Ah, the storied “Green Fairy,” absinthe. But can she really make you fly?
As you may or may not have heard—depending on how invested you’ve been in the recently lifted absinthe ban—absinthe has long had a bad (or good, depending on your habits) reputation for causing hallucinations. It was even considered to be a source of creative inspiration for artists like Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, a famous absinthe devotee who (no surprise) had some pretty bitterly incisive stuff to say about his favorite drink.*
And then a very big, very damning incident occurred in 1905, when a Swiss vineyard worker named Jean Lanfray actually murdered his entire family, presumably under the influence of absinthe’s hallucinogenic powers. While Lanfray had consumed two glasses of absinthe that day, he’d actually been drinking all manner of alcohol all morning (and the previous days). But for a variety of reasons—including some interest from wine producers, who were losing ground to the stuff—absinthe was blamed, causing widespread moral outrage and, eventually, a ban.
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It wasn’t hard to blame absinthe, since it was (and remains) extremely strong and had a potion-like mixture of herbs and spices at its base (unlike trustworthy wine, which has never caused any problems, right?). See, absinthe is flavored with anise, fennel, and wormwood. The story goes (or went) that the thujone in wormwood could cause hallucinations (and, presumably, homicidal rage). It’s now known that while thujone can mess with your head—it can actually block GABA receptors and cause convulsions when taken in quantity—it does not cause hallucinations. Not only that, but you’d have to drink so much high-ABV absinthe to get any kind of significant quantity of thujone in your system that you’d actually die of alcohol poisoning before thujone had a chance to mess with your head.
So the myths about hallucination are just that, myths, perpetrated a bit of wishful romantic thinking, a terrible tragedy, some very poorly (and dangerously) made imitation absinthe, and the commercial interests of a wine industry looking to take down the spirits competition. Dramatic, yes. But if you’re looking to “see the music,” you’ll have to look elsewhere.
A few things about absinthe:
Like Ouzo, absinthe should turn milky opaque when diluted with water, thanks to the presence of anise oil.
Since the ban of absinthe was lifted, many authentic (as in wormwood-containing) absinthe’s have been available in the U.S.
Marilyn Manson is a huge absinthe devotee, and even has his own (award-winning) brand, aptly named “Mansinthe.”
* “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde