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How does vintage absinthe differ from modern absinthes?

What is the difference between absinthe in the US and absinthe in Europe?

In the U.S., thujone levels in absinthe are capped at 10 milligrams per liter, while absinthe in Europe may have 35 milligrams per liter. Modern science has estimated that a person drinking absinthe would die from alcohol poisoning long before he or she were affected by the thujone. And there is no evidence at all that thujone can cause hallucinations, even in high doses. We now know that properly manufactured absinthe — an anise-flavored, alcoholic drink — is no more dangerous than any other properly prepared liquor.

The chemical that’s taken all the blame for absinthe’s hallucinogenic reputation is called thujone, which is a component of wormwood. 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. It occurs naturally in many foods, but never in doses high enough to hurt you. 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.

Traditional absinthe is made of anise, fennel and wormwood (a plant), and various recipes add other herbs and flowers to the mix. The anise, fennel and wormwood are soaked in alcohol, and the mixture is then distilled. 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 oils 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 absinthe is clear; many manufacturers add herbs to the mixture after distillation to get the classic green color from their chlorophyll.

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 about 110 to 144 proof. It makes whiskey’s standard 40 percent (80 proof) seem like child’s play, which is why absinthe is supposed to be diluted. Absinthe is not a hallucinogen; rather its alcohol content and herbal flavor set it apart from other liquors.

Are absinthes in the US real? Are they different in Europe?

First, let’s describe what absinthe is: distilled beverage made with artemesia absinthium (wormwood), anise, and fennel. While there is no legal definition, most absinthes in the US contain the same ingredients and are similar to pre-ban absinthe in composition, style, and flavor.  This is possible in part because modern analysis has demonstrated that the compounds blamed for absinthe’s alleged harmful effects were not present in pre-ban absinthe in the large amounts previously assumed.  Modern absinthe made strictly according to pre-ban recipes has been analyzed and found to be more or less identical to actual pre-ban absinthe.

There are faux absinthe brands being sold as genuine, so buyer caution is advised; be well-informed!

How do preban and modern absinthes differ?

Many pre-ban era absinthes would be legal in the US today by modern US government standards. No laws have changed, and no ban has been lifted. Absinthe has been technically legal since at least the 1960s, possibly as early as the 1930s. Contrary to claims made by some companies, federal bureaucrats were not pressured into legalizing absinthe, it was merely demonstrated to them that it was already legal. Due to changes in the understanding of these regulatory issues on the part of both the agencies and the producers, genuine absinthe is once again available legally in the US.

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