Strap in, we’re doing this.
So, I got some absinthe samples from absinthes.com to review, which I’m very excited about. The thing is, I feel like a lot of people still don’t really know much about absinthe: what it is, where it’s from, if it’s legal, and if it’ll make you hallucinate green fairies. Well, before I get to the actual reviews, I’ll explain what the deal is with absinthe so we’re all on the same page. Then I’ll drink some free samples and see if it’s any good. Ok? Great.
Let’s start at the beginning. Absinthe is an alcoholic spirit. It’s distilled from a variety of herbs and botanicals, and generally tastes of anise, or black licorice. It can be clear, yellow, green, or even red in color (I bought a bottle of Great Lakes Distillery’s Amerique 1912 Rouge, which is a light red color, on a visit earlier this year). It became wildly popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially in Europe, especially in Paris, and especially among artsy types like Van Gogh, Wilde, and Hemingway. The trouble came with one of the main ingredients, grand wormwood, which contains a chemical called thujone. Thujone allegedly produces hallucinations, (some say it’s why Van Gogh cut off his ear) and is responsible for absinthe’s nickname, “la fée verte” or “The Green Fairy.”
So, this stuff was popular right around the time the Temperance movement was a major force. The US wound up banning absinthe because of it’s alleged psychoactive ingredient, the thujone-containing wormwood.
b) Absinthe is a high-proof spirit (generally 90 proof/45% abv or higher) which in large does could probably cause you to see some wacky things like pink elephants or green fairies.
c) You’d die of alcohol poisoning long before the thujone in absinthe made you go crazy.
d) The European wine industry was in ruins.
Wait, what? WTF does wine have do do with this? Well, it’s a big deal.
In the 1860s, a bug called Phylloxera was brought to France and decided it really liked to eat grapevines, and it devastated the industry. Seriously. Like 40% of all the vineyards in France were wiped out. It’s called the Great French Wine Blight. So wine and brandy (made from grapes) was pretty hard to come by and absinthe became the popular drink of choice. By the turn of the century, the vineyards were recovering (the solution was to graft bug-resistant roots from North America onto the French vines) but absinthe was dominating the market. So, the winemakers started spreading rumors about the toxic and hallucinogenic effects of absinthe and even said it would make you go crazy and kill your family. Better drink good ol’ wine instead. See how sneaky that was? Yeah, well, it worked. Many countries bought into the hype (or were paid off) and banned absinthe, including the US in 1912.
For 95 years.
But it’s back now. Basically what started to happen was a renewed interest in classic cocktails and liquors. Absinthe was all over the old-timey drink recipes, but you couldn’t get it anywhere. Several anise-flavored alternatives were available: pastis like Pernod, Ricard, Herbsaint, and even an absinthe substitute, Absente liqueur. So demand for this banned liquor was growing, and some sciency boffins did the research and concluded that the whole thujone thing was banana oil. Horsefeathers. Malarkey. Countries began lifting their bans and many found, like Great Britain, that it had never actually been banned in the first place. In 2007 the US decided to finally accept that there was no reason to continue their ban, and legalized absinthe once again, though only thujone-free. And you can’t depict anything trippy on the label. Seriously.
So, you can buy (thujone-free) absinthe in the liquor stores again and drink it without worry.
It’ll get you drunk, but you won’t hallucinate, and you won’t kill your family.