You’re a few steps into absinthe culture and now you really have some questions. What about all that stuff in the movies? How about that one time when you went to Europe and had a completely different tasting product that was prepared with fire? Well, now is the time to really burst those bubbles.
Part 3: Myths.
The reason that absinthe isn’t what you expected is because of all the myths. Out of all the spirits in the world absinthe is probably the MOST misaligned of all. The history of such misinformation is complex, but the short version is that the Temperance Movement started the myths and eventually got absinthe banned. Throughout the years absinthe was banned, pop-culture latched on and reinforced or even created new myths. Then people who knew nothing about absinthe embraced the “green fairy-tales” as marketing tactics during the 1990s Absinthe Revival. So without further ado here’s the reality.
Hallucinations and Madness
It is unbelievable how much I still hear this. I’m going to get all science and data on you down below, but suffice to say there is no hallucinogenic quality to absinthe or any botanical used in absinthe. This myth wasn’t even that prevalent during the initial Temperance Movement’s misinformation campaign, so it is almost entirely a product of pop-culture.
What the Temperance Movement did do was claim that absinthe made people go insane. This was done by studying people who were detoxing from alcoholism, and blaming absinthe instead of alcohol. At the time absinthe was the cheapest and highest proof liquor you could get thanks to cheap brands cashing in on the fad. This led to most alcoholics who needed medical attention also being the biggest consumers of absinthe. The link was correlated and symptoms now known as alcohol detoxification effects, were called absinthism.
I have personally tried lots of various faux absinthe, thujone loaded absinthe, and even too much raw wormwood looking for something that could potentially attribute to these myths. It’s not there. Probably because thujone doesn’t do what everyone thinks it does.
Thujone, Tigers, and Bears, oh my!
Speaking of thujone, you may have heard of this chemical from some other absinthe website or two out there. Here’s the deal, remember that Temperance Movement misinformation that I told you about? Well, they had to point the finger somewhere. Since anise and fennel were used widely as culinary herbs they couldn’t point there. They were left pointing at wormwood, and especially the active ingredient, thujone. Thus thujone became the scapegoat and is now used as marketing for those who need myths to inflate their shoddy products.
Wives tales will tell you that thujone is some sort of psychoactive agent. Yes, but not in the way that you would think. Thujone, as it turns out, is a convulsant. This means that if you get enough thujone in your system, you start to shake, lots. Thankfully you needs loads of it to hit what is known as the Lowest Discernible Effect Level (LDE) which is 10mg per kilogram of bodyweight. Even at the highest tested pre-ban concentration (which was merely 48.3ppm), you would die from alcohol poisoning before feeling any effect.
Some people may also claim that thujone is related to THC. That was an idea some guy had in the 70’s and he published it. Since then, it has been proven that thujone is not related to THC.
Thujone also occurs in other plants at higher ratios. For example sage and sage oil are listed as safe despite sometimes being more than 50% thujone. Many herbs naturally contain thujone such as mints, tarragon, and rosemary. You’ve never heard of any “absinthe effects” from eating these foods because thujone never had any of those effects. The bottom line is that thujone content is irrelevant.
USA Absinthe isn’t Real
A great many people still think that absinthe in America isn’t real. This myth is perpetuated by European marketers who want your money and fauxsinthe brands who try to deceive the public to make their brands look less shoddy in comparison. The truth of course, that American absinthe is just as real as any other. Many brands on the market in America fit the historical requirements for authentic absinthe, especially many absinthes made in America.
The people who support the idea that American absinthe is fake often point out that by law America requires thujone content to be under 10ppm, which for whatever reason is considered “thujone free” by American regulations. Not only is thujone irrelevant as proven above, but even if thujone was relevant this wouldn’t be an issue as pre-ban absinthe tests have proven.
These studies of pre-ban absinthe found that around 40% of the pre-ban tested would meet the 10ppm rule if submitted for approval today. That’s right, 40% of pre-ban would be legal in America today. What’s more: many of the test samples over 10ppm were from the same brands and recipes that tested under 10ppm, but from different vintages. This may have varied because no one had the technical means, nor care, to test for levels of thujone during the time period that pre-ban absinthe was made. The 60% that would not pass didn’t have significantly larger amounts of thujone. The average of all the test samples was 25.4ppm and the highest was 48.3ppm. Although the numbers look larger, remember that ppm stands for parts per million.
Some people may say that thujone would’ve broken down in long term storage. But it is surprisingly stable so this is proven to not be the case.
Once again, yes, real absinthe is available in America and has been since 2007.
Throughout this Crash Course, I’ve more than hinted at the use of fire being wrong. Let me lay it on the line for you, plain and simple.
Never use fire.
Fire is not used to prepare absinthe in any way. Not to “caramelize the sugar” or whatever lame excuse people have for doing so. Fire was never mentioned in print or seen in advertising posters from the pre-ban era of absinthe. It’s just not what you do. Essentially, it is a good way to ruin a tasty absinthe and the most secure way to get blacklisted as a bar by an absintheur. There’s a speakeasy style bar in my town that pretends really hard to be swanky. I don’t go there because they use fire on absinthe. I do everything I can to tell people to avoid the place because if they screw up absinthe this bad, what else are they messing up?
The entire fire ritual started with fake absinthe at European tourist traps and was used solely to get attention. In the words of the silly people who started it themselves:
Back in Prague and in celebratory mood, John and George found themselves sat in the lounge at the back of Café FX, above Wenceslas Square, when they witnessed their first ever absinth burning where a sugar cube dosed in absinthe is ignited so the sugar used to sweeten the drink is caramelised. They immediately knew that this dramatic serving method was the way to launch absinth in the UK. Although this ‘modern’ method of serving absinth was wholly unauthentic, it was this ritual that was to capture the public’s interest in their product. The introduction of the ‘Sugar and Burn’ ritual is something which will haunt George for decades to come as well meaning absinthe aficionados see absinth burning as sacrilege.
Preparing absinthe with fire, for any reason, is akin to spitting in the face of the green fairy.
If you do this, you are dead to me.
I cringe when someone tells me they don’t like absinthe because they had some that a friend made and it tasted horrible. Back in 2005, I did too, and I thought absinthe was disgusting! Turns out everyone is just getting scammed.
The reason you can’t just buy a kit online and make your own absinthe by soaking herbs in vodka is because distillation is necessary. Distillation chemically separates compounds and leaves a lot of the nasty flavors behind. Try comparing the flavor of raw wormwood to any absinthe with a strong wormwood profile and you can immediately taste the difference.
In the United States distilling alcohol without a license is illegal. Legally, you cannot distill at home. Sure, there are moonshiners that make their own distilled absinthe, but they run the same risk as other moonshiners, fines, exploding stills, methanol poisoning, and jail.
No amount of “special filtering” or maceration method or any other nonsense can achieve what distillation does. Avoid the scams and stay away from those kits.
These five myths are the biggest ones out there. There are more, but the answers to these can often dispel many of the other myths that pop up from time to time. A little bit of knowledge can help you out in the long run. Absinthe is poorly understood and currently only one nation in the world even defines it: Switzerland. Thus, it is up to the consumers-you and I-to lead the change in the market for better and more authentic absinthe.