In late August 1905, in the small village of Commugny, Switzerland, a man wept over three coffins containing the slain bodies of his pregnant wife and two small children. Who—or what—could have been responsible for such a horrific crime? Well, according to the grieving husband and father, “the absinthe made him do it.”
Leaping on Jean Lanfray‘s story, the press would dub the gruesome act “The Absinthe Murders”; and while it wouldn’t be the first time the spirit had been blamed for inciting fits of madness, coverage of the unspeakable crime would reach global circles. Spurred by support from slighted winemakers and the Temperance Movement, public outcry against absinthe would eventually lead to a series of targeted bans against the spirit—pay no mind that Lanfray was a rampant, violent alcoholic.
Absinthe may have gotten a bad rap, but you might be surprised to learn that the spirit didn’t always have such a terrible reputation. Learn more about the world’s most misunderstood spirit with these 5 facts.
1. Thujone is the compound responsible for absinthe’s dangerous reputation.
Traditional absinthe is made from a combination of anise, fennel, and wormwood—though various recipes include additional botanicals for flavor and color. These three ingredients are soaked in a neutral spirit and then distilled before being diluted down to the desired potency—usually a whopping 110 to 144 proof. To intensify the flavor and characteristic green color, the alcohol is commonly infused a second time before bottling. The process doesn’t sound so different from that of other distilled spirits—so why the fuss?
Well, wormwood naturally contains a chemical compound called thujone. Responsible for giving absinthe its signature bitter, menthol-like aroma, thujone is also credited for absinthe’s false reputation as a hallucinogenic. While thujone can be poisonous in concentrated amounts, the volume found in absinthe is so small that you would die of alcohol poisoning long before showing symptoms of thujone toxicity.
2. Absinthe used to be medicinal.
Like some other spirits, absinthe wasn’t always enjoyed for pleasure. Some of the earliest records of absinthe consumption come from ancient Egyptian cultures, which used the spirit to prevent malaria. This prescriptive purpose persisted even through 1844, when the bitter drink was given among daily rations to French legionnaires fighting in Algeria. It was believed to prevent malaria, as well as stave off fever and water dwelling bacteria.
At the time it could be combined with wine to improve the flavor, but as it begun to be drunk for pleasure, it would become more customary to serve it with a fountain of cool water dripped over a sugar cube—this is how it is still consumed today (when not served in a cocktail).
It’s ironic that the same spirit given as a health supplement for so many centuries would become the supposed cause of such ailments as hallucinations, seizures, and deviancy in later years.
3. Absinthe was once consumed by some of history’s most famous figures.
Prior to its ban in the early 1900s, absinthe was the drink of choice for the upper crust—including many names you might recognize. In fact, throughout the 1800s, the drink had begun to come into vogue thanks to popular endorsements from the likes of the famous artists, authors, playwrights, and poets known to imbibe in the stuff.
Naturally, as the popularity of the spirit grew, so too did the accounts of drunken delirium that have fueled the persisting mythos around absinthe. It also doesn’t help that some of these famous creatives were heavy consumers, falling into the collectively laid trap of blaming “the green fairy” for their troubles—and then writing and painting about it.
French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is just one of many creative geniuses of the time who lamented over his addiction to absinthe—which he frequently combined with laudanum and opium. In the poem “Poison” from his 1857 volume, The Flowers of Evil, he ranks absinthe over wine: “None of which equals the poison welling up in your eyes that show me my poor soul reversed, my dreams throng to drink at those green distorting pools.”
4. Absinthe is also nicknamed “The Green Fairy.”
Thanks to its perceived effects, reputation for inciting madness, and exquisite allure, absinthe gained the nickname “La Fee Verte” during its heyday in France, circa 1880s. The English translation? “The Green Fairy.”
Already a popular drink among the greatest creators of the time, absinthe and its mystique became a significant cultural influence throughout the period. “The Green Fairy” and the effects of the scandalous drink came to life as a focal point in a number of paintings and literary works.
Edouard Manet produced the first great absinthe painting, “The Absinthe Drinker,” which cast a somber woman sitting at the bar with a glass of the stuff, a vacant expression on her face. References to absinthe also appear in several of Ernest Hemingway‘s most famous writings, like Death In The Afternoon and For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Other artists took the motif of “The Green Fairy” more literally. In his painting, “Piják Absintu” (“Absinthe Drinker”), Viktor Oliva depicts a man falling victim to the tempting caresses of absinthe, shown in the form of an alluring and spritely green woman.
5. Absinthe was illegal in the US until 2007.
According to Distillery Trail, October 2007 saw new guidelines issued from the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The dictate legalized absinthe so long as it was “thujone free,” defined by the TTB as “containing less than 10 parts per million (ppm)” of thujone. After being banned since 1912—nearly 100 years—absinthe could now be consumed in the US, a freedom that adventurous consumers have opted into enjoying.
Today, of course, we know that absinthe has simply been the unlucky victim of almost a century of terrible rumors. It was never dangerous—at least, no more dangerous than any other liquor! Recovering from its rocky past, absinthe is seeing renewed relevance as modern consumers become more interested in the flavor and versatility afforded by botanical spirits…
Maybe the green fairy is a good one, after all!
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