a typical shot of absinthe contains about 103 calories and no carbohydrates. Just remember not to use the sugar cube if you’re watching your weight!
Now that you have read our introduction to absinthe, why don’t you learn more about the elusive green fairy?