There’s no denying that absinthe is surrounded by a very special kind of mystique. The potent spirit has famously served as a muse to countless artists, including Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. But how much of what we know about the Green Fairy is true—and how much of it is legend?
What Is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic beverage that can contain anywhere between 55 and 75 percent alcohol by volume (110 to 144 proof). Traditionally, it’s made with anise, fennel, wormwood, and various other plants and herbs. The ingredients are soaked in alcohol and then distilled. The resulting liquid may be labeled Blanche or la Bleue absinthe and sold as is, but most manufacturers choose to add herbs to the mixture after distillation. The green color that you’re familiar with comes from the chlorophyll found in these herbs.
The Green Fairy
Absinthe’s origins are unclear, but alcohol-soaked wormwood leaves have long been used for medicinal purposes. Hippocrates prescribed it for everything from menstrual pain to rheumatism, while Ancient Greeks believed that the mixture aided in childbirth.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that absinthe’s reputation began to change. French soldiers stationed in Algeria in the 1840s were prescribed wormwood to treat illnesses and to ward off insects, according to Science History Institute. It became a common practice to add it to wine, which cut the bitterness and produced a much-needed buzz. When the soldiers returned to France, they brought the new drink—which they called la fée verte (or the Green Fairy)—with them.
Absinthe was so popular in Paris that, by the 1860s, 5 p.m. was called l'heure verte, or “the green hour.”
Though the drink was enjoyed by all social classes, it’s particularly notable for its association with artists, bohemians, and the Art Nouveau and Modernism movements that reached their peaks at the turn of the century.
Like much of French culture, absinthe made its way to New Orleans. The Sazerac, which is widely considered the first absinthe cocktail, was born in the Big Easy.
Mark Twain, Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt were famous for their love of the drink.
Absinthe, which was (and still is) rumored to have hallucinogenic properties, was associated with eccentric geniuses—as drinking it would allegedly open your mind and, if you weren’t careful, cause you to descend into madness.
“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were,” said Oscar Wilde. “After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
As the legends grew, so did society’s wariness. By the early 20th century, many people believed imbibing absinthe led to violent and criminal behavior. An infamous Swiss murder committed in 1905 was likely the nail in the coffin for the drink’s reputation.
The public outcry against absinthe led to bans in the U.S. and much of Europe by 1915.
Does Absinthe Make You Hallucinate?
Wormwood contains thujone, which is technically a hallucinogen. But do you know what else contains thujone? Oregano—and you don’t see anybody trying to outlaw Italian food.
While consuming thujone in extremely high doses can cause convulsions, by the end of distillation, there is very little thujone left absinthe. So, yes, absinthe will get you very, very drunk. But you’d die of alcohol poisoning before you were negatively affected by the drink’s thujone content.
The alleged hallucinations, and the rumors that came with them, can likely be blamed on improper distillation techniques involving harmful chemicals and societal influence.
Is Absinthe Legal?
Absinthe was actually banned in the U.S. in 1912, seven years before prohibition. The ban remained after the 21st Amendment was ratified in 1933.
However, absinthe became legal again in the U.S. in 2007. It’s also sold in much of Europe.
So, yes, you can legally indulge in the legendary spirit. Just remember: Moderation is key—this stuff isn’t called a devil in a bottle for nothing.