Though absinthe contains the molecule thujone, which supposedly accounts for its alleged mind-altering properties, it does so in minuscule proportions barely detectable in real-life party situations. It does, however, contain between 45% and 75% of pure alcohol. So when the delirium hits, as it undoubtedly will, you will be too drunk to tell whether you were hallucinating or just seeing triple.
This fantastical reputation does have some roots in history, but perhaps for reasons less mystical than one would hope. Despite its frightening fluorescent glow and its supernatural reputation, absinthe’s main ingredients are surprisingly natural. Derived largely from the flowers and leaves of Artemisiaabsinthium (an herb commonly referred to as “grande wormwood”), absinthe is infused with lemon balm, sweet fennel, and green anise. It’s the licorice and tarragon qualities of the green anise that give absinthe its distinctive biting taste and powerful aroma.
Due to its forceful flavor, absinthe is best diluted, or even poured over a cube of sugar. It is a spirit often considered too strong to be consumed by itself. A shot of absinthe can literally burn the back of your throat and sting like a bee when it travels down your esophagus – not a drink for the faint of heart.
Absinthe became a popular European spirit in the late 19th century, most notably in France, though it originated in Switzerland. When the continent went through a slight shortage of wine in the early 20th century (egad!), people turned to absinthe in greater numbers. It soon became a global phenomenon and the drink of choice among European aristocracy. The late 1800s brought with them the “Absinthe Power Hour” -- an ‘hour’ of spirited intoxication that began at 5pm and continued well into the next day. As it grew in popularity, absinthe became increasingly associated with arts and culture, and by the end of the century had become the unofficial spirit of Bohemia.
As the celebrated beverage of the Bohemian bourgeoisie, absinthe acquired a mystical reputation as the artist’s muse. Rumours spread about artists having strokes of creative genius while under its influence, and many aspiring and established European artists began to use absinthe for inspiration. Famous drinkers include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, the French poet Baudelaire, and the quintessential Bohemian, Pablo Picasso.
What probably began as an isolated stroke of genius by a drunk Bohemian quickly developed into a self-perpetuating cycle. Since absinthe was rumoured to aid creativity, it was consumed by those that valued creativity, namely artists, who then produced masterpieces, thereby (falsely) cementing absinthe as the liquid green muse.
The most famous of the boozy geniuses was Vincent Van Gogh, whose paintings are not only among the most revered in the world, but who is also iconic for cutting off his own ear. Fueled by stories surrounding absinthe’s mystical effects, many began to wonder if it was not the spirit that was responsible for his episode of insanity.
Undoubtedly, Van Gogh was not in the best state of mind when he cut off his ear, but researchers have long suspected that the artist’s erratic behavior may have had more to do with the drastic and continuous damage of the nervous system disintegration caused by the consumption of absinthe than with its hallucinogenic properties. As it turns out, absinthe really should never have been drank straight: when consumed undiluted, it becomes poisonous to the central nervous system and can lead to serious health complications, and even insanity.
Nowadays, it is safely diluted and no more poisonous than those vodka sodas you guzzled at the bar last night. So go ahead, take a ride with the Green Fairy.