Food & Culture

Three Myths and Three Truths of Absinthe

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You've seen it in "Moulin Rouge." You've seen it in your local goth's fan-fiction. And the Toulouse-Lautrec fanatics among you are only too familiar with it. Absinthe is probably the most mysterious, myth-shrouded spirit out there — so much so that you might think that modern absinthe is only a pale imitation of the real stuff. But how much of the legends are true? Simultaneously less than you might think, and more than you might expect.

The Myths

Absinthe is a bright-green liquor with a powerfully sweet licorice-esque flavor. There are also a ton of legends swirling around it. Why not start by clearing away some of the falsehoods?

1. Absinthe is illegal. Here's one that's easy to disprove — all you have to do is go to the liquor store. Absinthe was officially legalized in 2007, although you might sometimes hear a scornful voice claiming that the stuff you get these days isn't real absinthe.

2. Modern absinthe isn't "real" absinthe. Actually, according to expert Ted Breaux, we're living in a golden age of the green stuff. "A few exceptions aside, the quality and authenticity of absinthes found in the U.S. market is very good," he told Liquor.com.

3. Absinthe is hallucinogenic. This is the one that disappointed us the most. Absinthe isn't really hallucinogenic at all — it's just a particularly powerful spirit (usually between 90 and 148 proof). The people who reported having strange visions or experiencing lasting medical problems as a result of absinthe weren't making it up, though. It's just that the culprit was sloppy distillation techniques, just like how improperly brewed moonshine can cause blindness and neurological disorders.

The Real Deal

So those are all the legends of absinthe that make it seem mysterious and appealing. And they're all false. Well, fear not — absinthe really is bizarre and full of contradictions. Here's a list of weird, true things about absinthe. Bottoms up!

1. Absinthe (the word) was illegal when absinthe (the drink) wasn't. If you're a Curiosity podcast listener, you might have caught Cody talking with self-taught distiller Bryan Davis. He had a lot to say on the topic. "Well, they made absinthe illegal, but they never actually defined what 'absinthe' is," he told us. That ban went down in 1912, but another law popped up in the '80s that would determine the whole case. A new set of regulations set the standards for how much thujone (more on what that is in a minute) was allowed in food — and absinthe was well under the limit. The result was that from the '80s until 2007, two identical spirits would have different legal status if one claimed to be absinthe and the other didn't.

2. Absinthe is made of toxic wormwood. Absinthe is made from grande wormwood (AKA Artemisia absinthium), which lends it a minuscule amount of thujone, a neurotoxin that is often blamed for absinthe's most notorious effects. The only thing is, there's not much evidence that old-fashioned absinthe had substantially more thujone than its modern descendants. So while today's absinthe openly holds itself to a certain standard of not-being-deadly-poison, it's probably not really any less dangerous than the old stuff.

3. Absinthe is the drink of artists. We're certainly not saying that you need absinthe to be a creative type. But the list of influential artists with a casual (or serious) absinthe habit is a mile long. We already mentioned Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, whose most famous pieces tend to have a green bottle front-and-center. One of Edgar Degas' best-known pieces was L'Absinthe, but his work was more of a warning than a celebration. And then there was Vincent Van Gogh, whose decision to cut off his ear some ascribe to his absinthe habit.

Now that you know that you can still get the good stuff in the United States, it's time to start figuring out what to do with it. Pick up Kate Simon's "Absinthe Cocktails" for a suite of tongue-tingling recipes. If you make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale, which helps support the work that we do.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 14, 2017