In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh famously sliced off part of his ear in a fit of absinthe-fueled delirium. Nearly two decades later, a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray allegedly killed his family after just two glasses. Absinthe had long held a reputation for making people oddly inebriated, but moments like these punctuated the rallying cries of the growing worldwide temperance movement.
The Swiss were the first to make absinthe in the late 1700s—and in 1910, they were the first to make it illegal. Bans and tight regulations followed throughout Europe and soon made their way overseas to countries like the United States, where absinthe was banned in 1912.
The culprit was thujone, a compound in wormwood (artemisia absinthium), the extremely bitter herb from which absinthe gets its name. A French psychiatrist first isolated thujone in the 1870s and found that it caused epilepsy and insanity in mice, and assumed that it must do the same to humans. To the delight of many, it did something else entirely.
"Absinthe was meant to be an aperitif or digestif but people quickly realized that it did more than just settle their stomach or stimulate their appetite," notes Matt Stewart, CEO of Spirit Apothecary Botanicals & Findings in Bedford. "Thujone reacts in the brain very similarly to cannabis, except it doesn't make you stupid."
But what of conventional wisdom, which says thujone in absinthe makes one mad and murderous, with a penchant for self-mutilation?
"Back then, people were also prescribed cocaine and opium, so you have to take the medical insights from that era with a grain of salt," Stewart adds. "Thujone occurs in abundance in herbs like sage and thyme, and no one raised a stink about those."
Perhaps absinthism (as the madness came to be known) was not the doing of any one ingredient but rather the spirit's extremely high distillation proof. And maybe, just maybe, Van Gogh cut his ear off because he was schizophrenic and the most depressed person to have ever moped the earth? And let's not overlook the uranium-laced glow-in-the-dark cups in which absinthe often was served.
For his part, Stewart provides a more nuanced theory. "Absinthe was popular among free thinkers and the literary bohemian set," he explains. "Back then, free thought was the enemy of government. Those rules were all about control."
Restrictions on absinthe were relaxed in Europe in the 1990s, when the EU determined that thujone was largely removed during the distillation process and that the science behind the restrictions was questionable at best. The U.S. government began approving absinthe for sale in the States in 2007, provided they contained fewer than 10 parts per million thujone. Hardly a therapeutic dose.
"Brands like [the French-made] Lucid Absinthe are as close to the real deal as most Americans are going to get," Stewart says. "If you want an authentic experience, you'll need to go to Europe. Compared to European absinthe, Lucid is like pop."
Or better yet, go to Stewart's shop and get the botanicals you need to make your own. "It's like drinking and smoking a doober at the same time," he suggests.
How to Drink Absinthe
Absinthe traditionally is served with cold water to combat its strength and a sugar cube to combat its extreme bitterness. Stewart recommends three parts water per one part absinthe.
The most famous absinthe accoutrement, the absinthe spoon, sits atop a glass and supports the sugar cube. Water is added a drop at a time until the sugar is fully dissolved. A milky cloud called the louche (rhymes with douche) forms in the process, and alcohol-soluble essential anise oils are released into the drink, unlocking additional flavors and aromas.
Where to Drink Absinthe
To prepare several glasses of absinthe at once, you're going to want an absinthe fountain, which provides a slow drip from two to six spigots simultaneously. Several places around Cleveland have them for you to enjoy:
• Pier W (Lakewood)
• Jeckyll's Kitchen (Chagrin Falls)
• L'Albatros Brasserie (University Circle)
• Society Lounge (downtown)