Monday, July 15, 2013

Medical Mondays: Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Drunker

It's been a while since I've done a Medical Mondays! But here, I'll make it up to you.

Have a glass of absinthe.
Or maybe...don't?

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic beverage that became popular in the late 18th to 19th century, even into the early 20th century. You've probably seen it in paintings, in movies, in books, since for a while, it was everywhere among artists and regular folk alike. Hemingway, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Wilde, van Gogh, Modigliani, etc. The list of artists who adored this bewitching, green drink is impressively long!

Absinthe contains essence of wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), anise, fennel, hyssop, Melissa (a kind of mint) and other herbs. Absinthe often had a clear, greenish tint (from the herbs, but occasionally from additives, see below.)

Artemisia absinthium
Its consumption grew very popular between 1840-1860. One of the favorite ways to drink it was to place a sugar cube over a slotted spoon and pour water over the cube. The resulting liquid would be sweetened and turn cloudy.

Absinthe was its own party trick.
Absinthe soon came under fire when opponents of the ubiquitous liquor claimed it caused societal problems and violent psychoses in the drinkers. It was thought to be a possible hallucinogen, which is likely not true. It's possible that some of the adverse effects were from the additives used to occasionally deepen the green color, such as toxic metal salts (whose effects might have been part of the reason why it had such a bad reputation!)

Later, a chemical component from the wormwood, thujone, was blamed for this alleged behavior. Thujone is a psychoactive substance that affects GABA and a sub-type of the serotonin receptor. However, it's more likely that the high alcohol content caused more of these symptoms and problems in drinkers, rather than the thujone itself.

It was soon banned in several countries around the world, including the U.S. and France, among others. But in the last 20 years, it's become popular, with many countries lifting the ban, but with strict rules over thujone content.

So...if you want some Absinthe, you can get it (not for me, though--I'm not a huge fan of anise-flavored stuff). Today, it may not be quite the same thing they had in 1860's. In the U.S., for example, it has to be thujone-free.

It's it a fascinating history? And there's so much more. If you're interested, check out:

New York Times
The Wormwood Society

So! Could you imagine writing absinthe into a scene? Or have you ever tasted it?

Medical Mondays is a series intended to help writers with their fictional scenarios. Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar. :)

(photos from Wikipedia)


Shelly said...

For some reason, I always had in my mind that absinthe was a weak little Victorian era drink. Ha! How very interesting. Never tasted it, and if it is anise flavored, probably never will, but I've learned some things this morning.

Mark Koopmans said...


Never tried it, but I think I'm going to stick to my "Two-Buck Chuck" :)

Oh, and speaking of something addictive... Can any one say Trader Joe's "COOKIE BUTTER" :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Never tasted it and don't think I'll try. I don't like anise flavor. Thanks for sharing all the tidbits about it.

Yael said...

I think I heard somewhere that the wormwood doesn't actually cause the hallucinogenic effects. Absinthe has such a small amount of wormwood that you would probably die of alcohol poisoning before you hallucinated. (Or maybe I'm thinking of the more modern version of it.)

I tried it once. That stuff burns.

Connie Keller said...

On vacation, I saw the Absinthe Drinker painting by Degas. Very depressing.

Southpaw said...

I love all the absinthe artwork out there! So pretty and it really was, er, is a pretty drink. -But I didn't know it has an anise flavor. I don't care for anise either. So, I'll just look at it.

Oh, I remember reading the spoons or strainers - whatever for the sugar are collectibles.

Carol Kilgore said...

Never tasted it, but I've been to the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. Does that count?

walk2write said...

It's funny how those bad boy writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald are coming around again and bringing their beverages with them. I could see putting in a scene with absinthe, but would most readers (especially younger ones) these days understand its significance?

Deb Salisbury said...

Fascinating! I'd often read that Absinthe contained deadly poison, even though I'd never found anyone who died of it. Apparently it's reputation for hallucinations mutated into something stronger.

I like anise, but I don't care for strong alcohol, so I won't be trying it, either.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I have heard of absinthe and knew it was very strong and caused hallucinogenic effects. And I also knew that the ban on absinthe had been lifted -- and I wondered why. This is an interesting explanation for what caused the effects and why it's no longer considered dangerous.

I don't like anise either, so it's not on my list to try.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

It's color always looks a bit poisonous to me, so I've never been inclined to try it, although I loved some of the nouveau artwork I've seen that promoted it. I did know a guy once who liked to drink it and he was very strange.
So it won't be served at my parties!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Drinking anything distilled from Wormwood just gives me the willies! :-)

Linda Gray said...

I do like anise-flavored things, and have tasted absinthe. It may be thujone-free in the U.S., but it'll still knock you on your keister in no time if you're not careful, so I stay away from it. If I had a slotted spoon for the absinthe party trick like the one you show, I don't think I could resist it, though : )

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Anise has such a strong taste. I don't think I could handle it.

Slamdunk said...

Never tried it and certainly did not know the history behind it. Thanks for educating me Dr.

Kristen Wixted said...

Yeah, I am not a fan of anise either. But I love reading weird trivia stuff like this. And your photos are great and now I'm thirsty! :)

mooderino said...

I think the legend of Absinthe is its best selling point.


CA Heaven said...

I have walked past the absinthe booths on Burbon Street in New Orleans, without getting tempted. In fact I never drink anything stronger than beer, and only dark beer, preferably porter >:)

Cold As Heaven

Ghenet Myrthil said...

Interesting! I tasted it once at a speakeasy type bar in NYC and didn't like the flavor either.

Carrie Butler said...

This makes me think of the absinthe scene in Moulin Rouge! :)

J E Oneil said...

I'm not a drinker so I'm never going to try it, but it sure is a pretty color.

I never understood the ban on it. It seems like people all throughout history jump on certain things as causing huge societal problems, and then we find out their reasoning is totally flawed, like with absinthe.

alexia said...

I've always wanted to try it since it's so vintage and steampunk-ish. We have a 1920s speak easy style bar in town that has it... will have to mosey on down one day :)

Mrs. Silverstein said...

I haven't tried it, but I did a study abroad program in South Africa--where it was more readily available than in the US--and one night most of my friends knocked back some absinthe. I was too on-edge from being so far from home, so I was the evening's photographer. (Everyone was pretty into it because we all loved the movie Moulin Rouge!) Several of the absinthe-drinkers claimed that there was a mild hallucinogenic effect, like auras and light trails, but that might have just been the candlelight on our verandah and the camera flashes.

Tammy Theriault said...

i think if i wrote it in a wip, i'd just misspell it all the time! hahaha

mohammad ahad said...

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Bathwater said...

I'm not even a big fan of the anise flavored cookies my aunts would bake during the holidays!

Editors At Work said...

Interesting and informative post on absinthe.

Thanks Lydia,


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