Reality or reputation: What is Absinthe?
Although many people assume absinthe is a liqueur, it's actually a liquor, or distilled spirit, made from a number of herbs, including fennel, anise, and the most well-known ingredient, wormwood. Wormwood contains a chemical substance called thujone, which is responsible for absinthe's reputation.
Absinthe begins life as an alcohol base, roughly 97% pure, which is diluted with water to 85% strength. The herbs are crushed and added to the alcohol, which then is allowed to macerate, or steep, overnight, before the alcohol is again distilled. After distillation, herbs are again added in order to give the final product its traditional green coloring.
Nicknamed la Fee Verte, or the Green Fairy, absinthe was originally marketed as a medicinal tonic, but it soon moved to the bars and bistros of France. It was adopted as the drink of choice by many of the most famous artists and writers of the mid to late 1800s, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Allen Poe. Absinthe appears in paintings by Van Gogh.
Even as absinthe became more popular, public outcry against it grew. Undiluted, absinthe is 70-80% alcohol, far above most distilled spirits. And thanks to the thujone from the wormwood, it was believed to cause seizures, hallucations, and just plain old-fashioned odd behavior, if not outright insanity.
Fact and fiction mingled in stories about horrific actions taken by absinthe drinkers. One wildly popular story was that Van Gogh was drinking absinthe when he cut off his ear as a gift to a favored prostitute. The ear cutting was true, but the influence of absinthe was at best tenuous.
The height of hysteria probably occured after a 1905 mass murder committed by Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer. Lanfray slaughtered his entire family, and the news spread quickly that he had killed after drinking just two glasses of absinthe. The story left out the tiny detail that Lanfray, unstable to begin with, had also consumed 5 bottles of wine, a number of glasses of cognac, some creme-de-menthe, and topped it off with a dose of brandy in his coffee. (The only part of the story that should be a surprise is that Lanfray was able to stand up long enough to commit the crime.)
Accurate or not, the stories fueled public outrage, and laws banning absinthe soon were widely passed in Europe. The U.S. followed suit, banning absinthe in 1912. Although for the most part, distillers could still make absinthe, they couldn't sell it, and most gave up production. Only a few small producers survived, and absinthe largely disappeared from view, becoming a curiosity with a small cult following.
Absinthe began making a comeback in the 1990s. A savvy importer noted that the liquor had never been banned in the U.K., and found a Czech distiller to begin production. It also was legal in Spain and Portugal, and their New World colonies, where it had remained popular. The European Union has established regulations on thujone content, allowing the sale of absinthe again.
The U.S. has always had a bit of a gray area concerning absinthe. The sale of absinthe was disallowed, as was the importation, but the ban didn't appear to extend to the possession of absinthe. Travelers returning from Europe were easily able to bring in a bottle or two for personal use.
There was also a loophole in the distribution laws. The ban actually only applied to absinthe containing more than 10mg of thujone per liter, and in recent years, new absinthes have been approved for distillation and sale in the U.S. It's no longer necessary to plan an overseas vacation to indulge; absinthe is easily available in most larger liquor stores.
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