Well-known figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, even Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, all used hallucinogenic drinks to cope with life's everyday pains, and they were supposedly driven insane by the drinks to varying degrees.
The alcohol consumed today won't convince anyone that they're living in a magical world of fairies and unicorns, as some of history's most powerful hallucinogenic beverages do. Today's beverages will, however, serve as a central nervous system depressant. And alcohol also relaxes, reduces inhibitions, decreases motor control and, at higher doses, can cause unconsciousness, respiratory problems and severe embarrassment due to urinary incontinence.
From shamans in the rainforest to artists, writers, philosophers and Frenchmen, cultures across the globe have developed beverages that boggle the mind and bring on a “higher state of being.” Whether these drinks actually accomplish that, or just kill brain cells, is an open question. Just as it's open to debate whether certain artists would have accomplished their greatest works had they not been looped out of their gourds on psychedelic and hallucinogenic beverages downed by the bucketful. These drinks come in a variety of forms, with a huge range of reputed properties and effects. We've included some of the most infamous here.
Absinthe – Popular from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, Absinthe is known to many as “The Green Fairy” for its green color and supposedly hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties. Famous drinkers include Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, who once said, “After the first glass of absinthe 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.” The spirit is anise-flavored and includes the flowers and leaves of wormwood, which has limited quantities of a chemical called thujone – allegedly a powerful hallucinogen. However, alcoholism is a much easier way to account for the odd behaviors and customs of the bohemian set who loved absinthe – the spirit is bottled at extremely high proofs and was often up to 90 percent alcohol by volume. Plus, very little of the thujone makes it through the distillation process. Nevertheless, absinthe was almost universally outlawed by 1915, and widespread production only recently began again when the laws started being relaxed in the 1990s.
Drinking absinthe tends to be ritualized, which accounts for at least some of the mystique. Special glasses are filled halfway with the green liquid and an absinthe spoon is laid on the rim of the glass with a sugar cube on top while ice cold water is poured over it to dilute the spirit, turning it a milky white in the process. Since absinthe has been legalized again, absinthe bars have sprung up in major cities, giving rise to new cocktails, a new bohemian culture and some fairly bad poetry inspired by absinthe-fueled “visions.”
Laudanum – A mixture of alcohol, herbs and opium, laudanum is powerful stuff. Up until the early 1900s, the compound was considered good for pretty much whatever ailed you, from coughs to irritable bowels and insomnia. Even babies got doses to keep them quiet. It's an extremely powerful mix, incredibly addictive and capable of causing anything from euphoria to respiratory issues and even death. Despite these issues, laudanum was even more loosely regulated than alcohol in the 1800s, and was often cheaper than buying a bottle of gin or wine because it was untaxed. This changed with increased narcotics regulations in the early 1900s.
Today laudanum is only available via prescription and is used primarily for treatment of diarrhea. But while it was widely available, many artists tended to avail themselves of it. Samuel Coleridge, the writer of “Kubla Khan,” was an addict, as was Lewis Carroll – the writer of “Through the Looking-Glass” and “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.” After all, a man has to be on something to come up with The Jabberwock.
Poppy Tea – Tea is usually viewed as one of the most harmless and relaxing beverages available. A nice warm cup in the afternoon or evening relaxes the mind and soothes the body. Poppy tea, however, is a different breed and relaxes for different reasons – primarily, of course, because it's made from the opium poppy. This makes tea time a decidedly interesting, if highly illegal, proposition. There are hundreds of different recipes for poppy tea, but most call for steeping empty poppy seed pods and stems, where the majority of the psychoactive compounds are found, in water. The darker and more bitter the tea turns out, the more powerful it tends to be. The poppy stems used to make the tea are now regulated as a controlled substance, but when it was legal, the tea was commonly used as a painkiller and as a treatment for incontinence, not to mention its narcotic effects.
Ayahuasca – A somewhat generic term for any brew made from a vine known by the same name, the drink is made and used primarily by indigenous tribes and peoples of the Amazon, particularly in Peru. Generally used in religious ceremonies, ayahuasca is extremely hallucinogenic and psychoactive. Traditionally, those who drink it are looking for a window into the soul, and use it as part of a kind of “vision quest.” It's also believed to be able to cure virtually any ailment. In reality it's actually an effective treatment for parasites, as the drink causes intense purging - violent vomiting and diarrhea. The ingredients for ayahuasca aren't outlawed, but the drink, once brewed, is classified as a controlled substance, at least here in the U.S. There are, however, a few U.S. -based religions that have successfully argued for ayahuasca's use as part of the legal exercise of their faith.
Salamander Brandy – Supposedly a liquor indigenous to Slovenia, salamander brandy combines hallucinogens with aphrodisiacs to form a particularly potent mix, if it truly exists. Made by combining the toxic slime secreted as a defense mechanism by native salamanders with brandy, salamander brandy is essentially a refined version of toad-licking. Making it involves tossing several salamanders in a barrel of fermenting fruit, where they secrete mucus to protect themselves from the alcohol and eventually die in the barrel. In addition to causing hallucinations, the neurotoxins in salamander brandy are reputed to cause extreme sexual arousal for pretty much anything the drinker has handy – whether that's another person, a tree, kitchen appliance or an unfortunate woodland creature. Spiking the punch at the next church potluck would yield some interesting results. Luckily for bingo nights across the nation, getting one of these nigh-mythical bottles, if they exist, requires a trip to Slovenia.