The Search for Real Absinthe (Reason)

The ad in High Times for King of Spirits Absinth promises “Authentic Czech Absinthe.” But according to La Fée Verte (, there’s no such thing. The Web site, named after the “Green Fairy” that personifies the notorious wormwood-infused liqueur, concedes that a Czech brand, Hill’s, “started the absinthe renaissance” in the late 1990s. But the producers “apparently knew nothing about absinthe other than its name and reputation.” The result was “a very poor product indeed, bearing no resemblance to real absinthe, and tasting more like high-proof mouthwash than anything else.”

As for King of Spirits, “It tastes like a bad home brew. Which isn’t surprising considering they dumped a handful of wormwood and other herbs right into the bottle.…What were they thinking?”

Probably they were thinking that they were not selling a drink so much as a vibe. The slogan that introduced Hill’s to British pub crawlers in 1998 says it all: “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1899.”

As the British journalist Jad Adams shows in his fascinating, richly detailed book Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle (University of Wisconsin Press), the lore surrounding absinthe is far more important than its taste, which is similar to those of other anise-flavored drinks, or its special psychoactive effects, which remain a matter of dispute. In the emerald green liquid devotees see visions of poets and painters in Parisian cafés who stirred together genius and madness along with absinthe and water. And while La Fée Verte is right that some contemporary brands are closer than others to the original Swiss recipe, there has always been wide variation in formulas and production techniques—one reason the hazards and benefits of 19th-century absinthe are hard to pin down. (more…)