All About Absinthe
People have a long history of banning things. Classic works of literature, different fashions, and, of course, alcohols have all been shunned in the past century. A few people have a problem with something and then, voila, the rest of the world suffers. And usually, the premise for the item’s dismissal is trivial. Take, for instance, absinthe.
In 1915, absinthe was banned from not only America, but much of Europe (including France), due to its alleged psychoactive properties. Only 85 years later did the drink start making a comeback. They realized, after some pretty strenuous tests, that there is, in fact a chemical in la fée verte (the green fairy, absinthe’s nickname) called thujone, which has hallucinogenic properties. But there were only between .5 and 48.3 mg/L of this compound in the bottle and way before you felt any of its effects, you’d die from alcohol poisoning. Admittedly, absinthe has a pretty high alcohol content (it’s usually around 136 proof) but plenty of other alcohols are even higher. Ahem, Bacardi 151? So it boils down to a crazy myth that got all hyped up and blown out of proportion that eventually condemned absinthe, to the dismay of a great many people.
Originally, absinthe wasn’t at all popular. The wormwood drink was officially created in 1792 by a man named Pierre Ordinaire, who eventually sold his recipe and, in 1797, the first absinthe distillery was opened by Major Dubied. Naturally, it took some time for people to catch on, but in 1805, the business proved to be a success, as they needed a larger facility. By the end of the 19th century, they were pumping out 2 million liters a year and became popular with bohemian crowd, including some pretty influential artists and writers like Picasso, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allen Poe.
By 1910, absinthe had become massive. Due to the increase of production, the price for the green drink had dropped dramatically, making it much cheaper (and popular) than wine. France alone was gulping down a whopping 36 million liters annually. But it got swept up in the temperance movement and by 1915, was banned in the US as well as most of Europe. People were so torn up about it that it’s often compared to what would happen if they banned Scotch in Scotland. Not pretty.
Later in the century, absinthe began to make its comeback. In the late 1980s, it was once again legalized in France and as late as 2007, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted its long standing ban in the United States. But, the reintroduction of this alcohol was bittersweet: sure, it was legal, but in the states, it has to be thujone-free and most countries don’t possess a legal definition of absinthe. In other words, companies are free to label alcohols as absinthe products even if they bear no resemblance to the original recipe. Pretty shifty. Only in Switzerland must absinthe (the actual wormwood plant) be distilled and contain no additives to be sold or legally made. So, if you’re looking to pick up a bottle for a night avec le fée vert (and want the real thing), try to do a little research…and then probably fly Swiss Air.