Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Search of the Green Fairy

What a week! By the end, I was almost considering absinthe. Now, you may say, isn't that a bit edgy? Perhaps, but then again, almost everything makes it to Whole Bean eventually.

Absinthe, nicknamed "the green fairy", is an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage originally distilled from the wormwood plant. Developed in Switzerland as a medicinal elixir, the drink gained popularity in the late 1800's during a period when problems in French wine production forced imbibers to look elsewhere. Its reputation as a "vivifying" potion which could boost the mind and spirit resulted in absinthe becoming a fashionable afternoon drink in Paris, New York, and New Orleans. Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were said to be particularly fond of it.

But by the early 1900's, absinthe had become quite controversial. Sales were banned in the United States beginning in 1912, and the restrictions were not lifted until 2007. A quote from a Wikipedia article sums up the reasoning behind the ban:
Due in part to its associations with bohemian culture, absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and prohibition supporters. It was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug, and the chemical thujone, present in small quantities in wormwood, was blamed for these alleged effects.

Further qualitative analysis in recent years has indicated that absinthe is no more dangerous than ordinary alcohol, and most likely, its psychoactive properties have been overstated. The original recipe for absinthe has been modified, using different methods, by a number of distillers worldwide; in fact, these new variations can now be sold legally in many countries. However, due to its inherent toxicity in large doses, thujone content is now strictly limited in commercially-produced absinthe.

The whole thing is somewhat curious. Ever since I visited "The Old Absinthe House" in New Orleans one evening in 1987 for a night of blues, I have wondered exactly what happened to this strange brew. Interesting stuff, it is.