Once banned around the world, the alcoholic beverage absinthe is now legally available in every country where alcohol is legal. A 1990s revival of the drink stirred up a great deal of excitement, but their first taste left many drinkers disappointed. Where were the green fairies?
It is popularly believed that the spirit distilled from neutral alcohol, herbs and spices can cause hallucinations. Its nickname of the Green Fairy may have something to do with it, but so may Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge. The scene in which Kylie Minogue appears briefly as a green otherworldly being no doubt replayed in the minds of many first-timers as they raised their glasses.
Sadly, just as every boozy reverie comes to an end, so does the myth of the drink’s visionary powers. The science is in, and it is undisputed: absinthe does not cause hallucinations.
Where the Fairy Fits In
The main ingredient in the drink is wormwood (artemisia absinthium), an herb that has been used medicinally since ancient Greece, where it was steeped in wine. However, it was only in the 18th century, in Switzerland’s Val-de-Travers region that it was first distilled with other herbs to create the drink known today as absinthe.
Its popularity spread to France, where it was lapped up by the writers, artists, poets, and other bohemians of the Belle Époque. They crowded into cafes and bars every evening for what was called the green hour, and drank glass after glass.
It was during this period that the Green Fairy nickname was first used, probably with poetic license, and it stuck. In fact, it stuck as hard as the stories of the spirit causing weird visions, strange behaviour, insanity, and depravity which began surfacing at the time, courtesy of temperance leagues and newspapers; stories that led to it banned in several countries in 1900.
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The Not-So-Magic Ingredient
Wormwood, the herb that gives absinthe its characteristic bitter taste, contains a chemical called thujone; it was thought to be responsible for all the strange effects. It wasn’t. It turns out thujone actually is a GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) inhibitor.
This means it blocks the receptors in the brain that are activated by GABA. In high doses, it can cause convulsions, but you still won’t see any green fairies flying around the place.
Alcohol Poisoning and More
The alcohol content of modern absinthe ranges anywhere between 55% and 75% alcohol by volume, which is between 110 and 144 proof. If anything is responsible for the bizarre things people did after drinking too much, it was that.
After all, distillers were not subject to as many controls then as they are now, and even if they were, bootleggers would not have paid much attention. They were probably too busy adding paint and other poisonous chemicals to their products anyway.
Absinthe will never make you see green fairies, pink elephants, or anything else that isn’t really there. However, the images of 19th-century artists and writers talking, laughing, and loving the night away conjured up by its bittersweet herbal character are almost as good as Kylie in wings and sequined leotard. Santé!