The Truth about Absinthe, the World's Most Notorious Spirit

The green fairy has a terrible reputation. But is it all just a bad rap?

In its heyday, absinthe earned a reputation for driving artists and poets and assorted tortured souls to soaring fits of nonsensical irrationality. Exhibit A, of course, being Vincent van Gogh's loopy night of earlobe loppery.

As the story goes, it was Christmas eve in Arles, 1890, when van Gogh, always the romantic, gifted his severed earlobe to a pretty woman at the local brothel. She opened the box, saw the ear, and toppled over into a cold passed-out heap. "Unlucky in love" is the technical term.

Vincent van Gogh, Selfie | Vincent van Gogh, via Wikimedia Commons.

To be fair to absinthe, van Gogh was already struggling with psychiatric illness, including hallucinations that prompted him to cut off his ear even without help from "the green fairy." Absinthe, though, could not have helped. And certainly there were other artists who were emotionally undressed by absinthe. Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, and poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud.

Many of these artists did their absinthe drinking in France. Which makes sense in that France seems an arty place, but in another sense is odd because...shouldn't they have been drinking wine? Or brandy? Well, maybe. Except that the absinthe trend took off when France's vineyards were being decimated by a tiny insect (phylloxera) accidentally imported from...oops...America.

With the French wine industry in les toilettes, more and more French folks turned to absinthe — and enthusiastically enough to cause alarm. For the resulting intense drunkenness, authorities blamed wormwood, an ingredient in absinthe (wrongly) thought to produce hallucinations and psychotic episodes. The more likely culprit? The sheer alcoholic strength of absinthe. Back then, it weighed in anywhere between a very hot 120-proof and an astoundingly hot 180-proof. This level of toxicity, particularly for someone used to drinking relatively low-alcohol wine, would have made for some interesting times out on the town.

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva
The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva, via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, in 1915, the French had had enough. They outlawed it. Meanwhile, the United States had already gotten the jump on absinthe, outlawing it back in 1912. It would not be legal to drink absinthe again in the United States until 2007.

Today's absinthe doesn't blaze quite as ferociously as yesterday's, but with a proof between 90 and 148 it's still brain-rattlingly strong. Which could explain why many of the best absinthe cocktails call for just a minuscule amount of the green stuff and direct you to swirl it around in the glass and then toss it. Consumed like this, it adds essence, perfume; it's delicious, not overpowering, and a bottle can last for many, many years.

Ready for more? Try your luck with these Essential Absinthe Cocktails.


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