The real story about absinthe

//The real story about absinthe
To this day whenever anyone hears that there is absinthe in a drink, or available on its own, there’s instant curiosity.  “Isn’t that illegal?” we sometimes hear. Or, “Like, real absinthe? With wormwood?”  Or, “ooo, I want to try that!”
So, where does this mystique come from, and is it warranted?  In this article we want to discuss precisely that.

What is Absinthe?

Before we talk about the mystique, we need to tell you what absinthe is.  It’s a spirit which originated in Switzerland, and has at its heart anise, fennel, and wormwood.  Those ingredients are soaked in alcohol (also known as macerating), and after the infusion it’s put into the distilling process.
The herbal oils evaporate from the water and bitter essences of the herbs and return during the cooling process.  The absinthe, which is clear at this point, then goes through a second maceration and distillation with a different group of herbs, which lend the greenish tint.
Why was it banned? 
In the early 1900s, due to public pressure, some rumors linked to grisly crime, sensationalization of the drink by (who else?) Oscar Wilde, etc. the drink was banned.  The main reason was due to a psychoactive ingredient, thujone, which is present in absinthe.  Thujone comes from wormwood and is a gamma-aminobutyric inhibitor, for those of you interested in the chemistry behind it. During the height of the absinthe craze, it was rumored that the drink made you go mad – temporarily for some, permanently for others.

Meet Artemisia absinthium, the “evil” plant responsible for the ban on absinthe

The reality is that there was never enough thujone in absinthe in order to cause hallucinations (I know, disappointing). There are two more probable culprits:
Alcohol Content
More likely than anything, any crimes or hallucinations attributed to absinthe came from the alcoholic content.  Most absinthe is bottled at around 70% or more alcoholic content (upwards of 135 proof), and that’s nearly twice as strong as the vodka we bottle here at LS.
Heavy Metal Poisoning
Some sources suggest that, to capitalize on the absinthe boom, disreputable distilleries added copper sulfate and antimony trichloride to their absinthe to add the green color and clouding that were supposed to come from the oils of (comparatively) expensive herbs. These chemicals are both, of course, poisonous. In high enough doses, symptoms can include excitability, anxiety, mood swings, vision problems, and loss of control. So, it’s entirely possible that a beautiful spirit got a bad rap due to some factories cutting corners and poisoning people.

When was it legalized?

As with many things related to absinthe, this is somewhat unclear. In 2007, the rules were simply clarified to state that absinthe was legal if it had thujone content below about 10 parts per million. That may not sound like much, but old bottles from the 1800’s have been tested and would have been legal by today’s standard. The highest thujone concentration ever found in a pre-ban sample was 48 parts per million, but many others fell below the 10ppm threshold. At any rate, that clarification of the law allowed absinthe to once again make its way into the United States, where it’s seeing a real renaissance.

What about that sugar cube thing?

Yes, it’s true, in Paris you can find some cafes and pubs that will soak a sugar cube in absinthe, then light it on fire so that the liquor (and sugar) can re-enter the drink (and give you a bit of a thrill).  But it’s mostly for the tourists.  Adding burning sugar to absinthe isn’t what wakes it up.  What “wakes up” absinthe is adding cold water to release the herbal extracts. This “louche”, as it is known, is the process of oils coming out of suspension and causing the spirit to turn from clear green to cloudy and almost milky-white.  That is something you’ll actually see the absinthe-drinking Parisians do (but don’t let us deter you from being touristy – sometimes it can be fun!).

Give It a Try!

While we are sorry to demystify the allure behind absinthe, we hope this encourages you to give this spirit a try the next time you run into it.  Also, be sure to sign up for email updates, as we’ll be announcing some absinthe tastings and then releasing Lifted Spirits Absinthe within the next few months!
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About Lifted Spirits

Distillery, craft cocktails, and events in Kansas City’s East Crossroads. Spirits worthy of the people they bring together.

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1734 Cherry St, Kansas City, MO 64108

Phone: 816-866-1734