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First and foremost, Absinthe will not make you hallucinate.  Not even a little.  Absinthe is a high proof spirit that’s infused with herbs and other botanicals, most prominently anise which gives it an licorice-like profile, and wormwood, which, again, is not a hallucinogenic. 


Absinthe is not a liqueur as there’s no sugar added.  It is traditionally very high in alcohol, typically somewhere between 55%-72% ABV.  This likely accounts for the strong reaction experienced by some drinkers, but I assure you it’s just alcohol at work. 


The name absinthe comes from the scientific term for wormwood, which is Artemisia absinthium.  Along with anise, it has a broadly herbaceous profile that's somewhat indicative of Chartreuse, though brighter and more ethereal. 


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Using Absinthe in Cocktails

Absinthe was a very common cocktail ingredient in classic cocktails of the pre-prohibition age.  Because of its potency, a little goes a long way, it’s usually applied in rinses, splashes, and dashes - which is why I have absinthe permanently stored in a dasher, as pictured above.  The most famous absinthe cocktail is certainly the Sazerac, though I’m also partial to the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, Corpse Reviver #2, and Turf Club/Tuxedo #2.

Recommended Brands:

Here are a few brands I've had success with.  If you run across any others, of for more recommendations, check out I had no idea how many brands of absinthe there were until I found that site.  Holy cow, there’s a lot of them on there.   


  • Pernod Absinthe - I’ve always used Pernod Absinthe which is what we’ve always used at Clover Club. It’s delicious, balanced and makes excellent cocktails. Note, this is not to be confused with Pernod, which is made by the same company but a different product.  The labels look similar, so make sure you see “absinthe” written on there.  Another telltale sign is the absinthe is 55% ABV, Pernod is 40%.   

  • Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe - Maybe the best absinthe, I've ever had.  A bit spicier than Pernod.

  • St. George Absinthe Verte - Also excellent.  It's made in California and the first absinthe produced in America following the ban, is another one too.




Absinthe Substitutes

When absinthe was banned, more on that below, a number of anise-flavored spirit products entered the market to fill the void, the most common of where were as Pastis, Pernod, Ricard, and Herbsaint.  These are still available today.  They are typically closer to traditional 40% abv spirit proof.  for years were the only option for classic absinthe cocktails, my first Sazerac was made with Pernod, in fact.  They work fine in cocktails, but now that the genuine article is available again, I’d stick with that, if available.

How Absinthe is Made

  • Absinthe is produced similarly to gin.

  • It begins as a neutral spirit (traditionally grape-based), with botanicals macerated and then distilled. Most prominent are anise, wormwood, fennel, and/or hyssop. 

  • A second infusion is done post-distillation to add more flavor and traditional green color, earning it the nickname "la fée verte" or the green fairy.

  • Natural agents like green anise, mint, and spinach are used to give Absinthe it’s trademark color, although some brands may use artificial colorants.



Serving Absinthe

While it was indeed a common cocktail ingredient, the classic and most popular method for consuming absinthe in it’s day was simply with sugar and water.  The mixing was traditionally done by the drinker, even in a bar or restaurant.  About 2 oz of absinthe was poured into a roughly 10 oz glass, over which a slotted metal spoon was placed with sugar cube perched on top.  The glass, spoon, and sugar was served accompanied by a carafe of chilled water which the guest would slowly pour over the sugar and into the glass, dissolving the sugar and mixing the drink.  The classic dilution was in the realm of 3-5 parts water to 1 part absinthe.


Absinthe glasses and absinthe spoons were designed specifically for these rituals. Bars and restaurants eventually began sporting “absinthe fountains” which had multiple ice water-dispensing spigots that customers would hold their glass under and could control the speed of the dripping water.  Not many establishments still feature these.  Though one prominent one is at the excellent award-winning bar, Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


Clouding When Mixed with Water​

If you’ve ever added water to absinthe, or any anise-forward alcohol like ouzo or raki, you’ve noticed that the liquid instantly becomes cloudy. This effect is called the "louche" (pronounced LOOSH). It occurs is because anethole, the flavor compound responsible for the anise/licorice flavor, is not stable in water.  So when the proof becomes low enough, in the words of Harold McGee, "the molecules are separated from the continuous liquid into little water-avoiding droplets, and these scatter like the fat globules in milk."

rye whiskey, social hour, tom macy, cocktail, classic cocktail
rye whiskey, social hour, tom macy, cocktail, classic cocktail

The History of Absinthe

Like many spirit histories, the origins of absinthe emerge from an ambiguous mist. The clearest line to absinthe as we know it today begins in the late 1700s in Switzerland. From there, it gained popularity in France and thrived throughout the 19th century, spreading to several international markets including all of Europe and the United States.

The Ban

Absinthe was famously banned under the presumption that it was dangerous and made people experience LSD-like hallucinations. This has greatly contributed to the mystique that still swirls around it today. But, as mentioned above, this is simply not true. Why did everyone believe such a totally inaccurate assumption? It was a case of several converging elements, many of which were anecdotal, but one was allegedly scientific. Let’s start there.


Wormwood, with its witchcraft-y sounding name, is often cited as the culprit in absinthe that causes madness and hallucinations. However, wormwood is not dangerous. It is a Mediterranean herb and a member of the Artemisia genus, which is part of the daisy family. It has been used as a flavoring ingredient in alcohol as far back as 1500 BC—there is hard evidence that the Chinese were putting it in wine—because it improves the flavor and/or covers up bad ones. There are several examples today of alcohols that contain wormwood and were never banned, including Chartreuse and vermouth. In fact, the German word for wormwood is "wermut," from which vermouth gets its name.


Thujone is a chemical compound found in wormwood. In the 19th century, thujone was believed to induce effects similar to cannabinoids when ingested. This belief was based on highly questionable research, but the press printed it and the public bought it. This led to the conclusion that overindulging in absinthe could cause hallucinations. It was later proven that thujone does not cause any psychedelic effects. It can be dangerous in large doses, causing convulsions and muscle spasms, but only trace amounts of thujone are found in absinthe. One would die of alcohol poisoning long before thujone levels became an issue. Still, this argument, based on a 19th-century understanding of chemistry, was compelling.

Anti-Absinthe Campaigns

Another key reason for absinthe’s fall was that it was targeted by both the wine industry and the temperance movement—albeit for different reasons. Absinthe outsold wine in France, so companies were more than happy to fan the flames of consumer doubt about its safety. The temperance movement, whose sole objective was a ban on alcohol, particularly on moral grounds, viewed absinthe as a poster child for their narrative about social decay caused by alcohol. A contributor to their narrative was the widespread use of absinthe in bohemian culture, which consisted of writers and artists and included icons like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Edgar Allan Poe, just to name a few.


While romanticized in movies like Moulin Rouge, the bohemian lifestyle was detested by social conservatives in its day, and its association with absinthe led to further vilification. It certainly didn't help that some of these artists did indeed suffer from mental illness—Van Gogh probably being the most famous example. Even more incriminating was the presence of absinthe in some of these artists' works, which were likely depictions of common inebriation, but could easily be interpreted as hallucinations. Many brands today still can't help but try to capitalize on this misunderstanding.


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Albert's Maigan's "Green Muse", painted in1895.

rye whiskey, social hour, tom macy, cocktail, classic cocktail

The label of a faux absinthe called absente

Murder and Panic

At the end of the 19th century, public wariness of absinthe was setting in, and some bans began. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a horrific incident in 1905 Switzerland that appeared to confirm everyone’s worst fears. One afternoon, a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray got exceptionally drunk after consuming several glasses of wine, Cognac, crème de menthe, topped off by two ounces of absinthe. He then went home and, following a violent argument with his wife, murdered her and his two children before attempting to kill himself, unsuccessfully. In court, his lawyer argued it was a classic case of absinthe madness. Lanfray was sentenced to 30 years in prison; he didn’t receive the death penalty because he was intoxicated and presumably not responsible for his actions (a decision many found infuriating). However, he killed himself after just three days in prison.

The murders and trial were vigorously covered by the media and incited widespread fear of absinthe’s effects, all of which was eagerly corroborated by wine and temperance advocates. From there, bans fell like dominoes. In 1912, it was deemed illegal in the United States, and in France in 1914. Some countries never instituted a ban, including the United Kingdom and Spain, but the market all but evaporated for the rest of the 20th century.


Towards the end of the 20th century, bans on absinthe began to be lifted. Essentially, some companies realized that there might be a market for absinthe again and they set about demonstrating to governing authorities that it was totally safe and always had been. In the United States, it finally became available again in 2007, with the caveat that all absinthe must be “thujone-free”, defined as containing less than 10 parts per million. However, most absinthes are under this level anyway, including pre-ban absinthes. In Europe, the minimum levels allowed are 35 parts per million, a negligible difference that will have no impact on the drinker. Case in point: sage has higher thujone levels than wormwood and isn't regulated at all.

Naturally, after nearly a century’s worth of rumors and suggestive depictions in popular culture, consumers were eager to try absinthe when it returned, driven by pure curiosity. But even when no one hallucinated or went mad, just got good old-fashioned drunk, the absinthe resurgence continued. This was likely thanks in part to its presence in a wide array of classic cocktails, which were also seeing a revival at this time. So, thankfully, the Green Fairy is flying again, and this time she's not coming down.

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