WILD GREEN FAIRY LIQUID | November 28th 2007
Café window in Wroclaw, Poland, by Decafinata/Flickr 
Edward Lucas of The Economist on a drink that has ruined poets, given rats convulsions, and tastes variously of a mountain meadow in spring or a mouthful of yesterday's toothpaste ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Fittingly for a drink associated with hallucinations, absinthe's story swirls with wild, bewitching myths. Many fans, enthusiastic if ill-informed, believe it is a "liquid joint" that heightens consciousness, unleashes poetic and artistic muses, and in large doses induces at first depravity and finally madness.
That sense of danger heightens the appeal: one Czech brand actually publishes a poster reading "Neurotoxic Absinthe". Even those not who do not share the doomed genius of absinthe-lovers such as Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh can at least feel they are enjoying the same tipple as the talented but tragic. The fact that absinthe is banned in America makes consumers there even keener to buy (or make) the supposedly most potent variants: those containing a high dose of thujone, a chemical extracted from wormwood.
The facts are a little more prosaic. It's true that absinthe was a popular drink in the "belle époque", a glamorous and dissolute period of late-19th-century French history. Alhough popular among the famous (Hemingway, Picasso, Wilde, Degas, Rimbaud and many others) its pull then was among the poor: it was cheap, and strong in alcohol—up to 75% by content.
That aroused the ire of temperance campaigners, particularly in France, where absinthe was finally banned in 1915. In all Europe, it remained legal only in Spain, though it was distilled illegally, but widely, in parts of Switzerland. When it was relegalised in western Europe in the 1990s regulators stipulated that absinthe should contain only 10mg per kg of thujone. That disappointed those enthusiasts wanting to recreate the effects of the original versions. Some were already fans of the brands produced after the collapse of communism by enterprising Czech capitalists, which tend to be marketed on the basis of their high thujone content.
But actually, the claims of such products are as flimsy as the new rule. Analysis of most Czech absinthe shows it contains little or no thujone, whatever the bottle says. Any hallucinations or secondary effects experienced are self-induced or imagined. Secondly, tests on surviving samples of pre-war absinthe show that they contained much less than 10mg/kg. Third, the real effects of thujone are unclear. Ian Hutton, a British absinthe expert with a background in analytical chemistry, says, "There is no evidence that absinthe ever contained the high concentrations of thujone that would have led to detrimental effects or that it has hallucinogenic or mind-altering properties."
Thujone in very large doses causes convulsions in rats. In small doses it may have mild stimulative properties, although these are likely to be masked by the sedative effect of the alcohol. In any case, it does not, contrary to popular belief, mimic the effects of cannabis. And it is widely available elsewhere—in the herb sage, or, more prosaically, in cold remedies such as Vicks Vapour Rub. Not many would-be geniuses make drinks from that.
Connoisseurs such as Mr Hutton, who runs the upmarket absintheonline.com , sniff at the idea of creating the noble drink for such crude purposes. For the real connoisseur, only the finest French and Swiss absinthe, distilled in tiny quantities from hand-picked herbs and flowers, really counts. "Pre-ban absinthe was a delicious, refreshing long drink, with a character like an alpine meadow," says David Nathan-Maister, a British expert. "It wouldn't have had such a meteoric success if it hadn't".
The strongest whiff of the real absintheurs' world comes from sites such as oxygenee.com , or feeverte.com . The latter (named after the green fairy of absinthe legend) rates dozens of absinthes with pedantic attention to their "louche" (the milkiness of the mixture created when water is added), aroma, aftertaste and so forth. The worst, mostly Czech, versions are mercilessly mocked for their lurid colours and lack of anise and fennel—the oils that make absinthe go cloudy.
Yet they are where the money is. Andreas Mielecke, who runs Absinth24.net , another internet shop, notes the paradox: he and other absinthistes want to sell the high-quality product; the big American market wants the most potent variety available, typically the Czech versions which are made by dunking herbs in neat alcohol. "These customers are just interested in the effect, in hallucination" he laments.
That's one difficulty. Another is America's prohibition on absinthe. Some internet customers find their orders confiscated, though this varies by state: Florida and Georgia are particularly tough, California and New York the most liberal, says Mr Mielecke.
The truth is that most modern mass-produced absinthe tastes pretty nasty—somewhere between mouthwash and shampoo. That's hardly surprising, given that it is marketed as a semi-illicit, near-poisonous substance. If it was delicious, the thrill-seeking consumer would feel cheated. Even so, there are other even worse versions. The unscrupulous sell lethal-sounding kits for those wanting to make absinthe at home—typically by soaking a bag of herbs in alcohol, or even adding oil of wormwood, which is truly poisonous in its undistilled form.
The most attractive side of absinthe is probably not the drink itself, but the rituals, culture, and kit associated with it. The pictures are splendid, and the literary references intriguing. The aphorisms are good too: "Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder" said Ernest Dowson, an English poet. Oscar Wilde remarked that it didn't make drunk people into poets, but was good at making poets drunk. Absinthe spoons (used for dribbling water into the glass) are collectors' items. Czechs claim that the "historic" way of preparing absinthe is to burn a sugar-lump in the spoon, sambucca-style. That horrifies the purists—a horror, one suspects, that may just underline their already enjoyable feeling of superiority.
(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West " will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)