I'd always heard dramatic things about absinthe. Bad, dire things. Like it could cause people to hallucinate, and then often go permanently crazy. Such as notable user Vincent Van Gogh, who infamously cut off part of his ear as a macabre gift to his prostitute love before committing suicide. I recall reading that noted drug and alcohol user Lemmy from the band Motorhead marked it as being one of the most dangerous and potent things he'd done in his checkered life. I also heard stories about it from people I knew. They were usually something like, "I was in Eastern Europe, and the cab driver knew a guy who had some. He drove us into a terrible neighborhood and came out of a dilapidated building holding a dirty-looking bottle. When we drank it we all went wild and nearly got arrested." So essentially it seemed like absinthe was a beverage you took before being committed into an asylum for the criminally insane.
But let's back up a little, and get into its history. Surprisingly, it's not that old. Some of the details about its creation are well known, others are a little hazy. Its creation was in the 1790's, in the town of Couvet, Switzerland. Either a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire (originally from France) invented it and gave it to the Heriod sisters, or the sisters themselves came up with the recipe themselves. Either way, a Major Dubied got the formula and opened up the first absinthe distillery in Couvet in 1797. The drink grew in popularity over the decades, across Europe. By the 1860's in France, 5 p.m. was known as the "Green Hour," or a more specific Happy Hour (absinthe traditionally has a greenish color). Due to its popularity more and more people began to make it, which drove the price down. Many of the new producers were unscrupulous, and added toxic chemicals like copper salts to give the drink its green color, rather than using the slower, more expensive natural methods. Gradually, in the late 1800's and very early 1900's the drink became popular with, and associated with, the liberal, bohemian writers and artists. Social conservatives became angry at this bunch of people, and the drink that they so enjoyed. Also, the temperance movement was flourishing, and their members obviously wanted absinthe (and all other alcoholic beverages) banned. Stories of absinthe's ill effects began to circulate wildly.
Then came the event that put the nail in the drink's coffin. In 1905 a Swiss man, Jean Lanfray, murdered his family. This was blamed on his consumption of absinthe. The case made national, and then international headlines. By 1908 absinthe's home country had banned it. Most of Europe and the U.S. followed suit, and by 1915 absinthe was illegal save for a few exceptions (most notably, Spain and Portugal).
As science progressed, absinthe was studied more in depth. One of the main ingredients, grande wormwood, was pinpointed as being the root of its danger. And more specifically, a chemical called thujone, which is present in wormwood. Some later studies posited a link between thujone and THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
However, absinthe still existed, albeit in a more limited fashion. A few adherents still drank it, either legally in the countries that allowed it, or illegally. In the 1990's some folks in the U.K. took advantage of an odd loophole--absinthe had never been technically banned there. Still more studies were done on absinthe, and wormwood, and thujone. The results were fairly conclusive--absinthe's ill effects were almost completely overblown. Thujone can be dangerous, but not in the relatively small concentrations in traditional absinthe. It's also not psychoactive, or hallucinagenic. Not to say it's entirely safe--it is a potent (45-75% alcohol) drink, meaning it's as potentially harmful as any other hard liquor. Most of the stories about absinthe's alleged effects can be readily explained by the alcohol, or by the toxic chemicals added to cheap absinthe. (Jean Lanfray, for example, was an alcoholic, and was extremely drunk on the day of the killings.)* Anyway, between about 2005-10 most of the bans on absinthe were lifted.
Unlike a lot of drinks, there isn't a legal definition of what constitutes absinthe. Traditionally it was made by distilling white grapes, and then adding (and further distilling the result) the "holy trinity" of botanical flavors--grande wormwood, green anise, and florence fennel. Other botanicals sometimes used were peppermint, coriander, petite wormwood, and others. But, some producers use other bases, like grains, potatoes, or even beets, and others don't even distill it, but just add the appropriate flavors to commercial alcohol, in a process called cold mixing.
The manner of drinking absinthe is ritualized as well. The most popular is the "French Method." In this a shot of absinthe is poured into a glass. Then a special slotted spoon is placed over the glass, with a sugar cube on it. Iced water is then slowly poured or dripped through the cube and into the glass, until a ratio of about 3:1 water:absinthe is achieved, and the resulting murky result is called the "louche." Another way, the "Bohemian Method," is somewhat similar, except the sugar cube is pre-soaked in absinthe and set ablaze. The water is used to simultaneously extinguish the flames and mix in with the absinthe. Finally, there's the Ernest Hemingway "Death in the Afternoon" method, in which a shot of absinthe is put into a champagne flute, and icy champagne is added until the glass is full. You're supposed to drink 3-5 of these beverages, slowly.
I hadn't been aware of absinthe's de-banning in the early aughts, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it on sale in a liquor store in NJ in late 2010. Some friends and I (Hi Jess, Sara, and Quinn) went in on the $60 bottle and tried it out. I was quite favorably impressed. The main flavor, anise, is one I like, being very similar to licorice, and in other drinks like Ouzo, Sambuca, and Jagermeister. I also liked the little ritual involved with it, and eventually I tried both the French and Bohemian Methods. I sort of felt badass, like I was a drug-addict character in a Tarantino movie or something. And, despite the old rumors, neither my friends and I hallucinated, and we didn't end up in jail or anything. The effects were identical to drinking any hard liquor--as long as you don't drink and drive, or overindulge, you should be fine, as my friends and I were.
Doing this post has reinvigorated by interest in absinthe. I looked up some other websites dedicated to it, such as the Wormwood Society's site. I'm realizing I should branch out more on the types I buy (since 2010 I've bought several other bottles). I've been drinking Absente brand, made in France, and as the name suggests ("absent" in French), it was lacking the crucial grande wormwood ingredient until 2009. Since, it has the wormwood, which is clearly printed on the bottle that I have, sometimes with an exclamation point. The reviews of Absente by the Wormwood Society's members aren't great--they mostly range from bad to mediocre at best. So, evidently I've been drinking the Budweiser or Miller of absinthe, as it were. Alas, getting the better examples will be a bit tricky--I've only seen at most 3 brands for sale at any one store, and these others were more expensive than the Absente, being about $70+ (Absente has gotten a little cheaper since 2010, but it's still about $50 for a 750 milliliter bottle). Maybe I can convince a friend or two to share the cost again. (Also, staying with the Wormwood Society, they contend that the Bohemian Method is a modern fraud, invented in the 1990's or so, and that the burning can ruin the taste of the drink.)
In closing, then, if you like anise flavor, you'll probably like absinthe. And even if you don't like it much, you can rest assured that the stories about it making consumers hallucinate or go insane are fictional (save for the effects of the high alcohol content, of course).
* Reportedly on the day in question Lanfray drank 7 glasses of wine, 6 glasses of cognac, 2 brandy-laced coffees, 2 creme de menthes, and 2 absinthes before shooting his pregnant wife and 2 small children to death. He unsuccessfully tried to kill himself on the day, but survived to go to trial. Because of his condition he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He hung himself 3 days later.