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The Straight Dope


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The movie Moulin Rouge has a sequence about drinking absinthe and the apparent hallucinogenic effects of same. Now a wire story, widely reproduced, announces the new Absente brand of absinthe that is made with "southern wormwood" and is legal and safe. The story goes on to say that the regular absinthe was banned becaused it contained a neurotoxin. Weird things happened back in the early 20th century (cocaine in cola, "killer weed," etc), so I have to wonder: Was there really a neurotoxin in absinthe? Was it hallucinogenic? Will it rot your brain? Would it be fun? --Drew, via the Internet

Oh, sure, no end to the fun you can have with absinthe. Like grand mal epileptic seizures, for example--are they a laff riot or what? But no one is sure whether seizures and other pyrotechnic effects of absinthe were the result of the ingredient wormwood, which contains the neurotoxin you're talking about, or just acute alcohol poisoning. If you ask me, the only way to decide the matter definitively is for you to start drinking absinthe while a buddy starts putting away, say, vodka. After you both go into a coma and die, we'll peel your heads open and see which brain has more rot.

Absinthe is illegal in most places now, but a century ago it was the most fashionable drink in France--the 19th-century equivalent of cocaine, even requiring a special spoon. You didn't use the perforated absinthe spoon to put the stuff up your nose, though, but to hold a lump of sugar over the absinthe glass while you poured in water. The water diluted the potent liqueur--absinthe was 60 to 75 percent alcohol--while the sugar took off the bitter edge. (The word absinthe is thought to derive from the Greek apsinthion, undrinkable, although the wormwood-flavored beverages of antiquity were different from that sipped in the cafes of Montmartre.) A transparent green when poured from the bottle, absinthe turned milky green, then opalescent with the addition of water. The spoon, the color, and the ritual were part of the mystique of absinthe, which enthusiasts called la fee verte, the Green Fairy.

Drink enough absinthe and you'd see lots of green fairies--or pink elephants. Absinthe was embraced by the artists and bohemians of the Parisian demimonde, who thought it unleashed the imagination, increased mental acuity, and so on. Oscar Wilde, who had more than a casual acquaintance with absinthe, wrote, "After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

Wilde wasn't the only creative eminence to enjoy absinthe. The roll of literary and artistic types who flirted with the Green Fairy, often at the expense of their art, includes some of the most distinguished names of the 19th century: the poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine; the painters Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec; and many others who prided themselves on living close to the edge in the glittering if decadent cafe society of the belle epoch. (For a wonderful evocation of absinthe's role in that lost world, see Barnaby Conrad III's 1988 book Absinthe: History in a Bottle.)

It couldn't last. Absinthe was blamed, somewhat unfairly, for the high rate of alcoholism in France (the real culprit was undoubtedly wine, which was consumed in far greater quantities). Temperance advocates and newspapers linked it to several horrifying murders, and it was ultimately banned in France and many other countries in the years leading up to World War I.

Was the stuff really so bad? Many point to the ingredient wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which contains the neurotoxin thujone. Thujone is chemically similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and some speculate that the two compounds act on the brain in similar ways. Others say that even chronic absinthe drinkers couldn't consume enough thujone to do real damage--you'd pass out in a drunken stupor first--and that the real culprit was alcohol.

These days it's all pretty much academic--absinthe remains illegal in most places. It's still made in Spain and the Czech Republic and can be sold in the UK. But the concentration of thujone in the modern product is much less than in the old days. If you'd rather avoid trouble with the law, you can buy Absente, which as you say is an absinthe substitute made with southern wormwood. Doesn't sound like much of a deal to me--you're not getting the genuine article, and it's still highly alcoholic (110 proof). But maybe cirrhosis is a small price to pay to feel like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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