Five Absinthe Myths Debunked

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Scared to meet the Green Fairy after a pour of absinthe? Don’t be. Though absinthe is the subject of many nicknames and stories, it’s essentially just an aromatic, high-proof alcohol that has been redistilled with plants and herbs including anise, common wormwood, and fennel.

With a little help from research scientist and absinthe expert Ted Breaux, we’ve compiled the five biggest myths about absinthe – and why they aren’t true.

1. Absinthe is hallucinogenic.

Despite the hype from Hollywood and some brands’ marketing campaigns, absinthe isn’t hallucinogenic. This misconception began in the 19th century when absinthe production wasn’t regulated. Since absinthe was so popular, some producers used industrial-grade non-potable alcohol and flavored it with commercial oil extracts, says Breaux.

Both the oils and the spirits were clear, so the color and clouding effects were artificially created with copper sulfate and antimony trichloride, respectively. When consumed regularly, this mixture could cause copper toxicity and antimony poisoning—both of which can cause hallucinations.

The low price point of the resulting product meant that it was mainly imbibed by the lower class. When the effects of long-term consumption kicked in, these individuals would be sent to sanitariums for their symptoms. Though millions of others drank unadulterated absinthe every day, accounts of hallucinations and violence were treated as being the case for any and all absinthe available. Since wormwood isn’t used in many other products, it was an easy target.

Fourteen years ago, Ted Breaux began testing samples of all the vintage and newly distilled absinthes he could find. Using gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer, Breaux and partners tested for any and all known hallucinogenic compounds. At the time, the reigning theory was that thujone, a naturally occurring compound in wormwood, caused hallucinations. After a thorough battery of tests, no hallucinogenic compounds were found in any significant amount in any of the absinthe.

2. Countries banned absinthe because it’s hallucinogenic.

Absinthe isn’t hallucinogenic, so why was it banned? Short answer: its popularity. As the most popular spirit in France at the time, it became a target for both the temperance movement and for producers of other spirits who feared for their sales. After decades of lobbying, absinthe was banned for its new status as the root of all societal problems.

3. Absinthe should be served with a flaming sugar cube.

As Breaux puts it, “You’ll never find any description, image, or painting from the past showing a flaming sugar cube.” This myth is a more recent concoction. In Eastern Europe, artificially green—or blue(ish)—colored vodkas were being marketed and sold as absinthe. Since these products don’t louche, they “had to create theatrics to hide it.”

4. Absinthe originated in Eastern Europe.

Despite the number of tourists flocking to Eastern Europe to drink whatever green liquid they could find, absinthe is originally Swiss. The historical record indicates that absinthe originated in this area around the turn of the 19th century. In fact, Switzerland and France combined to produce at least 95 percent of the world’s absinthe by the time it reached its peak popularity.

5. Real absinthe isn’t available within the US.

Since 2007, absinthe made with Artemisia absinthium, also known as grande wormwood, has been available legally within the US. Though thujone levels are closely regulated, the absinthe sold commercially is close to what you could get before the absinthe ban went into effect. After all, “the United States banned absinthe as more of a preventative measure than anything else,” says Breaux.

Hit the Lab

The Brain Duster has existed at different bars under various names throughout cocktail history.

The Brain Duster

1 dash Angostura bitters
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz absinthe
1 oz rye whiskey

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously for 20-25 seconds or until chilled through and diluted to taste. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.