Absinthe: the mysterious and notorious liquor which ‘according to tradition’ makes you hallucinate. But is that the case? Which ingredient would cause you to see the supposed green fairy of absinthe? Is it the controversial substance thujone, or simply the enormous alcohol percentage that makes you incapable of knowing what is and what isn’t real? We are going to investigate a green drink that perhaps would be more at home in the smartshop than in the off-licence.

absinthe
 
painting based on absinthe experiences

In this article:

  1. What is Absinthe?
  2. What Does Absinthe Taste Like?
  3. Thujone
  4. Absinthe Banned
  5. Hallucinating from Absinthe
  6. How do you Drink Absinthe?
  7. Making Absinthe Yourself
  8. Buying Absinthe

What is Absinthe?

You may know absinthe as the green liquor that is rumoured to cause hallucinations. Whether or not that’s true, we will reveal shortly. If you want to find the answer, you need to see what absinthe is made from. The ingredients of the bitter and aniseed-flavoured distilled drink include the perennial Artemisia absinthium, a plant that occurs in Europe, North Africa and Asia. The plant that also goes by the sinister English name of wormwood, reaches about a metre in height and has attractive yellow flowers. The buds from which the flowers are formed are the main ingredient of absinthe, and also the liquor vermouth.

absinthe
 
Artemisia absinthium - common wormwood.

Absinthe is green thanks to the chlorophyll of the artemisia plant – not to be confused with artemisia trouwens – that is a species of lobster. Other ingredients may include the herbs lemon balm, speedwell, hyssop and artemisia pontica.

What Does Absinthe Taste Like?

The key ingredients in wormwood are absinthine and thujone. Absinthine is one of the bitterest substances you can imagine. This natural anti-inflammatory [1] is what gives absinthe its characteristically bitter taste.

Thujone

Next we come to the notorious substance thujone – a natural ingredient of absinthe which has made the drink infamous. Thujone is a terpene and gives a menthol-like taste to this bitter drink. Bitterness and menthol together are what produces the aniseed-like taste.

It was thought for a long time that thujone, in the same way as THC, would activate the cannabinoid receptors in our body and brain. And it was believed that the tumultuous history of absinthe use was attributable to the supposed psychedelic effect of thujone. Nowadays, we know that, among other things, thujone works as a GABA antagonist [2].

Just like serotonin and melatonin, for example, GABA is a neurotransmitter. GABA plays an important role in our brains. It inhibits neuronal overactivity. Alcohol reinforces this inhibitive effect which is why alcohol use results in reduced concentration, poor coordination, sleepiness and forgetfulness [3]. Thujone actually does the opposite – it reduces the effectiveness of GABA which can make you feel anxious, irritated or even make you experience epileptic attacks [4]. 

You can perhaps imagine that thujone and alcohol together exert a vice-like hold on our brain. That is the reason why a limit is set on the maximum amount of thujone permitted in drinks. This maximum amount is regulated by the EU and is 35 mg thujone per kg of drink that is produced as absinthe from artemisia plants [5]. In short, absinthe must not contain more than 35 mg of thujone per kilo.

Absinthe Banned

Although absinthe had been a people’s drink since way back when, it was only in 1805 that it started to be distilled commercially by the Frenchman, Henri-Louis Pernod. Following its commercialisation, the drink was quickly picked up by various 19th century artists, of which Vincent van Gogh is undoubtedly the best-known absinthe drinker. His characteristic visual style is attributed to him drinking much too much absinthe. The personal problems experienced by van Gogh in the final years of his life were also deemed to be connected with thujone poisoning caused by drinking way too much absinthe.

absinthe

At the end of the 19th century, absinthe was suddenly banned in America and also in many European countries. According to various governments, it was simply being over-consumed which led to a fictional syndrome: absinthism. As mostly happens when a substance is banned, often just one serious occurrence was needed to completely spoil the image. In this case a Swiss alcoholic murdered his entire family after drinking absinthe. Whether this dramatic event was to blame on thujone, alcohol, a combination of the two, or simply the psychological condition of the man can always be disputed.

The French government could have used the ban on absinthe at the end of the 19th century to spread disinformation in order to sell the surplus of wine. The ban on absinthe lasted almost a century until in 1988 it was once again legally permissible to use extracts from wormwood for making drink. It has been made in France and Germany since the 1990s. Since 2005 absinthe has been legal again in the Netherlands with the lapse of the Absinthe Act. Belgium followed a year later. The composition has remained virtually unchanged since the start of the ban with the exception of the control on the maximum thujone content.

Hallucinating from Absinthe

Where does the idea come from that you can hallucinate from absinthe? Does absinthe not belong in the off-licence and should you actually buy absinthe in the smartshop? And should wormwood be filed under psychedelics? No, hallucinating from thujone is excluded, in the concentrations allowed in drink or even above those limits. As we read earlier, thujone is indeed dangerous in higher concentrations.

Thujone reduces the activity of the 5-HT3 receptor, and this reduces feelings of nausea and the chance of vomiting. The name of the receptor is somewhat similar to that of the 5-HT2A receptor - the keyway of, among others, LSD, shrooms and DMT (ayahuasca). That is probably where the confusion lies in modern times. 

You will not hallucinate from absinthe. So preferably try the relatively safe Magic Truffles rather than this liquor.

Absinthism

In the past, people thought that excessive absinthe drinkers ran the risk of getting the syndrome of absinthism. Due to the mass consumption of absinthe in the 19th century, more and more people turned up at the doctor’s complaining of dizziness, mania, paralysis and epileptic seizures. Other symptoms were auditory and visual hallucinations. Artists who stood next to their easels with a bottle of absinthe spoke of inspirational contact with the green fairy and that just led to further drinking.

Absinthism is in fact nothing more than the consequences of alcohol addiction. The condition you find yourself in when you’ve drunk so much that you experience delusions, we call delirium. ‘Binge drinking’ in popular parlance.

absinthe

How do you Drink Absinthe?

If you don’t suffer from alcohol addiction, then you can safely try absinthe once. You can drink absinthe neat but its 40% percentage of alcohol is no joke. But on top of that there are other strengths of 60 to 80% on the market. So if you want to try out a glass of absinthe for an encounter with the green fairy, it’s a good idea to drink it in the traditional way. That involves using a special absinthe spoon which is placed on a glass of absinthe. The metal absinthe spoon has tiny holes all over it and fits precisely over the glass. Read here how you set about using it:

The Absinthe Ritual

Pour out approximately half a glass of absinthe. Place an absinthe spoon on the glass and set a sugar lump in the middle of the spoon. Dribble ice-cold water over the sugar lump until it has fully, or almost, dissolved. Then take the spoon and stir the drink well. The addition of the water turns the normally clear green absinthe into a cloudy, yellowish-green colour. Cheers!

Absinthe turns cloudy when you dilute it with water.

Making Absinthe Yourself

Something that’s also really fun and exciting to do: making absinthe yourself! You can do this without a still or a liquor licence. All you need is this wormwood extract and a bottle of strong spirits like ouzo, pastis, vodka or gin. Put 5 grammes of extract into a 0.7 litre bottle and allow it to stand for 2 weeks. Then sieve out the powder by pouring it through something fine like a pair of tights and there you have it. You can also add herbs like lemon balm for extra flavour.

Prefer to try alcohol-free absinthe? That’s possible too! Leave 1 teaspoonful of wormwood extract to draw in hot water for 15 minutes. You can let the tea cool down or drink it hot. Give it a try.

Buying Absinthe

As a liquor licence is required to sell spirits, you cannot buy absinthe from us. And as a headshop and smartshop we are also more interested in plant extracts than in alcohol. Which is why we wrote this article – the history and the supposed absinthe hallucinations intrigued us. We hope that we have also been able to entertain you with this short history of the controversial drink made fromArtemisia absinthium.You know what they say: enjoy, but drink with your friends. As an artist, Van Gogh was a genius but that had nothing to do with absinthe’s mythical green fairy.

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