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Does Absinthe Cause Hallucinations?

Updated on May 22, 2013
Absinthe
Absinthe | Source

Does Absinthe Really Cause Crazed Hallucinations?

Over the years, absinthe has gained a poor reputation paired with several horrific accusations that it causes crazed hallucinations and violent behaviors in all of those who consume it. This alcoholic beverage was even banned for the thought and speculation that it causes normal men to go mad, to act out violently, killing women and children. It has been said to turn men into lunatics, women in martyrs, and children into degenerates. Many also claimed and believed that absinthe was solely responsible for its users to suffer from epileptic fits, hallucinations, violence, anger, even emotional and physical dependence. The use of absinthe has been very controversial because of the many effects that have been unknown and emphasized for decades (even by some of the most famous and creative peoples in history), but if one thing is for certain it is that today absinthe does not cause hallucinations and it certainly does not cause its users to “go mad” (at least no more than they would if they were not under the influence). Absinthe is a beverage that contains an unusually high alcohol content and holds a unique history, medicinal properties, has caused grand speculation, bans, abuse, and has even been reintroduced into society today.

The History of Absinthe

Absinthe has a very unique and long history that dates back before time itself. Even though the origin of absinthe is unclear, it is believed that the ancients Greeks would soak wormwood leaves in alcohol to be used as a remedy for medicinal purposes. The presence of wormwood leaves soaked in alcohol is believed to date back to around 1550 BC, but it wasn't until the 18th century that clear evidence arose to suggest that absinthe was being produced, distributed and consumed.

According to legend, absinthe was created in the 18th century by a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire who created the first and original recipe for absinthe meant to be used as a patent remedy (a medicine that is promoted through advertising). Some say, that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire passed on his original absinthe recipe to the Henriod sisters, and the sisters then took Dr. Ordinaire's recipe, produced and sold the absinthe as a medicinal elixir, while others speculate that the Henriod sisters were distributing the elixir far before Dr. Orinarire came onto the absinthe scene. However the Henriod sisters came to attain the elixir mixture, it was ultimately acquired by a man named, Major Dubied. Major Dubied and his son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the very first absinthe distillery in Couvet, Switzerland and named it Dubied Pere et Fils in 1797. The second distillery the pair opened was in Pontarlier, France and was named Pernod Fils. The brand Pernod Fils became one of the most popular brands of absinthe, and absinthe soon exploded onto the market becoming one of the most popular beverages of choice amongst the general public (that is until it was banned in the early 1900s).

Alcohol consumption has always held the hearts of many Frenchmen, therefore, France has had a long history in the production, distribution, and exportation of absinthe, and this obsession grew steadily throughout the 1840s. During this time France was providing its military troops with absinthe in hopes to prevent malaria. When these troops returned home, they brought their taste and fascination for the alcoholic beverage with them. The consumption of absinthe gradually became very popular amongst the public, and soon enough, bars, bistros and even cafes were distributing and selling absinthe to the local community. Absinthe became very popular in all social circles, from the extremely wealthy, to the poor artists as well as the working class citizens. Five o'clock in the evening even became the “the green hour” which is comparable to “happy hour” today (but with green absinthe instead of pink cosmopolitans). By 1880, absinthe became so popular and so many were consuming this product, that the price dropped significantly, and the French alone were consuming 36 million liters of absinthe annually (and was even catching up to the wine production which was being consumed at 5 billion liters annually). The absinthe craze eventually made its way out of France and embarked on its way into the lives of those around the globe.

In the late 1800's absinthe was exported mainly from Switzerland and France because of the popularity absinthe had in those two countries. Absinthe continued to attain popularity and was being imported into other countries such as Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, The United States, and The Czech Republic. The United States was a very prominent buyer in the absinthe market, and New Orleans in particular had a very profound social and cultural association with absinthe. In 1874 a very popular absinthe bar was opened by Cayetano Ferrer (a Catalan bartender) called The Old Absinthe House Bar (or formally known as The Absinthe Room). Many creative writers, artists and musicians drank absinthe at The Old Absinthe House Bar late into the night, such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Frank Sinatra, and even Franklin Roosevelt. Absinthe soon became so popular amongst those who resided in New Orleans that it was deemed the birthplace of the very first absinthe cocktail, the Sazerac. Even with all of the popularity that absinthe created for itself as an alcoholic beverage, it still gained a very poor reputation and was ultimately banned from several countries while creating negative propaganda to ensure that citizens avoid drinking absinthe altogether.

Absinthes popularity grew very quickly and many people were distributing, selling, and exporting absinthe while others were buying and consuming absinthe regularly. This craze was shortly followed by a backlash and absinthe was ultimately banned in several countries around the world. With combined efforts by the winemakers association and the temperance movement there was a ban put on absinthe so that no person could produce, sell, nor consume absinthe under penalty of law. The very first country that banned absinthe was the Colony of the Congo free state in 1898. Belgium and Brazil were also some of the first few countries to ban the production and distribution of absinthe in 1906. Between the years of 1909 and 1914 the Netherlands, Switzerland, The United States, and France all banned the production and distribution of absinthe. These bans were solely based on the assumption that drinking absinthe made men crazy, causing hallucinations that then made people act out in anger, becoming violent. It was claimed that absinthe was responsible for violent crimes and major social disorders. It was also said to ruin and disorganize families and even threatened the strength of countries. It was claimed that absinthe caused illicit behavior as well as dependency, and many companies (mostly jealous wine makers) were claiming that wormwood, one of the main active ingredients in absinthe, was responsible for the hallucinations that were turning the average man into a crazed lunatic. It was claimed that absinthe did not only cause people to go crazy and become violent, but was also dangerous for human consumption due to one of the active ingredients called wormwood (artemisia absinthium).

How is Absinthe Made?

Traditional absinthe has several components (or ingredients) that are mixed with alcohol; these components are anise, fennel, and wormwood (some recipes even add herbs and flowers to the mixture for different flavorings). After the fennel, anise, and wormwood are soaked in alcohol, the mixture is then distilled (the process in which the herbal oils and alcohol are evaporated from the water and the bitter essences are released by the herbs) these herbs are then condensed with the alcohol in a cooling area and the distiller dilutes the resulting liquid down to the specific proof desired. Absinthe is clear until extra herbs are added to the distilled mixture to retain the classic green color (the green color comes from the chlorophyll found in the added herbs). Many critics say that wormwood, while not solely responsible, is the component of absinthe that causes hallucinations when consumed, but none of the ingredients in absinthe is a hallucinogenic drug (or herb), therefore drinking absinthe will not make you hallucinate (even though some speculate otherwise).

How is Absinthe Served?

Source
  1. Fill the reservoir of the glass with absinthe (or about 1/3 to 1/5 absinthe of the volume).
  2. Place an absinthe spoon and a sugar cube on top of the glass.
  3. Slowly drip ice water through the sugar until it dissolves completely. A green line will form at the top. As this line forms it is common to sample the absinthe by drinking off this green line to get the full impact of the absinthe's qualities before the drink is fully diluted.
  4. The drink louches (turns white; this is due to the oils being soluble in alcohol but not in water) and new flavors come out.

What are the Effects of Wormwood?

Wormwood contains a chemical that has been responsible for the negative stigma absinthe has gained over time, this chemical is called thujone (thoo-jone). Thujone is toxic when consumed in large quantities. This chemical is a Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) inhibitor, meaning thujone blocks GABA receptors in the brain causing negative health effects. If enough thujone is ingested into the human body it can cause seizure disorders including epilepsy, and also cause muscle breakdown, kidney failure, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, vomiting, stomach cramps, dizziness, tremors, numbness of the limps, paralysis, and even death. Even though thujone is known to be toxic for the human body, there is not enough thujone in absinthe because of the little amount of wormwood that absinthe contains (also because absinthe is meant to be diluted before consumption). Since the amount of wormwood is so little and since a lot of the thujone is lost in the distillation process, there is not enough thujone in absinthe to cause any negative effects to the human body, and therefore cannot cause hallucinations and nightmares, and certainly could not cause the average man to become a violent and crazy person.

Even though wormwood contains thujone, it contains a low amount that is not harmful for human consumption and wormwood was believed to have several medicinal properties that was believed to have a powerful effect on both the body and the mind. The love people had for absinthe never ceased when it was banned in the early 1900s. People began to try to recreate the recipe, hoping to be able to make their own illegally so one would still be able to enjoy a glass of absinthe at the end of the day. This caused people to add an amount of wormwood to the mixture that was unsafe, causing negative side effects. When absinthe is not mass produced and does not have the exact combination of wormwood, alcohol, fennel, and anise, it is extremely dangerous to consume (just as it would be if one purchased any other drug or moonshine from some man in an alley or for a teenager to try to make illicit drugs themselves in their mothers basement). Since people were trying to recreate the original recipe for absinthe, they began to make themselves sick, causing negative health effects on those whom consumed it. When absinthe is mass produced, mixed and distilled properly, it is no dangerous than that of regular alcohol (and should always be consumed with responsibility) but since it was being abused and made illegally and improperly, absinthe usage began to cause controversy and grand speculation that absinthe users suffered from hallucinations and fits of anger.

Viktor Oliva: The Absinthe Drinker. The original painting can be found in the Café Slavia in Prague.
Viktor Oliva: The Absinthe Drinker. The original painting can be found in the Café Slavia in Prague. | Source

What are the Urban Legends Surrounded by Absinthe?

There have been many accusations and urban legends created to sway people into believing that absinthe causes hallucinations and violent behavior so people will not desire it, and will not produce nor consume it. It was said that in 1905 a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray drank absinthe, went mad and violently murdered his family, then attempted to take his own life. What was not told about this story was that Lanfray drank himself into a stupor by drinking high quantities of wine and brandy since he woke that morning and murdered his family late that evening after chasing his wine and brandy with a few glasses of absinthe. Many also claimed that Van Gogh cut off his ear while he was under the influence of absinthe, but others suggest that Van Gogh had other psychological issues that were to blame for the loss of his ear. It was said that many famous writers such as Oscar Wilde wrote about fantasies and visions while under the influence of absinthe. It was not considered that famous writers would use their creative license to emphasize emotions and senses so that the reader can see an image in their minds to be entertained by the writing that is being read. It is also widely known that creative people that are involved in the arts (as a profession) have preexisting and underlying mental issues before consuming any substance, therefore, substances only amplify these psychological issues (and could be why absinthe has had a larger effect on these people). It is also widely known that certain famous creative people such as, Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde were also dependent on alcohol use in order to spark inspiration. Due to this large alcohol consumption these people began to experience negative effects of insomnia and alcohol withdrawal which both cause hallucinations. So absinthe was not responsible for the actions of these people, they were experiencing hallucinations and muses through a large alcohol consumption (and underlying psychological issues).

What are the Effects of Absinthe?

The effect of well-made absinthe varies from person to person, depending on ones tolerance, but typically absinthe has a similar effect as that of a “buzz” similar to tequila. Many describe it as being a heightened clarity of mind and vision with the warming effects of alcohol. Absinthe is 55 to 72 percent alcohol and because of the clarity of ones mind and vision (due to the wormwood) one can easily drink too much, believing one is not drunk, when in reality one is past the drunk stage and rounding onto the black out point.

What are the Effects of Alcohol?

When one tips back a glass, alcohol splashes against the back of ones throat, burning and warming its way down into ones stomach, making one feel warm, cozy, and comforted. Alcohol loves and embraces those whom invite it into their lives. Alcohol makes one feel whole and complete. Alcohol allows ones stress to be washed away and permits one to unwind and relax. When one consumes alcohol the minutes tick, the hours fly, the next day sneaks up, pops up and becomes a surprise. In moderation alcohol allows one to enjoy life and become comforted, but alcohol can easily turn into a demon clawing at ones back dragging one down into the depths of destruction, agony, and addiction.

Does Absinthe Really Cause Crazed Hallucinations?

When one consumes alcohol for a long period of time, one can grow a dependence, creating a long term addiction to alcohol. Prolonged alcohol consumption can cause many ill effects to ones physical and mental health. Alcohol is a stimulant and long term consumption can cause insomnia and eventually withdrawal. The consumption of alcohol is known to cause insomnia, in both short term or long term users. People who drink are known to become stimulated, which causes one to stay awake for long periods of time, causing the inability to sleep. Insomnia causes many issues, one being hallucinations of all senses. Alcohol withdrawal also causes hallucinations, as well as irritability and frustration. One who is dependent upon alcohol can begin withdrawal as little as two hours after ones last drink. If one can become addicted and grow a dependency to alcohol creating withdrawal symptoms and insomnia, and since absinthe has a very high alcohol content (and even claimed to be addictive) one could safely assume that absinthe could also cause withdrawal symptoms and insomnia. With the high alcohol content that absinthe contains, one experiences hallucinations, not from the wormwood (and thujone) but because of the dependency in which one creates for themselves due to the constant consumption of the very high alcohol content.

It wasn't until the 1990s that people began to disprove these wild accusations and began to reinstate absinthe back into the general community for legal consumption. Absinthe first began to reappear when it was noticed that several countries, like, Spain, Portugal, The UK and The Czech Republic never banned the production of absinthe (and was never as popular as it was in the countries that did ban it). A British importer began to export absinthe into the Czech Republic which sparked the modern day revival of absinthes past popularity. In 2000, France finally lifted the 1914 ban on absinthe and reinstated the production and distribution of the popular green alcoholic beverage to the public once again. Between the years of 2004 and 2007 absinthe was once again revived in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and even in the United States. Today absinthe is once again being produced, exported and imported around the world, and there are many spirit brands that are regaining popularity amongst the public.

So does absinthe really cause crazed hallucinations in those whom consume it? No. The original absinthe recipe has been lost, propaganda has destroyed its reputation, and creative peoples have not only emphasized its effects to evoke and instill imagination, emotion, and senses in their audience, but have also grown a dependence to alcohol causing insomnia and withdrawal, which then provokes mental illness and hallucinations. Absinthe alone does not cause one to go mad, kill their families, and destroy lives when used in moderation (just as one should with any alcoholic beverage), but causes one to relax, open their mind, broaden their horizons, and spark imagination. Today the absinthe ban has been lifted in many countries and the production of absinthe has continued. So, it is possible to sip a glass of green absinthe at five o'clock without the fear that one may go insane and become violent, hurting or even killing those close to them. Eventually the absinthe stigma will fade, but the green liquid will continue to warm the throats and stomachs of many, keeping the mind clear and the body relaxed.

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    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 4 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Very interesting and informative hub! I never knew anything about this other than the stories that fly around about it! Thank you so much for the detailed explanation! Up++!