The Five Biggest Absinthe Myths

The Green Fairy. La Fée Verte. The Green Goddess. Absinthe has as many nicknames as it does legends. But the truth is that the high-proof spirit is an important and historic elixir. From the traditional Absinthe Drip to the classic Sazerac, it’s been inspiring artists, writers and, yes, bartenders for more than 200 years.

To help you figure out this misunderstood liquor, we turned to one of the world’s leading absinthe experts, Ted A. Breaux. The professional scientist and researcher has been studying the Green Fairy for decades and was instrumental in getting absinthe back on store shelves in America. He also created Lucid Absinthe and founded Jade Liqueurs. Here are the five most common myths he hears about the spirit. Cheers!

Absinthe is hallucinogenic.

Certain absinthe marketers love to capitalize on their product’s illicit reputation, but the fact is that it’s no more likely to make you see things than vodka, whiskey or tequila. Recent scientific studies—some of them co-authored by Breaux himself—“have demonstrated beyond doubt that pre-ban absinthes contained no hallucinogens, opiates or other psychoactive substances,” he says. “The most powerful ‘drug’ in absinthe is and has always been a high volume of neatly disguised, seductively perfumed alcohol.”

Absinthe was banned because it’s hallucinogenic.

So if absinthe isn’t hallucinogenic, why was it banned in most European countries and the US in the early 20th century? “Absinthe became a victim of its own popularity when the French wine industry and temperance movement targeted a common scapegoat to promote their respective agendas,” Breaux says. In reality, according to Breaux, it was “cheap, adulterated versions of the drink” sold by unscrupulous manufacturers, not unlike bathtub gin during Prohibition, that caused problems.

Absinthe in the US isn’t real.

“A few exceptions aside, the quality and authenticity of absinthes found in the US market is very good,” Breaux says. And that means they’re made with Artemisia absinthium, AKA grande wormwood, the herb that gives the concoction its name and its flavor. “In contrast, the EU market remains heavily contaminated with offerings that amount to flavored vodka and green dye posing as absinthe, many being offered at prices well beyond their value,” he says.

Absinthe is from the Czech Republic.

In the early 1990s, after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic received a rash of “tourists willing to pay a premium for any bottled green (or bluish) liquid labeled ‘absinth’.” The truth is that the spirit was invented in Switzerland around the turn of the 19th century and was produced there and just over the border in southeastern France. “During the height of its popularity [in the late 1800s], more than 95 percent of the world’s absinthe was produced in that region,” Breaux says.

Absinthe should be served with a flaming sugar cube.

The classic method of serving absinthe involves slowly dripping water into the spirit, often over a sugar cube held on a special perforated spoon. But in “another tradition that magically appeared in the 1990s,” Breaux says, the sugar is first soaked with alcohol and lit with a match. Though impressive, the “fire ritual” is really designed to distract from the fact that a cheap and artificial product will not louche, or turn cloudy with the addition of water, like it should. It’s not necessary.

Learn more about absinthe and get lots more cocktail recipes in our absinthe guide.

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Comments

  1. Im not a big drinker but I do enjoy a few times a month

  2. Er… there’s a fair amount of misinformation here, or disinformation even. I assume Ted’s aim is to promote the “bona fides” of his neutered Absinthe brands here in the US. That’s fine. I understand his constraints, but Ted’s been around the scene long enough to know the difference…

    To be fair, much of what he says is correct (he slips by omission and evasion). Yes, there’s a lot of dreck from the Czech republic – anise and sugar water doctored with food coloring, etc. And with such high alcohol content, after a few shots, as the “laddies” do in the UK, it’s tough to know the difference.

    Absinthe is based around wormwood. Hard alcohol and other aromatics are additives, which is why real absinthe can differ in color and appearance. (These aren’t always coloring agents; in some cases herbal adjuncts cause differences.) Wormwood is an ornamental plant that gives Absinthe it’s characteristic anise or “licorice” flavor. The psychoactive components in wormwood are called “thujones.”

    So what happened? Well, around the year 2000, when I thought about becoming a distributor here in the US congress was considering lifting the ban on imported absinthe. Needless to say, neither of those things happened. What happened instead, a few years’ down the road, was that manufacturers developed a process to remove thujones – the psychoactive component – from wormwood. And production, predictably, started back up.

    So we now, in the US, have absinthes that are palpably indistinguishable from their for-bearers, yet lack the crucial component that made it alluring in the first place. We’re left with a high-octane, anise-flavored aperitif.

    This isn’t Ted’s fault, obviously. He’s working well within the constraints of the system. For the truly curious, I recommend ordering some Spanish absinthes (specifically the DEVA brand). Why? Spain has never suffered a cessation in true absinthe production (unlike France). It’s fairly cheap and – again – original and legit.

    Effects? Mild, but noticeable. One-to-two moderate glasses before you can “strobe” your hands. It’s also not cumulative, meaning that you won’t “trip harder” if you drink more. You’ll simply get very blotto, given the high alcohol content of the base spirit.

    It’s a sippin’ drink… The sugar cube and water is part of the process (most US brands add sucrose to offset the bitterness of the anise).

    Anywhoo, enjoy!

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