Have you visited Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Detroit’s TCF Center yet? The show runs through Oct. 3, and upon visiting you might find yourself wondering what influenced Van Gogh to create such fantastic art. It might have been the absinthe.
Absinthe has long been associated with creative and artistic types, and many people have speculated that it was absinthe that led to Van Gogh famously cutting off his ear. In fact, it has been blamed for many things over the years — hallucinations and madness among them. But it has also been seen as a creative muse, and inspiration for people such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Oscar Wilde.
So, what is this magical substance? Absinthe is a strongly alcoholic aperitif made from a neutral grain spirit base and distilled herbs or herbal extracts. The most important of these herbs are grand wormwood — from which the spirit gets its bitterness — and green anise, the source of that love-it-or-hate-it licorice flavor. Different regions have different recipes and include herbs like fennel, hyssop, star anise, and others.
Absinthe was invented in Switzerland, and in the late 1800s it was wildly trendy throughout Europe and parts of America. Its popularity rose as the phylloxera epidemic was wiping out wine grapes in France, making absinthe a more affordable option. Trouble was, it was also far more alcoholic. As such, it became the target of propaganda efforts that positioned it as the cause of various social ills. When a psychiatrist named Valentin Magnan declared that the wormwood in absinthe contained thujone, a chemical he said caused addiction, epileptic fits, and hallucinations, the writing was on the wall for absinthe. We now know that the symptoms of what Magnan called “absinthism” were mostly just caused by the alcohol itself — absinthe was bottled at 75 percent alcohol by volume, then sweetened with sugar to make it go down easy. In the early 1900s, it was banned in most of the world. It was off-limits in the U.S. from 1912 until 2007, when the ban was lifted after new research made clear that thujone was not harmful in the quantities found in absinthe.
Part of absinthe’s appeal is the traditional way of serving it. The spirit is placed in a glass, and then chilled water is dripped slowly through a sugar cube, dissolving the sugar and diluting the spirit. In well-made absinthe, this will cause the essential oils in the liquid to louche, turning it a milky color as if by magic. It’s no wonder absinthe’s nickname is the Green Fairy.
To experience the Fairy yourself, The Whitney in Detroit will host an Explore Absinthe event in September, featuring a tasting, a tour, and small plates. For a traditional absinthe service, visit The Last Word in Ann Arbor, where they’ll bring an absinthe fountain right to your table. Not all fairies are green, as you’ll discover with Ann Arbor Distilling Co.’s Absinthe Violette, which is a delicate purple. It includes traditional absinthe botanicals, along with Michigan-inspired ingredients such as hops, linden, and elderflower.
However you enjoy the spirit, try to appreciate its storied history and complexity. Just keep the knife away from your ears.
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.