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Drinking Habits

All About Absinthe: Is It Legal? What Are The Side Effects

March 8, 2024
24 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 8, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Reframe Content Team
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You’ve probably heard the stories about great artists losing their minds to absinthe. Legendary painters Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh were huge fans, as were influential writers like Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote poems about it, and it was also a favorite of Frank Sinatra and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For much of its existence, absinthe has been shrouded by an air of mystery and mystique, fueled by rumors about its mind-altering properties. But what exactly is absinthe, and are any of the rumors of its unique powers true? Let’s explore the history of absinthe and just why it came to be such a popular drink among artists and intellectuals of the 19th century.

History of Absinthe

According to most sources, absinthe was developed in Switzerland in the late 1700s as a medicinal liquor. It contained medicinal herbs and spices that had been used for millennia and were similar to teas and tinctures of ancient Egypt and Greece.

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In the first half of the 19th century, absinthe was primarily used to treat and prevent illness, as people were already familiar with the ingredients from traditional and folk medicine. It was even given to French troops as a malaria preventive.

By the middle of the century, it had gained popularity among the general public. It was generally inexpensive and enjoyed by all social classes. A subculture even popped up around it, centering on absinthe happy hours — called “green hours” due to its signature green color — and supercharged by its association with artists and writers. It made its way to America by way of French immigrants to New Orleans, where it became a staple of popular bars and even became part of New Orleans’ signature cocktail, the Sazerac.

With its rise in popularity, absinthe gained a particularly dark reputation for its association with crime, insanity, and bad behavior. Rumors started to swirl that it had hallucinogenic properties and might even lead to insanity. “The Green Fairy” became a popular nickname for absinthe due to its reported tendency to cause hallucinations. As public suspicion grew, many governments enacted bans on absinthe, which only made it more mysterious.

What Is Absinthe?

Absinthe is a blend of three distinct ingredients with roots in traditional medicine: anise, fennel, and wormwood. Their flavors blend to make a bitter, herbaceous liquor with a strong anise, or licorice, flavor. It smells sweet and has a sweet aroma, but, while sugar is typically added to absinthe as part of its preparation, there is no sugar in absinthe.

Absinthe is one of the most alcoholic liquors on the market, with an alcohol percentage ranging from 45-75% alcohol by volume (ABV).(For reference, vodka is typically around 40% and whiskey is around 50% ABV). This high alcohol percentage means absinthe requires some special preparation to make it palatable.

Is Absinthe Hallucinogenic?

The primary medicinal ingredient of absinthe is wormwood. Known scientifically as Artemisia absinthium, this wild herb has been used for millennia as an antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and to fight inflammation and digestive problems.

One primary psychoactive ingredient in wormwood is thujone. Thujone enhances the function of a neurotransmitter called GABA, producing calming effects. In high doses, thujone can cause hallucinations — this is part of the origin of absinthe’s rumored hallucinogenic properties, although the amounts present in absinthe are insufficient to produce hallucinations even when it’s consumed in large quantities.

In the 1970s, interest grew around the similarity in chemical structure between thujone and THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana. That fueled further speculation about absinthe’s psychoactive nature. But despite speculation, absinthe’s effects in no way mirror those of marijuana.

The hallucinogenic properties of pure absinthe have largely been debunked, but absinthe can cause hallucinations and side effects secondary to the alcohol consumption. The reason: cheap absinthe producers added chemicals and other substances to absinthe to dilute it, enhance its flavor, or imitate higher quality absinthe. Today, these added ingredients have fallen out of favor as education about their dangers has increased.

The debate about the psychoactivity of absinthe is mostly settled: insanity purported to be induced by absinthe was more likely a condition due to alcohol. After all, alcohol is known to cause or worsen mental health conditions such as hallucinosis, schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, and anxiety. Historians and scientists agree that whatever mild psychoactive effects absinthe may have, they’re secondary to alcohol’s overwhelming mental effects.

How Is Absinthe Prepared?

There are a few preparation rituals for absinthe, but all of them involve an element of performance art. These rituals differ by region and are a source of some contention. 

The traditional French preparation involves pouring absinthe into a glass, then placing a specially designed slotted spoon on top of the glass. A sugar cube is placed on the spoon and a specific ratio of water is slowly poured or dripped over the cube to dissolve it. This process gives absinthe its characteristic louche, or cloudiness, which is caused by certain chemical compounds reacting to the water. It’s considered a sign of the absinthe’s purity or quality.

Czech methods involve pouring water over a flaming sugar cube. That process yields a more caramelized taste that compliments the Czech style of absinth — take note of the intentionally missing “e”! There is a great deal of bad blood between absinthe and absinth fans, and mixing them up may elicit the ire of those with strong opinions about this strong liquor.

Is Absinthe Legal?

By the early 20th century, absinthe was banned, or effectively banned, in most western countries due to concerns over its side effects. Without modern chemical processes, it was incredibly difficult to answer the question “Is absinthe poisonous?” The answers were largely based on speculation and anecdotal evidence. In many places where bans were enacted, absinthe remained largely illegal until the early 21st century. Reasons ranged from its rumored insanity-inducing properties to the complexities of politics and industry.

Part of absinthe’s rise was related to The Great French Wine Blight, in which a parasitic pest devastated up to 40% of France’s crop. The blight persisted for more than a decade, spreading throughout Europe and creating a scarcity of wine. Absinthe was seen as a tasteful — and much more accessible — alternative.

When the wine industry ramped back up in the latter half of the 19th century, winemakers had to compete with the absinthe craze, and absinthe was only getting cheaper and more prevalent. Since wine was so ingrained in the culture of many European countries, protecting the wine industry became an essential act of cultural preservation.

Around the turn of the century, the temperance movement gained momentum throughout the world, especially in the United States. Alcohol was increasingly regulated in the U.S., and absinthe was banned in 1912. By 1920, the U.S. had enacted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning alcohol sales outright. While Prohibition was repealed in 1933, absinthe remained illegal in the U.S. until 2007.

Absinthe Regulations

Throughout most of the world, there is little regulation over absinthe’s production, and most countries have few or no rules over what can be called “absinthe” or “absinth.” So, controversy continues to surround absinthe and its purity.

However, importation of absinthe is highly regulated. Many countries limit or restrict thujone content to mitigate any possible psychoactive effects. While the thujone content of absinthe is largely understood to cause no psychoactive effects at the doses in absinthe, it is quite misunderstood and thus still stigmatized. The United States and Canada have some of the strictest laws in the world regarding absinthe’s thujone content, but many countries have no regulations whatsoever.

Is Absinthe Safe?

Absinthe is no more or less safe than alcohol — but don’t be fooled. There is no safe way to drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol is about risk tolerance and behaviorally balancing its negative effects. Managing your absinthe consumption is no different from managing your use of other types of alcohol.

A serving size of absinthe is the same as any other liquor — one shot, or 1.5 ounces. However, most absinthe is prepared with added water, so the amount of liquid in a preparation of absinthe may actually be higher, but the liquor content should remain 1.5 oz.

In fact, for those looking to cut back on alcohol, absinthe may be an appealing choice. Due to its complex and ritualistic preparation, it lends itself to being mindfully savored rather than mindlessly guzzled. When we choose to drink, we should always go for quality over quantity, and absinthe may help with that.

Tips for Enjoying Absinthe Safely

Tips for Enjoying Absinthe Safely

  • Check for medication interactions. Wormwood, the primary ingredient in absinthe, interacts with many medications, especially for seizure management and nerve pain. Be sure to speak with your doctor or pharmacist about whether wormwood presents a particular danger to you. Don’t forget that alcohol comes with its own dangers when mixed with medications.
  • Understand your limits. Know your personal limits when it comes to alcohol consumption, and be mindful of how many drinks you have at one time.
  • Mix mindfully. Make the most of the drink-mixing methods associated with absinthe, and let them serve as their own source of pleasure. Understanding the history and culture surrounding absinthe can also lead to a greater appreciation of each sip.
  • Savor, don’t rush. Due to its high alcohol content, absinthe should not be consumed as a shot — and its potent flavor would also make this pretty unpleasant! Remember, absinthe’s alcohol percentage is one of the highest of all liquors available.
  • Educate yourself about thujone. Understand its effects and misconceptions, and consider whether it may interact with medications and supplements you take that also act on neurotransmitters like GABA.

Don’t Go Crazy!

It’s possible to enjoy absinthe if drinking is part of your lifestyle, and no, you won’t go crazy! Absinthe’s effects aren’t different from other liquors, but like any alcohol, it comes with risk. Quitting or cutting back on alcohol is one of the best things you can do for your mental health, and luckily there are resources out there to help.

Absinthe’s unique history makes it an historically interesting beverage. The myths and mysteries surrounding absinthe have captivated cultures for centuries, and it will always be associated with the artistic, cultural, and intellectual movements of the 1800s due to its role in the lives of many 19th century artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers.

Summary FAQs

1. Is absinthe hallucinogenic?

Not especially. It has no more hallucinogenic properties than any other type of alcohol.

2. Is absinthe legal?

Absinthe is legal everywhere, but it is highly regulated in several countries to ensure purity and to prevent inclusion of cheap chemicals that imitate the properties of pure absinthe. 

3. What are some absinthe side effects?

There are no particularly distinct side effects of absinthe as compared to other alcohols, but there are anecdotal stories from people who claim that it feels different from other alcohol, which may be related to individual variations in the function of a neurotransmitter called GABA.

4. Will absinthe make me go crazy?

Probably not — so long as you enjoy it responsibly! Alcohol has many implications for mental health, but there is nothing about absinthe that makes it worse for you than other types.

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