Does Absinthe Actually Make You Hallucinate?
English novelist Marie Corelli, author of the popular 1886 novel A Romance of Two Worlds, once wrote:
“Let me be mad, mad with the madness of absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world.”
In the late 19th and Early 20th centuries, few vices exemplified the spirit of La Belle Epoque and the ideals of the bohemian revolution like the drinking of absinthe. The potent, dark green spirit was embraced by a whole generation of romantic painters, novelists, poets’ and philosophers from Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh to Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, featuring prominently in dozens of classic paintings and works of literature. Touted as an artistic muse in a bottle, absinthe was said to produce a pleasant, lucid intoxication and vivid hallucinations, earning it the nickname of “the green fairy.” But while the artistic community sang the praises of absinthe, more conservative factions of society condemned the drink, blaming its consumption for all manner of social ills, including idleness, poverty, epilepsy, madness, and even murder. This growing hysteria ultimately led to absinthe being banned across most of Europe – a ban that would remain in place for nearly a century. But was “the green fairy” really the powerful mind-altering drug of bohemian legend, and did it really lead its users, as one critic put it, “straight to the madhouse or the courthouse?” Fill up your glasses as we dive into the mysterious and romantic history of absinthe.
Absinthe gets its name from Aremisia Absinthium, or Grand Wormwood, a small herbaceous plant native to Eurasia and parts of North Africa. First mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian medical treatise from 1550 B.C, wormwood has been used throughout history for medicinal purposes, such as treating malaria or expelling parasitic worms from the body. However, the first use of the herb in alcoholic beverages dates to the late 18th Century. According to one account, absinthe originated in 1792 as a patent medicine or tonic created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, [“Oar-dee-nare”] a French physician living in the town of Couvet [“Coo-vay”], Switzerland. Ordinaire’s recipe was purchased by the Henriod [“Ahn-ree-oh”] sisters, who produced the elixir commercially before selling it in 1797 to one Major Dubied [“Doo-bee”]. In 1805, along with his son Marcellin [“Mar-sell-ay”] and son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod [“Pair-noh”], Dubied opened the world’s first absinthe distillery in Pontarlier [“Pohn-tar-lee-ay”], France, under the company name Maison Pernod Fils [“May-soh Pair-noh Fiss”]. Pernod Fils would go on to become one of the most popular manufacturers of absinthe and survives to this day under the name Pernod Ricard [“Ree-carr”].
Traditional absinthe is flavoured with a variety of herbs, the principal or “holy trinity” of flavourings being wormwood, green anise, and sweet fennel. Additional flavourings vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and can include hyssop, melissa, star anise, angelica, peppermint, coriander, and veronica. The dominant flavour, however, typically comes from the anise, giving absinthe a pronounced liquorice taste similar to related spirits like Greek ouzo, Italian sambuca, and French pastis. Red or pink absinthes flavoured and coloured with rose or hibiscus flowers have also been recorded.
Absinthe manufacture begins with a neutral spirit derived from distilling wine, in which the chosen botanicals are steeped to extract their flavour. The resulting macerated spirit is then run through a still, producing a colourless spirit known as white absinthe or la bleue. This is sometimes bottled straight, but more often the distillate is steeped again in botanicals to produce absinthe’s traditional green colour. While distillation is the preferred manufacturing method, cheaper absinthes are sometimes produced via cold-mixing, in which the botanicals are simply steeped in plain commercial alcohol and the resulting infusion filtered and bottled with no intermediate distillation. Whatever the method, absinthe is typically bottled at extremely high proof, ranging from 45% alcohol by volume to as high as 90%. Though often described as a liqueur, traditional absinthe is bottled without added sugar and is thus more properly classified as a spirit.
Absinthe’s popularity took off in the 1840s, when French troops serving in Algeria began drinking the spirit in order to stave off malaria. By the 1860s absinthe had become so popular in French cafés, bistros, and cabarets that the hour of 5-6 P.M. became widely known as l’heure verte or “the green hour.” In the 1880s mass production caused the price of absinthe to plummet, and by 1910 the French were drinking some 36 million litres of absinthe every year, compared to their annual wine consumption of 5 billion litres. The drink soon spread to other countries including Switzerland, Spain, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and even the United States, where it was especially popular in French-speaking New Orleans and formed the basis of one of the U.S.’s oldest cocktail recipes: the Sazerac. By this time the drink had also acquired its own set of elaborate preparation rituals. Traditionally, a glass of absinthe is served with a sugar cube, a special slotted spoon, and a carafe of ice water. To prepare the drink, the drinker balances the spoon over the mouth of the glass, places the sugar cube on the spoon, and pours the ice water over the cube, diluting the spirit to a drinkable proof and softening its bitter herbal flavour. Eventually bars and cafés began providing large communal absinthe fountains to dispense ice water, allowing patrons to socialize as they prepared their drinks. The dilution of absinthe causes the drink to turn cloudy, a phenomenon known as louche [“loosh”] or the “ouzo effect.” This effect is the result of essential oils from the botanical flavourings – especially trans-anethole from anise – being soluble in alcohol but not water. Diluting the spirit with water causes these compounds to come out of solution, producing the characteristic cloudiness. Another preparation technique, known as the Bohemian method, involves soaking the sugar cube in high-proof alcohol, lighting it on fire, and tipping it into the glass, imparting the drink with a smoky caramel flavour. While widely performed in specialty bars today, the Bohemian method is not actually a traditional technique and dates back only to the 1990s.
During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – the period traditionally known as The “Gilded Age” or la Belle Epoque, absinthe was widely consumed by all social classes, from the wealthy bourgeoisie to ordinary working-class people and especially artists, writers, and other members of the emerging bohemian movement. The drink appears in dozens of paintings by leading artists such as Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh, and in the writings of Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway. Much of absinthe’s appeal among the bohemian set lay in its purported ability to induce a pleasant, lucid intoxication or even full-blown hallucinations – properties which, along with the spirit’s distinctive colour, led to it acquiring the immortal nickname “the green fairy.” Absinthe’s supposed psychoactive properties were vividly described by authors like Oscar Wilde, who wrote:
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.
“One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and began to pile the chairs on the tables.
‘Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor.’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must go now, Sir.’
‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.
‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.
‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt – the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
French poet Beaudelaire even ranked the effects of absinthe ahead of wine and opium, writing in his 1857 poem Poison:
“…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.”
But with the increasing association between absinthe and artists, writers, revolutionaries, and other misfits came the inevitable backlash, and social reformers began blaming the “green fairy” for all manner of social ills. One of the drink’s fiercest opponents was Dr. Valentin Magnan [“Man-yan”], chief psychiatrist at Paris’s Sainte-Anne Asylum. Between 1864 and 1874, Magnan conducted a study of 250 cases of alcoholism and concluded that those who abused absinthe suffered more severe symptoms – including rapid-onset hallucinations – than those who drank other forms of alcohol. This observation led him to propose a syndrome known as absinthism, whose effects were distinct from those of regular alcoholism:
“In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becomes purplish, swollen, the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn’t remember one thing that has happened.”
Thanks to Magnan’s research, absinthism became a cause célèbre among reform-minded conservative groups. In France, firebrand Henri Schmidt railed against the drink, writing:
“Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
The cause was especially popular among members of the growing temperance movement, who saw absinthe as an easy easy target and stepping stone to the eventual banning of all alcohol. Another supporter was the French wine industry, which had nearly been wiped out in the 1860s by an aphid infestation and saw the growing absinthe industry as a threat.
The anti-absinthe crusade reached its crescendo in 1905 thanks to a particularly grisly murder. On August 28, 1905, Jean Lanfray, a French labourer living in the town of Commugny, Switzerland, shot and killed his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. Lanfray, an alcoholic, had consumed that day no less than seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, two coffees laced with cognac, two crème de menthes, and two ounces of absinthe. However, the courts and the popular press focused solely on the absinthe, with psychiatrist Dr. Albert Mahaim, an expert witness for the defence, arguing that Lanfray had suffered from “a classic case of absinthe madness.” A moral panic ensued, and a subsequent petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland collected more than 82,000 signatures. A referendum was held on July 5, 1908, and the ban on absinthe was written into the Swiss constitution. Bans in other countries soon followed, including Belgium in 1908, the United States in 1912, and Italy in 1913. France held out until 1915, when concerns over the potential effects of absinthe on the fighting ability of French soldiers finally compelled the country to ban the drink. These bans forced major absinthe distillers like Pernod Fils to switch to making pastis, ouzo, and other wormwood-free anise liqueurs. Absinthe production and consumption continued in countries like Spain where it was still legal, while in Switzerland it went underground, with illegal distillers largely producing colourless white absinthe in an attempt to conceal it from the authorities. However, the drink never regained the popularity it had enjoyed in the late 19th Century, and by the 1960s absinthe had all but disappeared from Europe, becoming little more than a mythical symbol of a bygone romantic age.
But was absinthe really a powerful hallucinogen, as both its devotees and detractors claimed? In a word: no. The supposed psychoactive properties of absinthe have traditionally been blamed on one key ingredient: wormwood – or, more specifically, a compound known as thujone naturally found in wormwood oil. This theory was first proposed in 1864 by absinthe’s nemesis, Dr. Valentin Magnan, who in a series of experiments exposed guinea pigs to pure wormwood oil and alcohol vapour. While the animals exposed to wormwood vapour experienced violent convulsions, those exposed to alcohol vapour did not. However, more recent studies have cast considerable doubt on Magnan’s findings, revealing that while thujone can induce convulsions in high doses, such doses are almost impossible to attain by drinking absinthe. For example, the average dose of thujone that produces convulsions in rats is 12.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. A typical bottle of absinthe, by contrast, contains only about 10 milligrams of thujone per litre, meaning that an average 90-kilogram male would have to consume more than 100 litres of absinthe to reach these levels. And given that absinthe is typically bottled at alcohol concentrations of up to 74%, even the most seasoned drinker would succumb to alcohol poisoning long before the thujone even began to have any effect. Indeed, the only two confirmed cases of thujone poisoning – one in 1862 and one in 1997 – were caused by the consumption not of absinthe but of pure wormwood oil, which can contain up to 50% thujone.
So what, then, was responsible for absinthe’s reportedly toxic side effects? One possible explanation is the practice among less scrupulous absinthe producers of using chemical shortcuts to reduce manufacturing costs, such as using toxic copper compounds to achieve the distinctive green colour or antimony trichloride to replicate the louching or ouzo effect. However, the consensus among most historians and medical experts is that absinthe’s legendary reputation as the potent, mind-altering “green fairy” is nothing more than an overblown myth – the product of artistic hyperbole by its devotees and hysterical propaganda by its detractors. Indeed, between the years 1867 and 1912, some 16,500 patients were admitted to Paris asylums suffering from chronic alcoholism, of which only 1% were found to exhibit the symptoms of absinthism. Given the high rates of absinthe consumption in Paris at the time, it is more than likely that the most severe cases of alcoholism were simply ascribed to Dr. Magnan’s fictitious syndrome. In the end, absinthe’s bad reputation had far more to do with its association with artists, poets, philosophers, and other bohemian misfits than any actual psychoactive properties.
In 1988, the near century-long ban on absinthe was finally lifted when the European Council passed a directive “on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to flavorings for use in foodstuffs and to source materials for their production,” re-allowing the inclusion of wormwood in alcoholic beverages. Since then, absinthe has enjoyed something of a renaissance, with hundreds of distilleries large and small capitalizing on absinthe’s almost mystical reputation and its association with classic art and literature. Today, this once-maligned spirit is available in most liquor stores, allowing you to experience a taste of the romantic Gilded Age – or, more likely, a massive hangover.
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