Frequently Asked Questions About Absinthe - Reviewed by Experts and Consumers at The Wormwood Society
The most common questions about absinthe, answered in detail, with accompanying bibliography.
Common Myths Debunked
Much of absinthe's dubious reputation is due to often-repeated legends based on misinformation, exaggeration, 19th century politics, and modern media hype. Historical sources and modern science do not bear them out.
To further confuse matters, unscrupulous modern marketers in under-regulated countries exaggerate these myths, combine them with modern falsehoods, and use them as marketing gimmicks to lure the credulous thrill-seeker.
Below is a list of some of the most relevant and frequently asked questions about absinthe.
The FAQ Short Form
• Most of the absinthes available in the US are authentic.
That is, they contain the same ingredients—including absinthium wormwood—and are similar to pre-ban absinthe in composition, style, and flavor. This is possible in part because modern analysis has demonstrated that the compounds blamed for absinthe's alleged harmful effects were not present in pre-ban absinthe in the large amounts previously assumed. Modern absinthe made strictly according to pre-ban recipes has been analyzed and found to be more or less identical to actual pre-ban absinthe. Still, at present, there are no legal guidelines in the US as to what may be labeled "absinthe". There are faux absinthe brands being sold as genuine, so buyer caution is advised; be well-informed!
• Absinthe is not a drug or poison and it never was.
It won't make you “trip”, hallucinate, cut your ear off, or do anything else you wouldn't ordinarily do when intoxicated with liquor. Like any form of alcohol, it should be indulged in responsibly, but its only toxic properties are due to its high alcohol content. While alcohol is classified as a drug itself, absinthe contains no other components that would differentiate it from any other form of alcohol in that sense.
The terrifying hallucinations reported in early, hospitalized absinthe abusers were most likely due to the withdrawal symptoms of acute alcoholism: alcoholic hallucinosis, or, the DTs. While some of the botanicals used have a mild stimulant effect (aniseed and fennel), there are no psychedelic or hallucinogenic ingredients in authentic absinthe, now or in the past.
• Thujone is not a hallucinogen and it's not related, or similar, to THC.
Thujone, the primary volatile oil in wormwood, is present in only in trace amounts in absinthe due to its resistance to distillation and is safe at these levels. The “100mg thujone” and “ extra strong” hype on many absinthe retail sites is a "legal high" marketing gimmick aimed at the gullible and uninformed. The role of thujone in the so-called “secondary effect” is greatly exaggerated, as is the effect itself. If you're here to read about thujone, read through the articles in our Absinthe Science section. The similarity in effect to THC was an untested conjecture in the mid-1970s and is unsupported by later studies. Thujone is a dangerous neurotoxin at large concentrations and is NOT a hallucinogen or a psychedelic and has no reasonable recreational potential.
• You can't make real absinthe at home or in a commercial bar, legally.
No more than you can make real whiskey or gin at home. Absinthe must be distilled, just as whiskey, rum, and gin. In most countries, including the US, home-distilling any amount of beverage alcohol is illegal. Soaking wormwood and other herbs in vodka or grain neutral spirits will not make absinthe or anything like it.
• Flaming absinthe or sugar cubes has never been an authentic absinthe tradition.
Not in France, the Czech Republic, or anywhere else prior to the late 1990's. There are a number of time-honored classic drinks which are flamed, but absinthe was never one of them. Aside from sensational value, burnt sugar does no more than to introduce a charred marshmallow flavor, obscuring the delicate balance of botanicals.
• Authentic absinthe isn't very bitter.
The primary flavor of absinthe is anise—similar to licorice—but well-made absinthes have an herbal complexity that makes them taste like more than just licorice candy. It generally has a very mild bitterness.
• Pastis is not “absinthe without the wormwood.”
Pastis was invented as an absinthe substitute after absinthe was banned in 1915. Pernod, Ricard, Henri Bardouin, Herbsaint, and other pastis are substantially different from absinthe. The major differences are that pastis contains sugar, is bottled at a much lower proof, and uses primarily star anise, which gives it a pronounced "black jelly bean" flavor. Although some lower-quality absinthes also use star anise, most use aniseed and fennel, providing a more balanced and complex flavor. Pastis will generally work in cocktails calling for absinthe, but as drinks on their own they're not very similar to it.
Additionally, one cannot make absinthe by simply adding wormwood or wormwood extract to these products. It will taste vile.
Is Real Absinthe Legal and Available in the United States?
Yes, it really is.
NOTE: No laws have changed, and no ban has been lifted. Absinthe has been technically legal since at least the 1960s, possibly as early as the 1930s. Contrary to claims made by some companies, federal bureaucrats were not pressured into legalizing absinthe, it was merely demonstrated to them that it was already legal. Due to changes in the understanding of these regulatory issues on the part of both the agencies and the producers, genuine absinthe is once again available legally in the US. Here's why:
The law1 states that all foods and beverages containing any Artemisia species must be thujone-free. However, according to the law, "thujone-free" does not literally mean "zero thujone."
In order to determine thujone content, an official method for thujone analysis was prescribed. Although the information has been published and accessible since the 1960s, prior to 2007 it was not widely known that the threshold of tolerance—the fudge factor—for this method was ten parts per million, about 10 mg/L.
This effectively legalizes most absinthes, since authentic absinthe contains only minute traces of thujone in the first place. The highest thujone levels so far detected in pre-ban samples is 48.3 mg/L, the lowest was "none detected." 1
Many pre-ban era absinthes would be legal in the US today by modern government standards. Discovering this was a major breakthrough for absinthe in the US.
Most of the laws that impact absinthe in the US are out-dated, convoluted, unevenly enforced, and misunderstood even by those charged with enforcing them.
1. See source citations here.
What Is Absinthe?
To put it concisely: Absinthe is an anise and wormwood flavored distilled spirit, made from aniseed, fennel, and wormwood. Absinthe takes its name from the main adjunct flavoring aside from anise, Artemisia absinthium. The common French name for this species is “grande absinthe”.
Although it is often referred to as a “liqueur”, this isn't really accurate today, since according to the modern definition of liqueurs they are pre-sweetened; absinthe is not. Technically, absinthe is an aperitif spirit, a before-meal tipple. Pre-sweetened absinthe was known as crème d'absinthe and was of considerably lower proof.
Although wormwood-infused drinks have been used as medicine and beverages for thousands of years, when we speak of “absinthe” we are evoking this very specific distilled spirit that rose to popularity in France and Switzerland beginning in the 18th century.
There are many traditional drinks from around the world that contain Artemisia absinthium wormwood—vermouth, Scandinavian besk, Polish piołunówka, some aquavits, etc.—and yet they are not absinthe. It takes more than simply including wormwood as an ingredient to be able to justifiably categorize a spirit as absinthe. Authentic, pre-ban style absinthe will have these characteristics:
Other traditional absinthe ingredients include petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), melissa (Melissa officinalis) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis).
Absinthe is very high in alcohol content, usually in the 55% to 72% range (110 to 144 proof); for comparison, whiskey is generally around 40% or 80 proof. Absinthe, a high-proof concentrate, is intended to be served diluted with iced water at a ratio of approximately three to five parts water to one part absinthe. Alternatively, it is used in small proportions as a cocktail ingredient, much like bitters.
What Does Absinthe Taste Like?
Absinthe was always, above all, an aniseed-flavored spirit, similar to ouzo, raki, and arak. Depending on the variety, the flavor of genuine absinthe is primarily that of aniseed and fennel enhanced with the subtle, meadow-like herbal bitterness of the wormwood. It's not as bitter as its reputation suggests, and proper absinthe never has been, as can be attested by those who have tasted surviving bottles of vintage pre-ban absinthe. There's no denying it, it has a peculiar flavor and is often an acquired taste. As one gains experience in tasting absinthes, one can discern the various herbs which make up its complex and interesting flavor.
The flavor of absinthe is sometimes associated with black licorice. The reason for this is that many licorice candies are actually flavored with star anise oil, the inexpensive flavoring used in lower-quality absinthes. Premium absinthes contain primarily green anise—the common aniseed—which has a much more balanced and mellow flavor. Sometimes whole star anise is used sparingly to supplement the green anise.
The licorice plant and green anise are unrelated. The flavor of licorice root—Glycyrrhiza glabra—comes from the compound glycyrrhizin, while that of aniseed, fennel, and star anise come from anethole. With very little experience, one can easily tell the difference between anise and genuine licorice.
Many people who wish to embrace the romance and spirit of absinthe just happen also to dislike the flavor of anise, and inquire after non-anise absinthes. To this, the absintheur will reply: “that wouldn't be absinthe,” and it would be true. An analogy would be asking for orange juice that didn't taste like citrus. However, there are always entrepreneurs eager to fill a need, so many spirits have come along with little or no anise flavor and they are being marketed as absinthe. In our opinion “absinthe” is not an appropriate designation for this type of spirit.
In a well-made absinthe, the anise flavor is balanced with the other botanicals in such a way that it tastes much more complex than just licorice candy, so if you've tasted an absinthe that tastes like nothing more than black jelly beans, you may want to trade up to a better brand.
How is Absinthe Served?
Absinthe is a simple drink. Proper preparation consists of slowly diluting it with very cold iced water—whether dripping from a specially made absinthe fountain, by hand from a carafe, or even a sports water bottle—to a ratio of approximately three to five parts water to one part absinthe, and sweetened to taste.
The botanical oils from the anise and fennel are readily dissolved in the high-proof alcohol during the distillation process, but do not mix with water. When absinthe is diluted with water and the alcohol-to-water ratio changes, the oils come out of solution with the alcohol to form a colloidal suspension (microscopic oil droplets) with the water, causing a beautiful cloudy effect, known as the “louche.” “Louche” is a French word (pronounced “loosh”) meaning variously, “turbulent” “troubled” and “cloudy.”
The louche is also accompanied by a release of the fragrances and flavors latent in the essential oils and is best accomplished slowly, by steadily dripping water.
One should never drink absinthe neat. First of all, it's too strong. More importantly, many of the aromas and flavors are not present until the addition of water brings the herbal oils out of solution and the flavor “blooms.”
Please read our absinthe preparation instructions linked in the menu at the top of the page.
Is Absinthe A Drug? Is It Poisonous? Is it Dangerous?
During the decades preceding the ban of absinthe, alcoholism grew at an alarming rate. As absinthe was in vogue at the time, very inexpensive and extremely high in alcohol, it was easily abused by people with an addictive predisposition.
Today, history repeats itself as unscrupulous producers capitalize on the popularity of absinthe and make substandard and poor-tasting imitations with cheap alcohol, artificial coloring and flavorings and today—to reinforce the notion of absinthe as a drug—boast about high thujone content! Often this alleged high level is grossly exaggerated and sometimes it is artificially boosted by the addition of thujone-containing oils. Still, even in the highest thujone content products—one cannot really call them absinthe—the thujone level is well below that of observable effect. In short, they're selling snake oil.
While in extremely high doses, thujone is known to be a dangerous neurotoxin and convulsant, science has shown through chemical analysis of vintage absinthes and contemporary absinthes made strictly according to historical recipes, that previous estimates of thujone levels in pre-ban absinthe were greatly exaggerated. One would die of alcohol poisoning long before one could consume enough absinthe to get a substantial dose of thujone.
Of interesting note: the majority of studies cited by critics which seem to implicate absinthe were not performed by testing absinthe itself, but used pure thujone or wormwood oil, without distillation and without considering the minuscule amounts actually present in the absinthe after distillation.
An analogy would be to study the effects of high doses of pure caffeine on lab rats and then condemn coffee for its tendency to cause heart failure. The symptoms of caffeine overdose are very similar to those of thujone poisoning and include muscle twitching, confusion, twilight consciousness, fever, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions and death. Most of us are familiar with the deleterious effects of caffeine abuse, yet no one is suggesting that we ban coffee.
It has been repeated over and over that the thujone molecule is supposedly similar to the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) molecule. It was at one time conjectured (del Castillo et al, 1975) that perhaps the thujone molecule interacts with the same receptor sites in the brain as THC does.
Not surprisingly, this idea has remained popular in the recreational drug subculture and among those who would like to think that absinthe will make them high. Even though it was demonstrated in 1978 that this theory was unsupported by science, it continues to get dragged out by gullible thrill seekers who have a deep personal need to see absinthe as a new exotic drug.
Thujone has very little, if anything, to do with the secondary effects of absinthe. Unlike many “entheogens”, thujone has no recreational potential.
The Absinthe Effect is not a drug-induced mind-bending trip that sends one screaming down the halls of old mausoleums. As was pointed out above, practically the entire drinking population of France was drinking absinthe regularly. It's unlikely that there were that many people sitting around in cafés tripping their brains out every day.
When indulged in moderation, the effect is one of pleasant alcohol intoxication accompanied by a lively mental clarity and uplifted mood, not unlike that of caffeine. It is now commonly thought among absintheurs to be the result of the mixture of the herbs in question, not merely the wormwood. It is likely that this liveliness and clarity allowed the artists and writers of the Belle Époque to remain alert and record their ideas rather than simply falling into a drunken stupor.
It’s popular to recite the litany of artistic luminaries of the time who were absinthe drinkers. This is hardly surprising, given that almost everyone else was, too. It's just that these luminaries were the ones who either recorded their lives or were remarkeble enough to be recorded by others. Given the ubiquitous status of absinthe, of course it figured in their lives in some way.
On Fire and Absinthe
At no time in the history of absinthe, until the late 1990's, has the “Czech Method” of lighting absinthe-soaked sugar on fire—recently popularized in the movies From Hell, Moulin Rouge, and Alfie—ever been used. This is a modern innovation and a pointless abuse of good absinthe. Aside from spectacle, it has no effect whatsoever except possibly that of introducing a burnt-marshmallow taste to the absinthe thus obscuring the delicate herbal nuances and ruining its flavor.
No one who knows anything about absinthe and its history would use this method. Compare it to shaking a bottle of champagne. Given the high-proof nature of the liquor it can also be very dangerous, resulting in a cracked or broken glass, injury and accidental fire.
It's probable that the “Czech method” was borrowed from the Café Royale, a traditional coffee drink where a brandy or cognac-soaked sugar lump is ignited in a spoon before adding it to the coffee. This was depicted in 1887 by the American painter, Irving Ramsey Wiles in his painting, The Loiterers. Several years ago the painting was mistaken (and mis-titled) as portraying a couple drinking absinthe.
How Is Absinthe Made?
First, the required herbs and botanicals are infused or "macerated" in high-proof neutral spirits for a specified time, usually around 12 to 24 hours. This takes place in the pot of a steam-heated, alembic pot still, but with very gentle or no heat.
DISTILLATION After maceration, the mixture is distilled. Distillation relies on the fact that alcohol and certain volatile oils of the plants have a lower evaporation temperature than water and therefore evaporate sooner, effectively separating the spirits and oils from the water.
During distillation, the essential oils of the plants are vaporized along with the alcohol and travel from the pot, along the swan's neck and are re-condensed in the cooling coil. This is where they become the spirit, leaving behind the majority of the water along with the plant matter and the bitter, undesirable constituents of the herbs.
The result is a perfectly clear, colorless, but very fragrant and flavorful liquor.
Many fine absinthes are left in this state and sold as is. These clear absinthes are referred to as blanches (whites). The term la bleue is generally reserved for those absinthes distilled clandestinely in the rural areas of Switzerland—the Swiss equivalent of "moonshine."
SECONDARY MACERATION / FINISHING Most commonly, a final infusion provides additional flavor, aroma, and the emerald hue for which absinthe is famous.
The spirit is gently warmed and additional herbs are added for a brief time to impart additional flavor and aroma as well as color from the chlorophyll in the herbs.
The most common herbs used in this step are hyssop, melissa and petite wormwood. Petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica) isn't bitter like Artemisia absinthium. The coloration resulting from this infusion cannot be sustained in lower-proof alcohols such as vodka, as the chlorophyll quickly degrades and becomes yellow or brown within a matter of weeks or even days.
PROOFING The absinthe is then carefully brought to the desired bottling strength by adding the necessary amount of water.
AGING Although not often aged in the common sense of spending many years in oak barrels, absinthe benefits greatly by resting from several months to a year or more before being released to the market. This can be done in steel tanks or in neutral oak barrels, which will not impart undesired flavor or color, but will allow oxygenation. Absinthe will continue to improve with age even after bottling.
Although not many modern absinthes are aged, increasing numbers of makers are becoming aware of the benefits of aging.
Can I Make My Own Absinthe?
As outlined above, absinthe is distilled spirit and can not be made without distillation which, in the US, requires a federal permit. The grotesquely bitter homemade products which have become common are not absinthe and do not resemble it in any way whatsoever. Without distillation it's not possible to separate the water-soluble bitter absinthins from the desired essential oils. It is these absinthins that give vodka-soak preparations their horrible, bitter taste.
Absinthe should be savored, not endured.
Even with a still, absinthe is not simple or easy to make. Distilling a safe, drinkable product is not quite as easy as following a recipe. It's not rocket science either, but there is science and learned technique involved, as with any craft. The proper herbs are difficult to find outside the industry; the herb store varieties of anise, fennel and wormwood are most often inferior, stale, and sometimes of entirely wrong species.
Important Note: DO NOT BUY ABSINTHE “KITS”! These are gimmicks aimed at the gullible. They will not make absinthe or anything remotely like it. The people selling these kits either know nothing about absinthe or how it is made, or simply don't care. The results of these kits are a positively vile-tasting, insanely bitter, potentially poisonous mess.
What's Wrong With “Czech-Style” Absinth?
We’ve all seen it: bright turquoise, neon-green, and brilliant red, even black. Whether it’s called Czech Absinth, “Bohemian” style or “modern” absinthe, most of it, contrary to marketing, bears no resemblance to absinthe. And it’s not all Czech: some come from Germany, Spain, Bulgaria and Austria as well.
Although these countries do produce a few brands of quality absinthe, the rest are produced and marketed by less-than-ethical businesses and are little more than aromatized, artificially-colored vodkas.
Since preventing consumer deception is one of the main purposes of the Wormwood Society, we expect this situation will change as more people become educated about absinthe and this type of deception is more fully exposed.
Where Can I Buy Absinthe?
First, check your local liquor store. There are dozens of brands of authentic absinthe available in the US now, many of which are the same absinthe sold in Europe. There are also a number of absinthes made in the US whose quality and historic authenticity equal and in some cases surpass those of Europe.
For online purchase, where permissible (check your local and state laws), our list of vendors of absinthe and accessories, as well as recommended brands, is on our Vendors Page. They all carry the better brands of absinthe and few of the inferior brands. In the unlikely case of failed delivery, they will often work with you until you're happy.
----- “Absinthe,” The Lancet, Volume 91, Issue 2332, 8 May, 1868
----- “Absinthe and Alcohol,” The Lancet, Volume 93, Issue 2375, March 6th, 1869, Pages 317-354
Delahaye, Marie-Claude, PERNOD, 200 Years, (Musée de l’Absinthe, Auvers-sur-Oise)
Baker, Phil, The Book of Absinthe, A Cultural History, (Grove Press, 2001)
Lachenmeier, Emmert, Kuballa, Sartor, “Thujone—Cause of absinthism?” Forensic Science International, 17 May 2005
Magnan, Valantin, “On the Comparative Action of Alcohol and Absinthe,” The Lancet, Volume 104, Issue 2664, Pages 410-412 (September 19th 1874)
Meschler, Justin P., Howlett, Allyn C., “Thujone Exhibits Low Affinity for Cannabinoid Receptors But Fails to Evoke Cannabimimetic Responses,” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Volume 62, Issue 3, March 1999, Pages 473-480
Nathan-Maister, David, Oxygénée’s Virtual Absinthe Museum, 2005, www.oxygenee.com
Noël, Verte, Artemis, Absinthe, A Myth Always Green, (l’Esprit frappeur, 2003)
United States Code, TITLE 19 - CHAPTER 4 - SUBTITLE III - Part V - Sec. 1595.
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 3. CITE: 21CFR172.510, (Revised as of April 1, 2004)
*Several medium-to-premium quality brands of authentic absinthe have been released in other countries: “Montmartre” from Austria, “Absinthe Toulouse Lautrec” from Czechia, and one Swiss absinth, “Kallnacher.” See the reviews of these absinthes.