How to Analyze, Score, and Review Whiskey

The first time I watched Ralfy on his YouTube channel, it was a revelation. With the right glass and some experience you can learn to get so many different notes out of a whisky! Then you could score it, and share it, letting others know what you think.

Many believe that this dark art of reviewing is reserved for whisky professionals, bloggers and nerds. This simply isn’t true. Anyone can review whisky, and their opinion can be just as valid as anyone else’s.

There are two great examples of this. The first is quite well known among whisky people in Europe: Whiskybase.com. This is a database of whiskies that you can use to search for bottlings, build a collection, and review whiskies. Thousands of people use Whiskybase, and that gives it a huge advantage over one-man reviewers (like Ralfy or Jim Murray) because when loads of people review the same product you build more of a consensus.

Another is Reddit. Reddit tends to be bigger in America and Canada, and is more of a forum for discussion and reviews. It can be a little intimidating at first (always read the rules before posting!), but again, everyone contributes and adds to a database of reviews. I could be just a tad biased as a moderator of r/Scotch, but I think it’s a fantastic and friendly community, and a great place to start reviewing. The network consists of r/Whisky for discussions, r/Scotch for Scotch related reviews and posts, r/Bourbon for American Whiskey, and r/WorldWhisky for whisky from anywhere else. Not only that, but people also swap samples of whiskies they have on r/ScotchSwap, allowing you to try a lot of whiskies pretty quickly.

In either case, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only tasted a few whiskies — your experience can be shared and other people can get something from that.

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So, how do you review a whisky?

  1. You need the right glass.

In a tumbler, all the aromas of the whisky are going to be able to spill all over the place. You want something that can concentrate those aromas towards your nose, so you can appreciate them. A Glencairn is probably the best option if you’re just starting out, then maybe try some other tasting glasses.

  1. Write what you think.

Don’t let anyone tell you what to smell and taste. That includes the back of the whisky box or label or a rep standing across the table from you. Don’t be afraid to write down lime, even though the box says lemon. That said, someone or something to guide you when you’re first starting is no bad thing. Have a look at other people’s reviews and see what they think — but don’t take it as gospel but rather inspiration.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If there is someone else with you while you’re reviewing, just ask them, ‘What does this smell like?’ ‘What do you get?’ You might not get the same impressions as them, but it could give you inspiration or you might suddenly recognise a new note because of what they said.

  1. Experience and knowledge will help.

This part takes time. Tasting lots of different whiskies and knowing more about the distilleries they are made at is going to help massively. Eventually, you’ll know an Islay whisky just by smelling it or a Bourbon by tasting a sip. Even further on, you might learn to recognise a particular distillery, age, or cask type!

  1. Drink it your way (water can help).

Again, don’t let anyone dictate how you like your whisky. But for reviewing, to get the whisky to open up, avoid ice, as it can cause the whisky’s flavors to retreat. But don’t be scared of adding a drop of water (particularly to stronger whiskies). A small drop of water can help to develop the whisky’s flavors and reduce the alcohol level (which in itself offers no flavor). Usually I taste a whisky neat first, write some notes, and then add a drop off water to see if I get anything different from it afterwards.

  1. Comparison works!

This is something the famous Serge Valentin from whiskyfun.com advocates. It’s not something everyone can do, but if you have a few whiskies and a few glasses, you can set up a comparison of them together. This will bring out the differences all the more prominently.

  1. Think before you score.

Ah, the tricky business of scoring. As a beginner I would stay away from it, but it’s alluring in its simplicity: Summing up your experience of the whisky with a grade. If you feel that you can do it, go right ahead — but really think it through before you start scoring. There are many different methods and a host of pros and cons to each one. An exam style A-F grade like Drinkhacker uses or a numerical score ranging from 0-100, 0-10, or 0-5. One of my favourites is the ‘three questions’ scale: Would I buy this? Would I order it in a bar? Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass?

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Some people genuinely don’t care about reviewing or reviews. They can taste a whisky and go “Yeah, I like that” or “No, I don’t like this one.” That’s absolutely fine. But personally, I feel that I’ve gotten so much more out of whisky from reviewing it, from just the fun of it, making better purchasing decisions, meeting friends online, and then starting to write here. It’s become a passion and something that has really added something to my life.

So give it a go!

Peat, Phenols, and ppm: Why Scotch Tastes Smoky

My first taste of peaty whisky was Talisker 10, and like they say with other things, you never forget your first. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, it was like someone had put a bonfire in my whisky. Now, I love it and feel like smoky notes give a complexity to many whiskies, especially at an older age. Actually, old peaty whisky is probably my favourite style, it’s just a shame it’s so damn expensive…

But what the hell is peat, and why does it make our whiskies smoky?

Essentially, peat is a naturally sourced fuel. Small plants and vegetation that have died in bogs or moors become part of the earth as it decomposes and a new layer of flora grows again. In the earth though, that decaying vegetation is compressed and pushed further underground by the following layers of the life and death cycle above. Peat is harvested by simply shoveling it out of the ground. Peat burns well and originally would have used as heating and cooking fuel before coal arrived in more remote parts of Scotland. The important thing for whisky though was that it was used to dry barley after it had been malted. Distillers found that the barley picked up the smoky flavour from the burning peat, and that intense smoky flavour came through into the whisky.

You do occasionally get people telling you that peaty flavour is coming from the water. It makes sense I guess, if you run a tap in the toilet at Kilchoman Distillery, it comes out brown with the peat sediment in it. Peat is in the water, water goes in the whisky. However, if you smell a piece of peat, without burning it, it barely smells of anything.

Understanding Phenol

Burnt peat smalls and tastes smoky because of the presence of Phenol? So what is this phenol that makes our whiskies smoky?

Phenol is a cyclic aromatic compound, but also describes a class of aromatic compounds. The main ones in whisky are Phenol, Cresols, Xylenol, and Guaiacol. There are a tonne of others, and not all are Phenols. Some don’t appear to have any effect on flavour but can affect the volatility of some of the other flavour chemicals. In essence: It’s complicated.

Phenol itself gives you carbolic and antiseptic flavours, Cresols give the whisky medicinal, bandage-like flavour that’s very distinctive in Laphroaig. Xylenol can be extracted from coal tar and has a similar note, while Guaiacol gives a wood smoke type of flavour.

Depending on where the peat is cut from can change the proportion of different Phenols that come through into the whisky too. Highland Park for instance is famous for having a more heathery style of smoke to its whisky and this is often attributed to there being much more heather decomposing and becoming part of the peat than on Islay or mainland Scotland.

You may have noticed that some peaty whiskies use a measurement to declare how peaty they are. The term ppm, which stands for parts per million, is the measurement, but perhaps should be written as Pppm: Phenolic parts per million. A whisky that is 40ppm would be made up of 0.004% phenols. Check my math on that, I’m rubbish at math. [It checks out. -Ed.]

The human nose can detect 1ppm of most Phenols normally, but that can depend on the person, some being more sensitive to the presence of Phenols than others. Also depends on the specific Phenol, because evolution-wise is it pretty advantageous to be able to detect wood smoke, so we are genetically more sensitive to Guaiacol.

Phenol Beyond Peat

Other things that can effect the amount of smoky flavour in a whisky are the production process and maturation, as Phenols are lost at almost every stage of the process. One important aspect though is the cut from spirit to feints, as the Phenols are more concentrated towards the end of the cut. The longer the cut, the more Phenols are going to get through into the spirit.

Note that a lot of Phenol is lost along the way. Laphroaig usually have its barley peated to 40ppm but only 25ppm comes through into the spirit. After 10 years of aging, this drops to 10ppm. This is because these phenolic compounds are only partially oxidised and within the barrel they are allowed to fully oxidise, becoming more complex aromatic compounds. Laphroaig is known for becoming more tropical and fruity at older ages.

So at what point do they measure ppm? Is it the spirit? The final whisky? Neither: It’s actually at the point the barley is malted. Most distilleries specify a ppm level for their barley and let the maltsters do the rest. They can then burn a specific amount of peat for a certain length of time to get it to that exact peating level, and it then gets to the distillery as a very consistent product.

How do they measure ppm? The usual way is High Pressure Liquid Chromatography which is a way of chemically analysing the components of whatever you’re considering. Maltsters and distillers split the category of peated whisky into a handful of sub-categories; lightly peated (2-10ppm), medium peated (11-29ppm) and heavily peated (30-55ppm). Recently another category has emerged: the super heavily peated whisky, which can be anything upwards of 55ppm. Bruichladdich’s Octomore is famous for creating this new category but Ardbeg’s Supernova whiskies (no longer produced) were also at 100ppm. The original Octomores were 80ppm but are now regularly 167ppm and up. Bruichladdich have been setting the bar higher and higher though, and a new record has been set with the Octomore 8.3 at an almost monstrous 310ppm.

Below is a small list of some of the whiskies using peat to give you an idea of the scale of ppm levels. (Numbers are approximate and can vary from release to release):

Bunnahabhain: 2ppm
Bruichladdich: 4ppm
Benromach: 10ppm
Ardmore: 15ppm
Springbank: 20ppm
Talisker: 22ppm
Bowmore: 25ppm
Caol Ila: 32ppm
Lagavulin: 37ppm
Port Charlotte: 40ppm
Laphroaig: 45ppm
Ardbeg: 55ppm
Benromach ‘Peat Smoke:’ 67ppm
Laphroaig Floor Malted: 80ppm
Ardbeg Supernova: 100ppm
Octomore 6.1: 167ppm
Octomore 6.3: 258ppm
Octomore 8.3: 309.8ppm

Tasting Peat and Phenol

Does this mean that Octomore 8.3 is going to taste 8 times peatier than Laphroaig? No, not really. Because nature likes to screw with you, human perception of phenols levels off at around 60ppm (remember, that’s in the barley; what winds up in the whisky is around 25ppm), and when a whisky goes well above this it can can actually taste less peaty than something much lower. The 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig, or some cask strength Ardmores taste peatier to me than some of the Octomores, which I find go beyond overt peat and into a new realm of minerality and meaty complexity. In the end, ppm is a reasonably useless marketing term, as there are a lot of other variables to how peaty your whisky is going to taste.

Peating whisky is a complex science and art. It’s going to bring smoky flavours into your whisky, which you might love or hate, but which you have to admit is distinctive either way. Whether it’s a lightly peated Benromach, floor malted Springbank, or a monster Octomore, peat brings character into a lot of different whiskies and really spreads out the spectrum of flavour you can experience from whisky. Remember that all peat is not created equal. My best friend thought he hated peaty whisky after having a Laphroaig, but now Ardmore is his favourite dram. Even if you think you don’t like peated whisky, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles, trying some different types, and seeing if it grows on you.

What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)

You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.

Barley

The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.

Corn

Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.

Wheat

Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot  be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.

Rye

Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.

Other Grains

The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.

As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!

What’s the Difference Between a Pot Still and a Column Still?

If you’re a shrewd imbiber, you may notice that some bottles of liquor — for instance, Irish whiskey like Redbreast — advertise a particular kind of still used to produce the spirit, in this case “single pot still.” Elsewhere, you may notice other bottles — like Japanese whisky Nikka — instead touting something called a Coffey still used to make their wares. If you delve deeper into these phrases, you might find that there appears to be a whole host of different kinds of stills: in addition to those above, you can find column stills, alembic stills, continuous stills, patent stills, and many others. What do all these terms mean, and how do they effect what you get in your bottle?

The pot still is what most of us think of when we think of a still: the stereotypical still design, made of copper, with a wide, bulbous bottom and a long, thin, tapered neck. There is evidence that pot stills made of terracotta were used as early as the 400s BCE, but the name you’ll see most attached to its invention is Arab alchemist Al-Jabir around 790 CE. At the time, Al-Jabir wasn’t looking to get tipsy; he was looking to bring out greater purity in his liquid materials to try and find the secret of eternal life. However, once it was discovered that water and alcohol have different boiling points, the pot still — also called an “alembic,” which is an alchemical term — starting being used to instead increase the purity of alcohol such as wine.

The way a pot still works is simple: the contents of the large lower chamber, called the pot, are heated until the alcohol vaporizes. The vapor travels up the long neck, where it is cooled down by cold water. Once cool enough, the vapors condense back into liquid, where it is collected in a separate chamber. Thus, you now have a product that has a much higher alcohol content, since most of the water in it got left behind in the pot. In the olden days, a pot was heated simply by lighting a fire under it; these days, vaporization is usually achieved with superheated steam, which is easier to control and fine-tune than fire, and which allows distillers to better guide their product. That said, the pot still is still fairly inefficient in terms of energy expended. Not all of the alcohol makes it into the collection chamber, and due to the fact that pot stills have to be batch operated — that is, that in-between batches, they have to be emptied, cleaned, and refilled — using a pot still is a laborious task.

Great men spent ages trying to increase the speed and efficiency of pot stills, and in 1831 Irishman Aenas Coffey patented his “Coffey still,” based on the use of two vertical columns instead of a single pot. Also known as a patent or continuous still, but best known these days as a column still, Coffey’s still behaves like a series of pot stills all linked together, stacked on top of each other. The liquid to be distilled falls through each chamber from the top of the column, while superheated steam comes up from the bottom. The steam vaporizes the alcohol, while the leftover “wash” with its alcohol removed falls down to the bottom chamber, where it is turned into steam and is used to vaporize the next batch. The vaporized alcohol floats up through each chamber of the column, and since each chamber has a lower temperature than the last, more and more impurities in the alcohol get left behind. The alcohol, with its low boiling point, gets vaporized and thus a purer concentration of alcohol is left behind in each chamber. The more chambers a column still has, the purer the concentration will end up.

Lest you start visualizing a column still the size of a skyscraper, know that a column still with an abundance of chambers will be made up of several interlinked columns; the alcohol will reach the top of one, and then get filtered into the bottom of the next, where the temperature is yet still a little cooler. This allows a column still to have an end product of 95% pure alcohol, as opposed to the 60% to 80% alcohol a pot still can end up with. (This doesn’t mean you’ll get a higher abv in the bottle of course, this is just the initial concentration. Alcohol from both pot and column stills are further watered down before bottling.)

So if column stills are so much more efficient and produce such a pure product, why would anyone make liquor in a pot still these days? The same reason why audiophiles might prefer a vinyl LP to a CD or MP3: those impurities in the distillate are what give the spirit its flavor, and a pot still allows its spirits a warmth and depth that the cold efficiency of a column still can’t match. A whisky or Cognac made in a pot still has the reputation of a private, personal, hand-made treat; sure it’s more labor-intensive, but that only means that you’re getting a superior product than something made in a detached, aloof column still, right? Many people certainly think this way. In general, the more rich and flavorful liquors — single-malt Scotch, Cognac, high-end rum, mezcal — are made in pot stills, while crisp clear spirits — vodka, white rum, gin — are made in column stills that can reach high abvs. The big exception to the rule is bourbon and rye whiskey, which are usually made in column stills, but often in a slower, more hands-on style like one might find with a pot still. Of course, exceptions to all of these rules of thumb abound.

Both pot and column stills have a permanent place in the history of spirits, and neither are going anywhere anytime soon. But at least now you know what each one is used for, and why.

What’s the Best Way to Cellar Wine?

So you’re a fan of good wine, and you’ve just acquired a nice bottle. It’s not something you’re going to drink right away, and perhaps you want to put it down for a while and let the passage of time potentially improve what’s inside. If this is your first time cellaring a bottle of wine, it might seem like a confusing task: Where’s the best place to keep your bottles? What about light or temperature? Should a bottle be stored on its side, or standing up? If you’re ready to start a wine cellar of your own, here are some basic instructions for how to get the most out of your bottles.

For temperature, it’s best to keep things cool, but not too cool. In general, people drink reds too warm and whites too cold, and this is extended over to how the bottles are stored, as well. If the temperature in your cellar is too high, the wine will age far too quickly, and the aromas and flavors could be dulled by the heat. Too cold, and the tastes and aromas contained in the bottle won’t evolve much at all. In general, a good cellar keeps a temperature of around 50° to 60° Fahrenheit, which is just right to keep a bottle of wine steadily aging for a long time. Just as important as the ideal temperature is that that temperature remains more or less steady. Obviously most of us can’t afford a perfectly regulated wine cellar, but kept somewhere with a consistent temperature will do bottles good.

Light, or lack thereof, is another important factor in a good wine cellar. Specifically, ultraviolet light can have a detrimental effect on wine, so if complete darkness isn’t a possibility, at least keep the bottles away from the sun. UV light can bleach not only the bottle’s label, but the wine itself, leaving it tasting thin and unpleasant. Light from bulbs carries much less UV than the sun does, and all the better if you’re using incandescent bulbs, which emit almost no UV light at all. But if it’s possible, it’s best to keep your cellar dark when you’re not around; if no light gets in, your bottles are better off.

If you go to a good wine shop, you may notice that the higher-end bottles are stored slanted, or on their side. This is how you should keep your bottles in your own personal cellar, as well. The idea here is that if a bottle is kept on its side, the wine will keep the bottom of the cork moist. A dry cork will get loose and let air in, which will cause the wine within to prematurely oxidize, which will lead to that often awful vinegar taste you get from a bottle past its prime — not to mention it can be a frustrating task trying to extract a dry, brittle cork from a bottle. Obviously, this only matters for bottles with corks, so if you have a nice screw top bottle on hand, it can stand up if you feel the need.

So, light, temperature, and bottle placement are probably the three most important factors in a good wine cellar (if you have some especially old bottles, or some well-aged vintage ports, you’ll also want to make sure your bottles aren’t jostled in any way, as this will disturb any sediment that may collect in the bottle). Of course, not all of us are blessed with spacious basements that fulfill all of the requirements for a perfect cellar. If a cool, dark basement isn’t possible, consider a little-used closet, or a quiet corner of a room that doesn’t get a lot of light. Keep your bottles cool, on their side, and in the dark, and you’ll be able to age your wines comfortably. Happy drinking!

Do Bitters Go Bad?

Reader Sam writes:

“Hi Drinkhacker, love your articles. I have a question maybe you can answer. I’ve had a bottle of bitters on my shelf for a while now, and I was wondering if bitters ever go bad. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work.”

Sam’s question is a good one. If you’re interested in mixology, you likely have a bottle of bitters stashed away for when it’s needed, but it’s not like you use a ton of the stuff when you make drinks; most recipes just call for a few dashes, so that 8-ounce bottle of bitters could last you for a decade or more. Is it a waste of money buying anything more than a little 2-ounce bottle, because the rest will spoil before you can use it?

To start: What exactly are bitters, anyway? Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with various herbs, fruits, bark, spices, seeds, and just about anything else you can think of. In this way, they’re essentially a liqueur, like an amaro or any other bitter spirit. Could you drink a bottle of bitters straight? While we won’t recommend it (it gets the name ‘bitters’ for a reason, drinking it straight is a potent experience reserved for the insane), it’s perfectly safe to just take a swig of bitters, and in fact that was the idea when bitters were first invented: for a long time, bitters (as well as other bitter herbal liqueurs) were actually made as medicines, to be taken as a cure for everything from an upset stomach to gout. There’s evidence that suggests that bitters, or at least a bitters-like liqueur, was the first type of alcohol made: In China, they’ve uncovered evidence of a fermented concoction brewed with bitter hawthorne berries dating back to 7,000 BC, likely used as a medicine.

So now that you know a bitter more about what bitters are, let’s finally get around to answering Sam’s question. The general answer is that bitters don’t go bad, with one exception that we know of. As a liqueur, bitters have a high alcohol content that might surprise you: Angostura, the most famous brand of bitters, has a whopping 45% abv in that little bottle. Because of this, most bitters have a shelf life comparable to any spirit: essentially indefinite. Like all spirits, chemical reactions and evaporation in the bottle will eventually start to change the taste if you keep the same bottle for a decade or more, but none of it will hurt you and the product won’t spoil.

The one exception we have seen are some fruit bitters made by Fee Brothers, because they sometimes dissolve their flavoring ingredients in glycerin instead of ethanol like most liqueurs. Unlike ethanol, glycerin does have a shelf life of about a year or two before it spoils. If you want some fruit bitters and aren’t sure about that bottle of Fee Brothers that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, maybe try buying a different brand, or just learn to infuse your own neutral spirit with a fruit of your choice. It’s easy and fun.

Thanks to Sam for the question, and if any readers have questions about the strange and wonderful world of alcohol, write to me at [email protected], and hopefully we can answer your questions, too!

Does Absinthe Make You Hallucinate?

“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 absinthe has been legal in the United States for a decade now, in the grand scheme of things it’s still a rather mysterious spirit, one that’s cloaked in superstition. And though the average imbiber might not know what absinthe is made out of or what it tastes like, the one thing everyone knows is the story of the “Green Fairy,” the hallucinations that one is said to get from drinking absinthe, and which has a lot to do why it was banned in the U.S. for about a century (1912-2007). So of course the question must now be asked: Does absinthe really make you hallucinate? If so, why? And if not, what the heck was going on with the ban?

So first off, what is the reason the stories give for absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties? The general consensus has been that wormwood, an herb used as a flavoring agent for the drink, contains thujone, a supposedly psychoactive compound that can cause someone enjoying the drink to see things. However, research shows that that just doesn’t seem to be the case; while wormwood definitely contains thujone, and thujone has been shown to block GABA receptors in the brain and can be toxic when taken in high enough doses, you won’t find any absinthe that contains the levels of thujone necessary for a reaction. (Not to mention that the effect of blocked GABA receptors isn’t trippy visions, but in fact painful convulsions. Not our idea of a good time.) Indeed, due to absinthe’s high alcohol content (typically around 60 to 70% abv), you would likely die of alcohol poisoning long before you ingested enough thujone to have any effect at all, good or ill.

That said, drinking absinthe isn’t a death sentence, either. Like the supposedly headache-inducing sulfites found in wine, thujone is naturally found in all sorts of things we ingest, and you don’t see people keeling over or having wild visions on the streets. The mundane truth is that neither wormwood nor the thujone within cause hallucinations, and the fact that people still fervently believe they do today shows how powerful the absinthe myth is.

But that’s the modern stuff. The absinthe that was available in its golden age was much more potent and psychotropic, right? Not likely. Despite the widespread belief that pre-ban absinthe had a much higher level of thujone in it, according to absinthe expert and Lucid creator Ted Breaux, absinthe never really had any hallucinogenic qualities. Instead, the poets and artists who claimed to see green fairies were likely just overtaken by absinthe’s high alcohol content, plus perhaps the power of suggestion, of course. If you have deep pockets, you can test Breaux’s claims yourself: There are plenty of sealed bottles of pre-ban absinthe on the market, they’re just very expensive.

So what was up with the ban in the first place? Remember that absinthe was banned in most countries in the early 20th century, when temperance movements were strong and had powerful political backing. The United States banned absinthe in 1912, even before Prohibition, while in France luminaries were attacking absinthe as the cause of all of the country’s declining moral values. It’s likely that absinthe, with an alcohol content a third higher than most gin or whiskey, was just a scapegoat for what was generally a bad time for alcohol. It took a lot of lobbying by folks like Breaux (and changing attitudes toward drinking) to finally overturn the ban just 10 years ago.

So that’s the strange, convoluted story of absinthe and its supposed effects. If you’re not going to rush out and break the bank on a pre-ban bottle, try a bottle of Pernod for the traditional experience, Lucid to see what bars are doing with it, or Wild Card for a more contemporary, “craft” absinthe.

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