Absinthe, The Green Devil or as Ernest Hemingway described it – “that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy” – to this day has an air of mystery and danger surrounding it. Historical anecdotes, urban myths and its illegal status in a host of countries (including the US) make it all the more alluring. Tell us we can’t have something and suddenly we want it. Why is it really illegal here, we wondered? What exactly is it and what were its powers that made the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso and Wilde avid enthusiasts? And where could we get some (for research purposes, of course.)?
We started pursuing answers with the same fervor usually reserved for packing ourselves into the L train during morning rush hour. Not surprisingly, the answers came fast.
Absinthe, is a potent herbal liqueur (60 – 80% alcohol) that is distilled with wormwood and anise (along with other botanicals) – which imparts a prominent licorice flavor. It originated in Switzerland as an elixir but became popular in the late 19th century with artists, poets and writers throughout Europe. The appeal was due to the double action intoxication – the combination of the whopping alcohol content and of course its reported hallucinogenic effects. These effects, which are described as “a heightened state of mind”, “clarity” and a “clear-headed” feeling of inebriation, are said to be caused by a chemical compound in wormwood called thujone. In fact, the reason Absinthe is illegal here is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow the sales of spirited beverages that contain thujone. Here’s where a little wikipedia action adds an interesting twist to the tale. It turns out, and we we’ll quote it:
“In the early 20th century thujone was blamed for the supposed dangerous and even hallucinatory effects of absinthe, however modern studies show these concerns to be unfounded. Thujone acts on the GABA receptors in the brain and does not cause hallucinations.”
What? Could the legends of Absinthe be tall tales and misinterpretation of extreme drunkenness? Do we believe our trusty pal wikipedia and its studies that discount the hallucinogenic effect? We tried it in Paris and we didn’t have any grand hallucinations. What we do believe is there is a unique effect that you experience from drinking Absinthe that you don’t get with other spirits. However the likely cause is the extremely high alcohol and a slight influence from the botanicals distilled in the spirit. Although, Van Gogh did cut off his ear after drinking it. Even we’ve never been that drunk.
What do you believe? Hallucinogenic or a great urban myth? Perhaps a visit to L'Absinthe Restaurant on the Upper East Side may be in order.