Eat & Drink

Should You Be Scared of Absinthe? An Unscientific Investigation

We went straight to its birthplace to learn about the infamous (possibly hallucinatory) liquor—so you know exactly how nervous you should be to drink it

Should You Be Scared of Absinthe? An Unscientific Investigation

Products labeled as absinthe in the U.S. can't contain thujone, the chemical in authentic absinthe that supposedly causes hallucinations. Photo: AlexPro9500/iStock

Mario Guzzetti is the head mixologist at the Lobby Bar in Gstaad Palace, a 100-plus-year-old castle of a resort in the Southwest corner of Switzerland where shipping magnates, princes, and movie stars stay when they come to town. I’d made the trek from Tennessee to Gstaad to ski, fat bike, and eat fondue on a press trip in early February, but I figured while I was here I should try the country’s most infamous spirit: absinthe. The real stuff. Not the watered-down versions you get in America. 

Guzzetti assures me that all of his patrons have emerged more or less unscathed—though as he turns to grab a bottle, I think I catch him winking at the people seated around me.

Switzerland is the birthplace of absinthe, or “the green fairy,” as late nineteenth century writers and artists used to call it. It was banned in America until 2007, when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the sale of products labeled as absinthe. However, there was a stipulation: the product couldn’t contain thujone, the purportedly psychotropic chemical that gives the green fairy its wings—and supposedly gives drinkers hallucinations.

In Switzerland, however, the fairy’s wings haven’t been clipped. Thujone, which is derived from wormwood during the distilling process, is legal. Although the spirit was banned there in 1910 due to fears of “absinthism,” or people drinking themselves into fits of seizures, it was brought back in 2005 (of course, many Swiss claim that underground production never ceased). Thanks to efforts by a small but vocal group of absinthe producers and promoters, absinthe is enjoying a strong comeback and continued annual growth globally. Today, there are more than 200 different absinthe distillers in Europe.  

At the same time, there’s a growing body of research showing that thujone has little-to-no real psychotropic effects on humans. Lachenmeier’s work has found that in order to see some sort of hallucinatory effect, you’d need to consume five milligrams of thujone per kilogram of bodyweight. Even if you were drinking the strongest possible absinthe (35 mg of thujone per liter), “you would need to drink more than eight bottles at once,” he says. So the alcohol poisoning would kill you first.

Guzzetti pours a clear stream of absinthe into a silver shaker. (Though we often think of the spirit as being green, absinthe is naturally colorless when distilled.) Then comes a splash of Canadian rye, some bitters, and a single muddled sugar cube. “Absinthe is no worse than any other hard liquor,” he says in his smooth Italian accent. “It’s the alcohol that will get you, really.” He slides the martini glass across the bar. I think positive thoughts.

The cocktail itself is herbaceous, with that sweet singe of grain alcohol and a bitter, anise-flavored finish—it’s my ideal drink. Next thing I know, my glass is empty. 

I sit at the bar, chatting about the day’s powder adventures and shamelessly flirting with some of the Ken doll look-a-like servers. Half an hour passes. I’m tempted to order another, but the memory of Maureen Dowd two bites into a pot-laced candy bar, hallucinating and shivering, reminds me that self-restraint is a journalistic virtue. “I don’t really feel anything,” I declare as I push back from the bar and head up to my room. 

Once upstairs, I kick off my heels, slide out of my dress, and scribble a note for the morning: Tell editor to cancel the absinthe story. I reach for my pajamas—wait, where are my pajamas? 

Too tired (and tipsy) to re-zip myself into the corset of a dress I’ve been wearing, I rifle through my room completely naked. (In the morning I’ll realize that my blinds were wide open. Sorry, Gstaad residents.) I turn my suitcase on its side and pull everything out. I rummage through every drawer. I crawl underneath the bed. My thinking becomes increasingly unhinged each time I come up empty-handed.

Maybe they really want me to experience the sheets, I think. Or this is housekeeping’s payback for leaving my room so messy. Or there are cameras in the room and I’m being watched. 

I lay down in bed, look up at the ceiling, and say to no one in particular: Good night, sickos

I can’t say how much of my bizarre paranoia could be attributed to my absinthe consumption. Giger says that in all his years working with and drinking the spirit, he’s never had a single hallucination, and paranoia isn’t a normal side effect either. The experience was, however, out of character for me. I’m generally a giddy drunk, not a paranoid one. I will say that it's very possible there were some confounding variables at play—including a serious case of jetlag, a long day of skiing and fat biking, and a dinner made up entirely of cheese fondue. 

As sunlight streamed through my window the next morning, I pulled my pillow over my eyes—revealing a perfectly folded set of pink polka-dot pajamas. Apparently the pajama fairy and the green fairy visited on the same night. 

Will absinthe mess you up? Probably. But so too will any high-proof alcohol. If you’re going to try it (which I would recommend if you ever find yourself at the Lobby Bar), drink with care. And afterward, if you can’t find your PJs, check under your pillow. Or just sleep naked. The Swiss use really nice linens. 

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