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The Sinister Reputation of Absinthe

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A lot has been said about this highly alcoholic drink. Read on to find out the truth about it.

A lot has been said about this highly alcoholic drink. Read on to find out the truth about it.

What Is Absinthe?

Absinthe is a drink that's usually green and highly potent at 60 to 80 percent alcohol. This gives rise to a lot of aliases for the drink: bottled madness, the green curse, the queen of poisons, or, less ominously, the green fairy.

To mitigate the “madness,” “curse,” or “poison,” seasoned drinkers cushion the blow by diluting it with water and adding a little sugar.

History of Absinthe

Let’s drop in on Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. Well, we can’t anymore, for the man who was anything but “ordinaire” died in 1821. But, before he went to the open bar in heaven, he invented absinthe.

Fed up with the French Revolution and all its mayhem, the good doctor retreated to the Swiss Alps. There he busied himself creating a drinkable potion of local herbs, in particular—Latin alert—Artemisia absinthium, better known as wormwood.

Wormwood in its natural habitat before it infuses absinthe

Wormwood in its natural habitat before it infuses absinthe

The claim was that this elixir cured everything in its path, from flatulence (see the Bonus Factoids section below) to malaria.

The traditional recipe is described by the German spirits maker Markus Lion: “The holy trinity is wormwood, anise, and fennel; if one is missing, it’s not absinthe.” Others ignore Herr Lion’s rule and add such ingredients as mint, hyssop, and coriander. And some, just like Colonel Sanders, claim to put in secret herbs and spices.

The story goes that, as Dr. Ordinaire’s life expired, he passed on his recipe to Henri-Louis Pernod, who seems to have been hovering at his bedside. But, inconveniently for the yarn to stand up to rigorous scrutiny, Dr. Ordinaire died after Pernod opened his first absinthe distillery in Switzerland, followed by another one in France.

The green, licorice-flavoured liquor soon became the favourite pick-me-up among poets, artists, writers, and other similar riff-raff. People such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and Lord Byron relieved the stresses of the day with a glass or two of M. Pernod’s liquor.

It’s like bottled Alpine springtime.

— Master absinthe distiller and American chemist T.A. Breaux

Even when made less offensive by a trickle of sugar, absinthe still reeks of copper, leaving on the palate a taste like a metal button slowly sucked.

— Novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans

The Seeing of Visions

Of course, many a lush have seen stuff that isn’t there, but absinthe has a poor, or good reputation, depending on your stance on hallucinations, in this regard.

Oscar Wilde recalled that “Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies, and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the café.” It’s from quotes such as this that absinthe gets an unfairly bad rap. Oscar might well have had the same herbaceous border experience if he’d been sloshing back single malt whisky for three nights.

"The Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva. A night on the sauce leads to visions in popular mythology.

"The Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva. A night on the sauce leads to visions in popular mythology.

There . . . you have the most marvelous cordial in all the world—drink and you will find your sorrows transmuted—yourself transformed.

— Novelist Marie Corelli

Absinthe Banned

There is a psychoactive ingredient in absinthe called thujone that comes from one of its ingredients―wormwood. But, there’s so little of it in the green curse that the enthusiastic boozer would die of alcohol poisoning before visions of elephants paddling canoes and singing cabbages entered his head.

No matter, it was popularly believed that the green fairy was responsible for phantasms re-arranging the brain cells of drinkers. Worse, it was blamed for causing madness, idleness, and even murder. The French psychiatrist Dr. Valentin Magnan kicked it up several notches by declaring absinthe guilty of wrecking his nation’s culture.

Vincent having a bad day

Vincent having a bad day

Then, on the afternoon of August 28, 1905, Swiss labourer Jean Lanfray went on a rampage, shooting and killing his wife and two daughters. The Absinthe Buyers Guide notes that during that fateful day, Lanfray had “consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich.”

At trial, Lanfray’s lawyer argued that the absinthe was solely to blame for pushing his client over the edge. He called a psychologist who backed up the claim by testifying that the accused man suffered from “a classic case of absinthe madness.” The prosecution said more likely Lanfray’s actions were triggered by the stupefying amount of hooch he’d chugged. Guilty as charged, Lanfray hanged himself in prison three days later.

An anti-ban poster

An anti-ban poster

A petition against the demon brew in France stated that “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 petition drew 400,000 signatures.

It seems the wine industry was behind the whole smear campaign because the popularity of absinthe was cutting into its sales and profits. This, at a time when the French wineries were devastated by an insect infestation.

The hysteria created by the Swiss trial and rumours about the evils of absinthe prompted the grand Pooh-Bahs to act. The bottled madness was quickly banned in Switzerland and soon thereafter in North America and most of the rest of Europe.

It is upon absinthe that I threw myself, absinthe day and night.

— Poet Paul Verlaine

The Resurrection of Absinthe

Almost a century passed before science asserted itself and informed the public that the psychoactive ingredient in absinthe is present in such trace amounts that the drinker is just as likely to see houses made out of rice pudding if quaffing Chardonnay.

Most countries have lifted their bans. By the 1990s, absinthe returned to barroom shelves, and by early in the 21st century, almost 200 brands of the green fairy were being produced to satisfy the demand.

That opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy.

— Ernest Hemingway

Bonus Factoids

Patient: When I break wind the noise sounds like “Honda.”

Doctor: What’s your favourite drink?

Patient: Absinthe.

Doctor: Well, there’s your answer. Absinthe makes the fart go Honda.

In some Slavic languages, the word “wormwood” translates rather darkly as “chernobyl.”

Ernest Hemingway created an absinthe cocktail he called “Death in the Afternoon.”

  • 1 1/2 ounces absinthe
  • 4 ounces chilled Brut champagne
  • champagne flute

Hemingway advised drinking “three to five of these slowly.” If you go for the full five, it’s probably a good idea to have a couple of paramedics standing by.

There . . you have the most marvelous cordial in all the world―drink and you will find your sorrows transmuted―yourself transformed.

— Novelist Marie Corelli


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor