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The Absinthe Enigma
Resurgence of a Legendary Spirit
by Lux and Fire Erowid
Nov 2008
Originally published in Erowid Extracts
Citation:   Lux, Erowid F. "The Absinthe Enigma; Resurgence of a Legendary Spirit". Erowid Extracts. Nov 2007;(13):12-14
As products called absinthe are once again being widely marketed, absinthe has shifted from obscure historical drink to chic epicurean beverage. Named after Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), its defining herbal ingredient, this spirit has a reputation for producing unique effects not attributable to its alcohol content alone. These effects are commonly attributed to thujone, a psychoactive chemical in wormwood, but new arguments have been proposed claiming that traditional absinthe contained little to no thujone. Some private and peer-reviewed research analyzing vintage bottles of absinthe and contemporary absinthe made from traditional recipes has found lower levels of thujone than expected, raising the question of whether nineteenthcentury absinthe ever contained active amounts.

Major media publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and USA Today have brought public attention to this debate. The issue of thujone content is not only of scientific concern, but of commercial concern as well, since U.S. and European regulations set maximum values for thujone in absinthe. While some vendors emphasize high thujone levels as a selling point, others use the new theory, that absinthe originally had negligible amounts, to defend their low-thujone absinthe as authentic.

The following articles include a look at absinthe's history, the current U.S. regulatory environment, and the complicated issue of thujone in wormwood and absinthe.

See Also: Absinthe in the United States and The Debate About Wormwood and Thujone Psychoactivity

Christened la fée verte ("the green fairy") during the height of its popularity, absinthe beckons from the margins of well-ordered society. At the close of the nineteenth century, intellectuals, artists, libertine women, bohemians, and businessmen would circulate through twilit streets during the "green hour" in search of its pleasures. Absinthe's history winds through legend, culture, and law, and the ceaseless controversy it engenders led absinthe historian Jad Adams to observe that, "The green fluid accepted whatever desires were projected onto it and combined with them in an opaque, cloudy mix."1

What Is Absinthe?

Absinthe is a distilled liquor, usually containing 60-70% alcohol, infused with Artemisia absinthium ("grand" or "common" wormwood) and often A. pontica ("petite" or "roman" wormwood). These perennial herbs contain the terpenoid thujone, which can cause transient changes to attention and mood. Wormwood is extremely bitter due to the presence of absinthin, one of the most bitter substances known-one ounce mixed into 524 gallons of water can be detected by taste.2 Absinthe is also often infused with other plant flavorants such as anise, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, mint, and licorice.

In many traditional recipes, the plant material is added to grape or grain alcohol in two rounds of maceration. The first maceration extracts flavors and essential oils into the liquor. The plant-infused liquor is then typically re-distilled and macerated a second time (sometimes with a different assortment of herbs), to increase the flavor and, in some cases, provide color.3 Grand wormwood is usually used during the first maceration, while petite wormwood may be used during the second.4 In good quality green absinthes, the vibrant color comes entirely from plant chlorophyll. Absinthes made without a second maceration are milder in color and flavor, and are called blanches or bleues when clear or faintly blue.5 Other absinthes -- particularly those from Czechoslovakia -- may be dyed any color, even vibrant blue or red.

Early History

Medicinal wormwood infusions in alcohol have a long history in Europe. It has been said that wormwood-infused wine was used by the Greeks as early as 500 BCE,6 but little evidence for this has been published. In the first century, the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) documented the Roman use of wormwood to flavor wine, noting that the plant "is very strengthening to the stomach".7 The Greek physician Galen (131-201 CE) recommended wormwood in cases of "debility or swooning".8 Wormwood continued to be used for its medicinal properties in Europe in the fourteenth century,8 particularly to settle the nerves, calm the stomach, and combat parasites.1

The modern use of wormwood in non-medicinal alcoholic beverages began in seventeenth-century Europe, when wormwood was added to an ale called "purl" and a wine called "purl-royal".1 The earliest known recipe for spirits infused with wormwood and sweetened with sugar was published in England in 1731.5

"Absinthe drunk on a winter evening / lights up in green the smokey soul; / and the flowers on the darling one / exude perfume before the green fire."
-- from "Lendemain", by Charles Cros
Commercial Beginnings

Absinthe's invention is sometimes attributed to the French physician Pierre Ordinaire, who reportedly sold wormwood elixirs in the 1790s. However, several sources claim that he obtained his recipe from Henriette Henriod of Couvet during his travels in Switzerland.1,5,6,8

Regardless, most versions of the history report that in 1797 two Henriod sisters sold their absinthe recipe to Daniel-Henri Dubied, who quickly opened what some historians describe as the first commercial absinthe distillery, with his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod in Switzerland. In 1805 Pernod opened another distillery, this time in Pontarlier, France,1 and he went on to become one of the most prominent names in absinthe. Absinthe historian Jad Adams speculates that the attribution of absinthe's invention to Ordinaire rather than Dubied may represent a French attempt to legitimize the drink by giving it a local origin.1

Promoted as both a medicinal remedy and an intoxicating beverage, the drink soon began to catch on; one absinthe historian reports that by 1849 the annual production in Pontarlier alone was about ten million liters.8 Several factors contributed to its rise in popularity. From 1844 to 1847, the French army issued absinthe to troops as an anti-malarial agent during their campaign in Algeria.8 French soldiers returned home with a taste for the drink.1 An even greater boon for absinthe came in the form of a parasitic mite called phylloxera, which devastated French vineyards in the 1860s and 1870s. With wine in short supply, absinthe consumption increased.

Enter the golden age of the green fairy. In Paris, absinthe became fused in popular consciousness with the decadent, avant-garde fin-de-siècle culture. The roster of absinthe-drinking artists in the late nineteenth century reads like a Who's Who of Continental visionaries. Notable literary figures, including Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Oscar Wilde, were partial to its use. 8 Absinthe was popular among painters, including Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin, and Pablo Picasso, who all created absinthe-themed works. The painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is said to have carried a hollowed cane full of absinthe.8 Medical historian Wilfred Arnold speculates in a frequently cited book that Van Gogh may have suffered from mental illness caused by neurotoxic levels of thujone contained in absinthe.9 However, Arnold's theory was based on his estimates that vintage absinthes contained levels of thujone on the order of 260 mg/L, which is much higher than most current estimates.4,5

In Paris, absinthe became fused in popular consciousness with the decadent, avant-garde fin-de-siècle culture. The roster of absinthe-drinking artists in the late nineteenth century reads like a Who's Who of Continental visionaries.
Heading Toward the Ban

As absinthe's popularity reached its zenith, it came under heated attack by the medical establishment in Europe. As early as 1839 some doctors argued that wormwood disrupted the nervous system,1 causing delusions, convulsions, hallucinations, mental illness, and violent behavior- symptoms that together came to be called "absinthism". Absinthism was most often blamed on the presence of wormwood in absinthe, as in the 1865 edition of the Dictionnaire de Médecine, which warns, "The poisonous and inebriating effects produced in those who drink the liqueur of absinth [...] is undoubtedly due more to the plant than to the alcohol."10

Contemporary journal articles have cast doubt on wormwood as the cause of absinthism.4,5,11,12 Some neurotoxic effects associated with absinthe drinking may have been caused by the addition of copper sulfate or antimony chloride as coloring agents. This problem was correctly identified as early as 1906, when a study published in The Medical Journal warned, "The coloring matters used in absinthe are often very deleterious; in fact not infrequently copper salts have been used in order to produce the green color."13 Symptoms attributed to absinthism may even have resulted from the inclusion of other plants used as flavoring agents such as calamus (Acorus calamus) or nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).5,12

While nineteenth-century animal experiments suggested that absinthe was more toxic than alcohol alone, recent analyses of these experiments have found them poorly designed and inconclusive by contemporary standards.5,14,15 Some researchers argue that absinthism was effectively another name for chronic alcoholism, which was not well understood at the time.5,11,12,16

Its popularity, high profile, and heavy alcohol content made absinthe an easy target for the burgeoning temperance movement. Political conservatives, who associated absinthe with a cosmopolitan culture they rejected, joined forces with prohibitionists to decry it. Nevertheless, the drink had its defenders. For example, Edmond Couleru argued on behalf of the Pontarlier absinthe establishment that the social and medical problems associated with absinthe use were caused by poor-quality absinthes, and that reputable labels were safe.8

Popular opinion was decisively marshaled following a shocking absinthe-related murder in 1905. After drinking two glasses of absinthe, Swiss vineyard worker Jean Lanfray killed his pregnant wife and two daughters. On returning to sobriety he reportedly cried out, "It is not me who did this. Please tell me, Oh God, that I have not done this", implying to many that he was not in control of his actions.1 The following Sunday, the mayor of Lanfray's town proclaimed that, "Absinthe is the principal cause of a series of bloody crimes in our country", and helped organize a petition to ban the drink that raised 82,000 signatures.1 The story was widely carried with sensational headlines around the world; few of the articles mentioned that in addition to two glasses of absinthe, Lanfray had also drunk cognac, several cordials, and more than two liters of wine the same day. Belgium had banned absinthe earlier in 1905, and many other European countries soon followed suit: Switzerland in 1908, Italy in 1913, France in 1915, and Germany in 1923. In 1912, the United States Department of Agriculture issued Food Inspection Decision 147 barring the importation or inter-state sale of absinthe. Some European countries such as Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom never banned it, though consumption all but disappeared once other countries ceased exporting.

The Absinthe Renaissance

Absinthe entered a seventy-year period of limited commercial production away from the public eye. Over time the fervor against it faded, as fears of its toxicity and its reputation for causing violence were forgotten in favor of growing legends regarding its supposed hallucinogenic effects. The modern-day absinthe revival began in 1988 when the European Economic Community issued directive 88/388/EEC, which set maximum legal levels of thujone in beverages sold in EEC member states: 5 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages with up to 25% alcohol, 10 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages with more than 25% alcohol, and 35 mg/kg in bitters.17 Also in 1988, France issued Decree 88-1024, which fell short of repealing the 1915 ban but specified that drinks could be sold within France if they complied with the EEC directive on thujone and were labeled as spirits or bitters of wormwood rather than as "absinthe".

In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Radomil Hill restarted his family's distilling business in Czechoslovakia.18 Based on the recipes of his father, who reportedly produced absinthe as early as 1920, Radomil began marketing Hill's Absinth in 1994. In 1998, several British entrepreneurs formed a company called Green Bohemia and began importing Hill's into the United Kingdom.19 By 2005, bans were repealed in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.20 Throughout most of the European Union, absinthe with limited thujone content was now legal. The regulatory status of absinthe, wormwood, and thujone in the United States is more complex, but several low-thujone brands of absinthe are approved for sale. [See also Absinthe in the United States.]

With its resurgence in Europe and the United States, an absinthe renaissance is fully underway. It has returned to its cult status as a drink of the avant-garde, popular with young adults, musicians, and actors. Passionate aficionados argue, recommend, and critique available products on dozens of absinthe-themed websites. Connoisseurs are fiercely loyal to brands, methods, regions of production, and subtle nuances of taste. Lesser brands are regularly blasted as inauthentic or possibly dangerous. A fine absinthe is a complex drink, with an equally complex history, and many are delighted by the green fairy's return.

References #
  1. Adams J. Hideous Absinthe. U Wisconsin Press. 2004. p 17-21,62,205-6.
  2. Arnold WN. "Absinthe". Scientific American. Jun 1989;260:112-7.
  3. Turner J. "Green Gold: The Return of Absinthe". The New Yorker. Mar 13, 2006;38.
  4. Lachenmeier DW, Nathan-Maister D. "Systematic Misinformation About Thujone in Pre-ban Absinthe". Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau. Jun 2007;103(6):255-62.
  5. Padosch SA, Lachenmeier DW, Kröner LU. "Absinthism: A Fictitious 19th Century Syndrome with Present Impact". Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. May 2006;1(1):14.
  6. Baker P. The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History. Grove Press. 2001.
  7. Pliny the Elder. The Natural History: Book XXVII: Chap 28. Taylor and Francis. 1855.
  8. Conrad B. Absinthe: History in a Bottle. Chronicle. 1988. p 90,55,118.
  9. Arnold WN. Vincent Van Gogh: Chemicals Crises, and Creativity. Birkhäuser. 1992.
  10. Amory R. "Experiments and Observations on Absinth and Absinthism". Boston Med Surg J. 1868;68-71,83-5.
  11. Strang J, Arnold WN, Peters T. "Absinthe: What's Your Poison? […]". Dec 18-25 1999; 319(7225):1590-2.
  12. Lachenmeier DW, Emmert J, Kuballa T, et al. "Thujone-Cause of Absinthism?". Forensic Sci Int. 2006;158(1):1-8.
  13. Gimpel M, Hönersch Y, Altmann HJ, et al. "Absinth: Abschätzung des Thujongehaltes von Absinthgetränken nach historischen Rezepten". Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau. 102(10):457-63.
  14. Dettling A. Grass H, Schuff A, et al. "Absinthe: Attention Performance and Mood Under the Influence of Thujone". J Stud Alcohol. Sep 2004;65(5):573-81.
  15. Baggott M. "Absinthe FAQ".
  16. Ott J. Pharmacotheon. Natural Products Co. 1993/1996.
  17. European Commission. "Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Thujone". Feb 6, 2003.
  18. Hills Absinth. "Hillstory: Smooth Since 1920". Accessed Oct 14, 2007;
  19. Hesser A. "A Modern Absinthe Experiment". The New York Times. May 31, 2000.
  20. Sciolino E. "Rebirth of the Potion That Made Val-de-Travers Famous". The New York Times. Nov 4 2004.
  21. Pendell D. Pharmaco/poeia. Mercury House. 1995.
Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Nov 2007 - Published in Erowid Extracts.
  • v1.1 - Aug 22, 2008 - Published on