Absinthe is a bitter green liquor containing large amounts of anise and wormwood (artemesia absentium). Its very high alcohol content belies its primary power— the psychotropic thujone, which is derived from the semi-poisonous wormwood root. It can be classified as both a narcotic and a liquor. Absinthe is famous for its extremely bitter licorice-like taste, for inducing a languorous euphoria along with psychedelic effects, and a (supposed) ability to incite artistic creativity. It also has a whallop which is too strong for many people; which is why it is always prepared in a mixture of 50% sugar water. In fact, its name comes from the Greek apsenthios, meaning "undrinkable", referring to that furious kick.

Today, absinthe is easily the most sought-after liquor in the goth scene.

The gothic and romantic literary movements were closely associated with absinthe; as were the symbolists, surrealists, expressionists and impressionists in the galleries. Picasso, Poe, Baudelaire, Alfred Jarry, Oscar Wilde, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Verlaine, Rimbaud and many others were serious absinthe drinkers, and some created their greatest masterpieces under its influence. Some also became dependant and died as a result, but this is almost certainly due to the extremely high alcohol content rather than the wormwood— despite recurrent rumors to the contrary. (Rumors that it causes infertility, are also baseless.) It has not been manufactured legally outside parts of Eastern Europe and Spain, since the early 1920s.

"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
—Oscar Wilde

Though it appeared as a medicinal concoction throughout the middle ages, it was popularized by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1792 as a tonic. Soon, companies like Pernod sprang up and promoted its recreational virtues. It became the favored drink of decadent artists, and then was produced more cheaply (and unsafely) for the masses. A whole culture sprang up in the cafés of Europe as a response. Absinthe enthusiasts dubbed it "the green fairy", whereas opponents of it dubbed it "the green devil". The enticing debauchery and alluring creativity of the absinthists was not diminished by the whispers of its danger— instead, it gave it a sense of profound excitement. To many, absinthe was the artistic muse itself, bottled and served in a tall glass; to others, its disinhibiting powers could only lead to depravity and social disintegration.

Absinthe became extremely popular in France; a dramatic surge in alcoholism, a horde of nervous wine interests, and an international propaganda campaign from the temperence movement were the negative results of its unprecedented success. Wine producers blamed the wormwood rather than the alcohol for the rowdy and destructive drunkards, and thereby ducked the worst of the attacks of the prohibitionists. Politicians around the world bent with the wind, and began to proactively ban absinthe, before any verifiable medical studies were completed. The wine-makers were reassured that their industry would survive without serious competition, and the temperence movement claimed its first major victory. Popular absinthe makers dropped the wormwood and upped the anise content, resulting in the modern day liquors of Pernod, Ricard and Herbsaint.

Today, though legal enforcement is relatively lax, it is illegal to sell or import absinthe. However, all of it's ingredients (including wormwood) are legal, and so several recipes exist on the web. The Absinthe FAQ page contains recipes for concocting absinthe. Still, most of these formulae are unable to adequately mimic the unique taste and effects of manufactured absinthe, which can only be obtained today in Prague and parts of Spain.

The fascination with absinthe has undergone a remarkable resurgence over the last decade. Faux absinthe houses (captalizing on the imagery, but actually selling Ricard or Pernod), references in popular media (the Nine Inch Nails video "A Perfect Drug" remains the least subtle example), and countless amateur absinthe moonshiners, are all becoming less furtive and obscure.

What is it that is most remarkable about absinthe's mystique to the goth scene? After all, it is certainly not the most potent drug, nor the most accessible nor the most economical. When obtainable at all it is is either expensive or inferior, and has relatively undramatic effects when compared to hallucinogens or opiates.

A part of it must be its sensuousness; from its taste, to its color, to its manner of preperation and presentation, absinthe is colorful, tactile, and paradoxically both subtle and intense to the senses— almost erotic. Another part of it must be absinthe's historical association with madness, death, decadence, and artists who either embodied or extolled these qualities.

Absinthe has a magificent legacy, and it appears that more still remains to be written about la fée verte.

Commentary by Clifford Hartleigh Low, Thursday, April 30, 1998. Many thanks to Mikaela Pearson for assistance on this entry.

Illustration by Kurt Komoda