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Absinthe: The Truth Behind the Myth

Updated on February 15, 2014
Absinthe, or the Green Fairy, has been the subject of much speculation.
Absinthe, or the Green Fairy, has been the subject of much speculation.

What is Absinthe?

Before we can understand if absinthe is all its cracked up to be, we must understand what it is at its core. Absinthe is a strong liquor (composed of up to 85% ethanol) that was created using a number of herbs, the most abundant of which was wormwood and Roman wormwood. The chlorophyll in the herbs used turned the drink its characteristic green as well as its almost impalpably bitter taste which generally had to be diluted with water and sugar (making it turn into an opaque white.)

The Origins and Mythology of Absinthe

The origins of absinthe are up to much debate. Although it was most popular toward the end of the 1800's (and in some places into the 1900s) its invention came much sooner. There are some debatable reports that Absinthe in its modern form may have appeared in the Neuchatel region earlier than the 1750's. However the main ingredients of absinthe, wormwood and ethanol, have been known to mankind for thousands of years so it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to assume the drink may have been invented, lost, and reinvented many times.

The word absinthe is French in origin where it was most popular in the 1800's. It was served in cafes and was priced anywhere from 3-10 cents depending on the clientele. There is some evidence that the customers of the drink got what they paid for as some distilleries were known to skip the second distillation process or dye the drink green with copper or other additives when the regular processes failed.

Still the drink became much in vogue to writers and artists at the time who testified the drink caused either a mental clarity or more expected effects like euphoria, hallucinations, or numbness to pain. Today there is some controversy over whether or not the drink was actually capable of producing these effects or whether or not the testimony of patrons was propaganda or social conditioning (placebo effect.)

Wormwood Plant - vital for the creation of absinthe.
Wormwood Plant - vital for the creation of absinthe.

Ingrediants and their Effects

The most abundant chemical found in absinthe is the Ethanol (60-85%) which packs quite the punch. This could go towards explaining the pain killing and euphoric symptoms as well as some of the psychoactive side effects.

Two different kinds of wormwood were commonly used in the making of the drink. Wormwood was probably originally used to rid people of parasitic infestations (including but not limited to worms.) This makes sense as wormwood is actually a form of poison. People ingested the roots of the plant would be eating just enough poison to be killing bugs without killing themselves. In larger quantities it is theorized that thujone (or some other chemical component of wormwood) could be responsible for some of the side effects of absinthe. Research however is sparing and has no conclusive answer. It is hypothesized that chronic absinthe drinking did indeed cause "absinthism" - a syndrome of epileptic attacks, delirium, hallucinations, and addiction. It is known that thurjone fed to mice does accumulate in the body and cause these very same symptoms. This is one of the hypothesized causes of Van Gogh (and others) strange mental and physical ailments and artistic creations.

Other ingredients in Absinthe (particularly calamus and nutmeg) could also cause hallucinations in strong enough dosages but there is even more controversy that any of them could be found in strong enough concentrations.

Legality and State of Absinthe Today

Absinthe was made illegal in the US in 1912 and was banned in many other countries, including France, around the same time. However it has been making a comeback in countries like Spain and France (which legalized it again.) However there is much debate over the state of the drink. Most claim that due to safety laws the drink is not currently as potent as its predecessors. Research on the compounds within it is still lacking and the answers so many pursue may never be found. 

The drinking of too much absinthe over time could result in absinthism - a condition that may have distorted vision and cause these characteristic paintings.
The drinking of too much absinthe over time could result in absinthism - a condition that may have distorted vision and cause these characteristic paintings.

In Conclusion

Due to the unknown nature of manufacturing processes at the time we may never know if absinthe was as strong as people claimed. The effects testified upon may have been reactions to various contaminants like the copper sulfate, cupric acetate indigo, turmeric, and aniline green used to make cheaper or botched batches of the drink green. Another unknown is the amount of congeners (contaminants normally found in alcohol) absinthe contained and what their effects may have been. Yet another unknown is whether or not any of the ingredients need to be ingested together to cause various effects as no tandem research has been done whatsoever. All and all it's a sticky story and unless one could construct a time machine and try it out for themselves the controversy surrounding this green liquor will likely continue.

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    • Isabella Snow profile image

      Isabella Snow 9 years ago

      This stuff is on every corner and I still have yet to try it! Interesting hub!

    • profile image

      Adrienne Suzanne 9 years ago

      Great hub. I'm a big fan of the stuff myself. I've spent many crazy nights with the green fairy.

    • profile image

      marg-in-tx 9 years ago

      very informative - but the misspelling of 'it's' throughout the article drove me to absinthism!

    • mndheather profile image

      mndheather 9 years ago from India

      very informative, good post, never heard about the word but overal it has given me some input, what it is.

      http://www.jasfy.com

    • profile image

      jon smith 8 years ago

      i recently went snowboarding in the town of Dyllon, CO and went to get beer and found out they had bottles of 'Leopold Bros.' Absinthe Verte. for 70$. had roman wormwood the real deal google it. owner tells me it's slowly becoming legal in the states. : ) good ^ learned a lot!

    • profile image

      flavores 8 years ago

      I'm a medical doctor and neuroscientist, and I have a website about food science, with an article about the truth behind absinthe...enjoy it!

      http://www.flavores.com.ar/2009/01/14/ciencia-detr...

      ...enjoy it!

    • J  Rosewater profile image

      J Rosewater 7 years ago from Australia

      I found the spelling to be quite correct. There are two ways to spell its.

      1. its = belonging to it

      2. it's = it is

      I have found this author has used it correctly on the whole.

    • profile image

      newsisnews 7 years ago

      anyone interested in blowing their minds on drinks with scant history and little new information regarding as to how it affects us long term - needs their brain examined-

      now what about the word(s) a lot

      learn -please do learn a lot is not one word- such as a lot

      no such word- pay attention in English class, look up words when you are reading-- so you actually learn how to spell, and learn of the differing opions about subjects, what in the world has happened to the English language,

      France, U.K, Spain for the most part, know more about how to spell with respect to the English Language, than ( not then) North Americans

      do you know how to use effect in a sentence, vs. affect?

      did you know that when you are trying to say you are, but decide to short form it, you don't write your, you write

      you're as in you are, your is a word used as in your car, your homework---do it please- you're really making N. Americans looks foolish, uneducated and overall pretty stupid when it comes to the English language!

    • yenajeon profile image

      yenajeon 7 years ago from California

      One of my sorority sisters nickname is absinthe. I'll definitely show this to her! Great read =)

    • DixieMockingbird profile image

      DixieMockingbird 7 years ago from East Tennessee

      Thanks for this - love the stuff myself!

    • jrcemail profile image

      jrcemail 7 years ago

      I always wondered how this stuff tastes like.

    • profile image

      boho394 7 years ago

      My mom just bought a bottle of this stuff and I'm trying to figure out what its (and yes, I used this word correctly) effects (yup, that one too) actually are. I had no idea there was such speculation! Now I'm really intrigued to see for myself.

      As for the spelling of it's vs. its, the author of this hub only used it incorrectly in the very last sentence. As much of a grammar Nazi as I am personally, people need to stop being so pretentious about it. This is the internet!

    • profile image

      bill jomes 6 years ago

      i and many friends have had a great time with absinthe,we have sampled many kinds ,i find if you do shots w/lime /water /suger its better than the 2oz of absinthe and 3ozs of water and suger,the buss is clear and little to no hangover dont mix to many types of aclcoholic drinks,its ok w/beer my brother in law had 3 shots and 4-5 beers and started the "i love you man stuff" but we have just started w/the absinthe more fun times ahead.

    • cathylynn99 profile image

      cathylynn99 6 years ago from northeastern US

      fascinating article, especially about van gogh. the wormwood ingredient sounds like it must contain something like the chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms. people have claimed they got insight from taking LSD, peyote, and similar compounds for eons. so much so that they are used in religious rituals.

    • profile image

      DavidLivingston 6 years ago

      Very interesting. Good hub to read.

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 6 years ago

      Great article. Very informativee, love the pics, love your style of writing. Thank you for the wonderful Hub

    • BarsAndBartending profile image

      BarsAndBartending 6 years ago

      Really good article. I never had a chance to try it as it is illegal in my province in Canada. However, I now live in Taiwan and everything is legal here. That stuff will put you on your arse. Lovin it!

    • celeBritys4africA profile image

      celeBritys4africA 6 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      One vote up.

    • John Fremont profile image

      John Fremont 6 years ago from Bend, OR

      This spirit is making a comeback with the micro distilling community as well. OI was in Portland a few months ago and one of the small tasting rooms on the east side (Integrity) was offering samples of their Trillium absinthe. I seem to recall the owner told me that there was some wormwood in the mix.

    • profile image

      Larry 5 years ago

      It sells in Montreal Canada. I saw one brand Mythic Absynthe. It had all the classic ingrediamtx

    • profile image

      Mike Hill 5 years ago

      I suggest doing psilocybin at high doses if you want to hallucinate

    • Theophanes profile image
      Author

      Theophanes 5 years ago from New England

      Thank you newsisnews for correcting mistakes that have appeared in some other article. I read this whole thing and found none of the words you were complaining about... Makes me wonder what you've been drinking but cheers anyway!

    • DearBandit profile image

      DearBandit 5 years ago

      We have Absynthe in Toronto Canada, and I have tried it, and I did not like the taste at all. If I ever get the courage to try it again, maybe and I do not think I will, but I would try it with lime.

      ""find if you do shots w/lime /water /suger its better than the 2oz of absinthe and 3ozs of water and suger""

      Voted up!

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