"Nature abhors a vacuum." Absinthe was unavailable in most of the world for nearly 100 years, and this vacuum led to many half-truths and complete myths about absinthe. Here are the myths I hear about most frequently:
1. "Drink absinthe and you'll see the green fairy." Usually with an encouragement to drink more to see more fairies.
NOT TRUE. The most powerful ingredient in absinthe is the alcohol: drink a lot of absinthe and you may see pink elephants, or perhaps the pavement/sidewalk at very close quarters. Yes, there is a chemical called thujone in absinthe (there's even more in sage apparently), but you'd have to drink so much absinthe to get any meaningful effect, you'd die of alcohol poisoning first. So maybe you'd get to see angels, if you think you're headed for Heaven (failing that, then devils).
2. "Absinthe should be enjoyed by burning an absinthe-soaked sugar lump which is then added to the absinthe to set fire to that." Or a variation of this. Clearly a great way to have fun ...
NOT TRUE. There is no record of burning sugar lumps and absinthe prior to the 1990’s. Burning sugar adds a caramelised taste to the absinthe, which spoils the taste of a well-made absinthe; setting fire to the absinthe also burns off a lot of the alcohol, which is a major part of the cost you've just paid. There is no historical basis for this abuse of absinthe. No impressionist painter set fire to his absinthe just before pouring it down his throat.
3. "Real absinthe only comes from the Czech Republic," or "You cannot buy real absinthe in the USA" or similar.
NOT TRUE. Absinthe was born in Switzerland; during the 19th century most absinthe was made in Switzerland or France. And today most of the absinthe available in the USA is real absinthe, whether made in France, Switzerland or the USA. Sadly in Europe and a few other countries, many of the absinthes available are little more than wormwood-flavoured, artificially-coloured vodka, but it is heartening to see some good absinthe coming out of the Czech Republic now.
4. "Real absinthe is bright green, like the fairy, and so we add artificial colouring to make it green." Well, maybe no manufacturer actually says it like that, but some of them encourage this myth by selling artificially coloured absinthe.
So, NOT TRUE. If an absinthe is unnaturally green, it's a manufacturing short-cut, and probably a sign of other short-cuts in the process.
Finally, and this is really something I hear almost every time I do an absinthe event ....
5. "Van Gogh cut off his ear because of absinthe."
NOT TRUE. He spent most of his day breathing in paint fumes, and it is probable that these caused much more harm than absinthe.
Given the recent fuss about the Sour Toe Cocktail, I am tempted, however, to consider a Van Gogh's Ear cocktail ....
There are other myths I hear from time to time, but the five myths above can be traced to manufacturers or vendors of lower quality "absinthes," who do not sell their products through legal channels (especially in the USA). They have a vested interest in promoting these myths. Buyer, beware!
So how should you enjoy absinthe?
Read more about the myths and about some of the surprising truths behind absinthe in my 10 Key Facts series.