Does Absinthe Really Cause Hallucinations?

By: Julia Layton  | 
It may not be hallucinogenic, but absinthe does have a very high alcohol content. Adam Berry/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When absinthe — also known as the la fée verte, or the Green Fairy — was banned in France, Switzerland, the United States and many other countries in the early 1900s, it had become associated with illicit behavior. In fact, it was accused of turning children into criminals, encouraging loose morals and inspiring murders.

The fact that regular old alcohol received similar treatment during the Prohibition period in the United States turns out to be pretty apropos: We now know that properly manufactured absinthe is no more dangerous than any other properly prepared liquor.


What about the tales of hallucinations, Oscar Wilde and his tulips, family massacres and instant death? Not absinthe's fault, technically speaking. Absinthe does have a very high alcohol content — anywhere between 55 and 75 percent alcohol by volume, which equates to 110 to 150 proof. High-proof absinthe puts whiskey's standard 40 percent (80 proof) to shame, which is why absinthe is supposed to be diluted.

What Is Absinthe?

Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit. Because genuine absinthe contains no added sugar, it's considered a neutral spirit, not a liqueur.

The traditional method for making absinthe involves soaking anise, fennel and grand wormwood (the "holy trinity") in alcohol, and then distilling the mixture. Various recipes add other herbs and flowers to the mix. The distillation process causes the herbal oils and the alcohol to evaporate, separating from the water and bitter essences released by the herbs.


The fennel, anise and wormwood oil then recondense with the alcohol in a cooling area, and the distiller dilutes the resulting liquid down to whatever proof the absinthe is supposed to be (based on brand variations or regional laws). At this point, the distilled absinthe is clear; many manufacturers add culinary herbs to the mixture after distillation to get the classic green color from their chlorophyll.

Does Drinking Absinthe Cause Hallucinations?

Absinthe is not a hallucinogen; rather its alcohol content and herbal flavor set it apart from other liquors.

The Role of Thujone

The chemical that's to blame for absinthe's alleged hallucinogenic effects is thujone, a component of grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). In very high doses, thujone can be toxic. It is a GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) inhibitor, meaning it blocks GABA receptors in the brain, which can cause convulsions if you ingest enough of it.


Thujone occurs naturally in many foods, but never in doses high enough to produce negative effects. And there's not enough thujone in absinthe to hurt you, either. By the end of the distillation process, there is very little thujone left in the product.

In the U.S., thujone levels in absinthe are capped at 10 milligrams per liter, while absinthe in Europe may have up to 35 milligrams per liter. Modern science has estimated that absinthe drinkers would die from alcohol poisoning long before they were affected by the thujone. And there is no evidence at all that thujone can cause hallucinations, even in high doses.

In view of modern analysis of the drink and its ingredients, any absinthe-related deaths can most likely be attributed to alcoholism, alcohol poisoning or drinking the cheap stuff, which, like moonshine, can have poisonous additives in it.

What About the Famous Stories?

For the record, that man who killed his family in Switzerland in 1905, spurring a whole slew of absinthe bans and even a constitutional amendment, was under the influence of absinthe — which he'd been drinking since he woke up that morning and throughout the rest of the day (and the day before that and the day before that).

And Oscar Wilde? Well, no doubt the poet did see tulips on his legs as he walked out into the morning light after a night of drinking absinthe at a local bar — chalk it up to creative license.

Absinthe is now perfectly legal in every country in which alcohol is legal. In 2007, the United States lifted its 100-year-long ban. So once again European distillers are exporting the Green Fairy stateside, and once again mixologists and absinthe enthusiasts are debating whether the newest version is truly authentic [source: Time].


A Brief History of Absinthe

According to the "Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails," absinthe dates back to late medieval Europe, during which time it was used as a medicinal tonic. (The use of wormwood as medicine, however, goes all the way back to ancient Egypt.)

Absinthe consumption in Europe during the last half of the 19th century, when a grape vine parasite wiped out French vineyard and made the green, anise-flavored spirit more affordable than wine. The cheap, high-proof spirit became popular with artists and even made its way into paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas.


How to Drink Absinthe

If you try to drink commercial absinthe straight from the bottle, the high alcohol content will likely burn your taste buds. To properly enjoy this spirit, you'll need to dilute it. A general rule is five parts water to one part absinthe, but the Wormwood Society has a handy calculator that factors in the ABV of your particular bottle.

To drink absinthe in the Parisian style, pour one ounce of absinthe into a small glass. Place a fork (or, if you have one, a perforated absinthe spoon) over the glass and a sugar cube on top of the fork. Slowly pour about 5 ounces of cold water over the sugar cube and stir to dissolve. Drink responsibly.


Absinthe FAQ

Why was absinthe banned?
There was an absinthe ban in the United States and most of Europe by 1915 because it was thought to bring out the worst in those who consumed it, having both stimulant and psychoactive effects. The reason for this was thujone, a chemical compound found in wormwood.
Is absinthe legal in the U.S.?
Yes, it is legal because it now contains regulated trace amounts of thujone, which is a toxic chemical. The first genuine brand of absinthe became legal in the United States in 2007. Absinthe is now legal in most countries where alcohol is legal.
Can I drink absinthe straight?
This is not recommended, due to its high alcohol content and overpowering flavor. Absinthe is typically diluted by being poured over a sugar cube with cold water. You should ideally have between four and six parts water for one part absinthe, or risk burning your taste buds. Drink responsibly, as you would with any other spirits or alcoholic beverage.
What are some myths regarding absinthe?
The most common myth was that absinthe caused hallucinations and psychosis, along with an array of other psychotropic effects such as mania.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • McGee, Harold. "Trying to Clear Absinthe's Reputation." The New York Times. Jan. 3, 2007. (June 11, 2018 (
  • Sayre, Caroline. "Absinthe is Back." Time magazine. Nov. 29, 2007. (June 11, 2018),9171,1689232,00.html?imw=Y
  • Swingonski, Frank. "Why Was Absinthe Banned for 100 Years? A Mystery As Murky as the Liquor Itself." Mic. June 22, 2013 (June 11, 2018)
  • The Wormwood Society. "The Shaky History of Thujone." Aug. 15, 2006. (June 11, 2018)