On a cold night a hundred years ago, government inspectors raided the saloons of a small town west of Baltimore. This was six years before the passage of Prohibition, so the inspectors weren’t looking to confiscate all the booze, just one particular substance that they considered especially dangerous.
The Catonsville Herald Argus newspaper reported that inspectors confiscated about ten bottles of absinthe during the raids. Saloon owners were not arrested or charged with any offense, but all the bottles were emptied—and presumably not into the glasses of any patrons. Why did the Pure Food and Drug Department consider absinthe so much more dangerous than whiskey or gin or other spirits available in the saloons? Why was it outlawed when other spirits and even marijuana and cocaine were not?
And if it was such an evil drink, why can you find it lots of places today?
Absinthe is a distilled spirit made from aniseed, fennel and the leaves of Artemisia absinthium or wormwood. In the distilled form, it is not sweet and so it’s not a liqueur, although it is usually served with sugar to make it taste sweet. It’s strong – traditional absinthe has about 50% more alcohol than whiskey—but is typically diluted heavily with ice water. Despite its reputation as a hallucinogen, absinthe affects the drinker exactly the same way as whiskey or any other distilled spirit – drink too much and you’ll get drunk. Doesn’t sound too radical, even if it is often green from the herbs. So why the ban? It started with that reputation.
Absinthe was developed in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t well known until about 100 years later, when it became a popular drink among artists and writers in Paris. Public figures like Ernest Hemingway, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, none known for their conservatism or restraint, were all quite fond of absinthe, and helped give the drink it’s reputation for causing crazy reactions. Some say it was absinthe induced madness that caused van Gogh to hack off his ear. Up to this day, the drink has a reputation as having hallucenogenic properties, based partly on experiments done with wormwood oil in the late 19th Century and partly on word of artists and writers who described wild sensations after taking the drink. According to the Wormwood Society, the reputation continues even today because “modern marketers…exaggerate these myths, combine them with modern falsehoods, and use them as marketing gimmicks to lure the credulous thrill-seeker.*”
However, extensive study in the 1980s proved that although wormwood does contain the poisonous substance thujone, the amount that is tranferred into absinthe is so minute as to not pose a danger to consumers. If there were any hallucenations caused by the drink, they were most likely due to the poisonous copper salts added to give a green color to cheaply made absinthe.
After studies proved the spirit was no more dangerous than similar alcoholic beverages, the United States eventually lifted the ban on absinthe in 2007. However, regulations specifically prohibit marketers from using labels that “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects.”
So, nearly 100 years after that hometown raid, absinthe was finally legal in the United States. But much of what is commonly sold as absinthe these days is merely an inferior liqueur, according to the Wormwood Society and other afficianados. There are two methods of making absinthe, by distillation and the “cold method.” The distilled spirit requires a double distillation process that includes steeping the herbs which give the drink its traditional flavor and color. The resulting spirit is strong and not at all sweet. By contrast, the cold method or “mixed” absinthes are produced by taking a grain alchohol base and adding flavorings coloring and usually, a considerable quantity of sugar. Often these drinks are labeled as a “liqueur.”
Although absinthe has been legal for six years, it is still not very common in the U.S. For example, I don’t remember seeing any available at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. But last fall, the Blue Talon restaurant in Williamsburg offered five different types of absinthe. My husband was horrified when I ordered some made from a “150-year-old recipe.” In researching this article, I went to the restaurant’s online menu to see what it was I’d actually ordered. It was “Grande Absente, a French liqueur that the Wormwood Society rated at about two stars (on a scale of five). The reviewer described it as “not completely terrible.” It was served in the traditional fashion with a slotted absinthe “spoon” (that looks more like a cheese spreader to me), a sugar cube and a carafe of ice water. The waitress recommended placing the sugar on the spoon and pouring water over it to dilute and sweeten the drink. I of course had to try it straight first. It tasted a lot like licorice with a bitter twist. I guess that was the wormwood. It was fun to try and probably great for those times when you just want something a little different, but I don’t see myself taking absinthe on a regular basis, so don’t expect to see me hovering over an absinthe dispenser in a Paris café anytime soon.
However, when I visited my dad a couple of weeks ago, he showed me a bottle of absinthe he’d just bought. I’m not sure he has any absinthe spoons and he didn’t even have any sugar cubes. So maybe for Father’s Day I’ll get out some cheese spreaders, bang a few holes in them, and present dad with his own absinthe drinking set. Maybe the bottle he bought is the real thing! I’ll let you know how that goes…
* that would be me – the credulous thrill seeker. Sigh
image:Viktor Oliva [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons