When absinthe — also known as the Green Fairy — was banned in France, Switzerland, the United States and many other countries in the early 1900s, it had become associated with illicit behavior.
In fact, it was accused of turning children into criminals, encouraging loose morals and inspiring murders. That regular old alcohol received similar treatment during the Prohibition period in the United States turns out to be pretty apropos:
We now know that properly manufactured absinthe — an anise-flavored, alcoholic drink — is no more dangerous than any other properly prepared liquor.
What about the tales of hallucinations, Oscar Wilde and his tulips, family massacres and instant death?
Not absinthe’s fault, technically speaking. Absinthe does have a very high alcohol content — anywhere between 55 and 75 percent, which equates to about 110 to 144 proof.
It makes whiskey’s standard 40 percent (80 proof) seem like child’s play, which is why absinthe is supposed to be diluted.
Absinthe is not a hallucinogen; its alcohol content and herbal flavor sets it apart from other liquors.
Traditional absinthe is made of anise, fennel and wormwood, a plant (see Image above), and various recipes add other herbs and flowers to the mix.
The anise, fennel and wormwood are soaked in alcohol, and the mixture is then distilled. The distillation process causes the herbal oils and the alcohol to evaporate, separating from the water and bitter essences released by the herbs.
The fennel, anise and wormwood oils then recondense with the alcohol in a cooling area, and the distiller dilutes the resulting liquid down to whatever proof the absinthe is supposed to be (based on brand variations or regional laws).
At this point, the absinthe is clear; many manufacturers add herbs to the mixture after distillation to get the classic green color from their chlorophyll.
The chemical that’s taken all the blame for absinthe’s hallucinogenic reputation is called thujone, which is a component of wormwood. In very high doses, thujone can be toxic.
It is a GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) inhibitor, meaning it blocks GABA receptors in the brain, which can cause convulsions if you ingest enough of it. It occurs naturally in many foods, but never in doses high enough to hurt you.
And there’s not enough thujone in absinthe to hurt you, either.