If you only remember Absinthe from the wild tales you heard growing up, you might be confused by the bottles you’ve probably seen being sold in liquor stores across America. Is this the same psychoactive drink containing dangerous neurotoxins that destroyed the minds of turn of the century artists and writers all across Europe? Wasn’t that banned years ago?
Well, yes and no.
Absinthe was banned, and for many years scientists did believe that the primary ‘active’ ingredient in this powerful liquor destroyed the brain. But in the 1990s thanks to a resurgence of interest, researchers were able to prove that the proper distillation of Wormwood did not in fact contain toxic levels of the active ingredient Thujone. In fact, they began to realize that traditionally made Absinthe was actually quite tasty.
But if Absinthe isn’t poisonous, then why was it banned and why did so many artists and writers, from Van Gogh to Verlaine sing its virtues?
In fact, the true villain and real danger of the drink lay in its extremely high alcohol content, as much as twice the strength of hard liquor sold today. This combination of affordability and strength with the delicate herbal effects of the Anise, Fennel and Wormwood began a tidal wave of alcohol abuse that spread across Europe in the late 1800s. It was the first industrial intoxicant, and in its own way was as pernicious a threat to health as the American crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.
However, the forces of temperance also rose in equal measure as the social effects of rampant alcoholism became apparent. Finally, in 1905 a Swiss alcoholic drank a few shots of Absinthe one morning and then axed his family to death, providing the sensationalism and gore that the anti-Absinthe forces needed to push through laws banning the powerful drink.
After a few years, and the end of temperance in America, other less dangerous liquors became popular. And Absinthe sank into myth, the Atlantis of psychoactive liquors.