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The Green Fairy, explained (Hint: Think 140 proof)

April 30, 2008 | 12:54 pm


The ingredient thujone, credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) with giving absinthe its psychedelic reputation, was apparently overrated. We suspected it, now we have proof. (Get it?) An analysis of old bottles of the stuff has found that they contained relatively small concentrations of thujone, a chemical found in various plants, most notably wormwood.

The drink, a favorite of the late-19th-century bohemian crowd in Paris, was believed to expand the mind, making it a favorite of artists such as Van Gogh, Degas and Picasso. Alas, it was also blamed for violent episodes, illness and "absinthe madness," which was not nearly as much fun as you might think. Symptoms included facial spasms and dementia.

The new analysis, to be published in the May 14 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, concluded that the likely culprit in all this was ethanol. Some of the old absinthe was 70% alcohol, making it 140 proof. Gin, vodka and whiskey, by comparison, are usually 80 to 100 proof.

The stuff obviously packed a wallop. Banned for many years in France and elsewhere (including the U.S.), the beverage is making a comeback -- and a couple of brands can even be legally obtained at fine outlets near you. Of course, with a nickname like the Green Fairy and with an entire ritual as part of its preparation, how could it not be popular?

But beware: Though thujone may amount to little more than an exotic-sounding herb, the alcohol itself isn't to be trifled with  -- as anyone who has ever had one too many whiskeys can attest.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Carlos Ramos / For The Times