Absinthe FAQ

by Matthew Baggott (bagg@ellis.uchicago.edu)
February 3, 1993


INTRODUCTION

This FAQ file was prepared by Matthew Baggott (bagg@ellis.uchicago.edu) for distribution on the newsgroup alt.drugs. It may be freely reprinted and distributed as long as it is properly credited. If you're reprinting the file in a zine (e- or otherwise), I'd like to hear about it. Some uses of the medline abstracts might be go beyond legal 'fair use' of that intellectual property. If I determine this to be a problem, I'll replace the abstracts with summaries written by myself. However, people reprinting this file may wish to leave out that section of the FAQ if this issue is of concern to them. Comments, questions, referenced information, and personally- collected anecdotes relating to absinthe and wormwood are welcome. File last updated on 3-FEB-93.

The following individuals contributed information or editorial skills to this FAQ file: Michael Golden (mgolden@eecs.umich.edu) archived the recipies which were posted to rec.food.drink by unknown parties; Laurent Hagimont (hagimont@cnam.cnam.fr) and Johnny Svensson (svensson@ISI.edu) supplied information about the current availability of absinthe; Johnny Svensson also gave information about wormwood's use as a flavoring in vodka. Myra Chachkin (cs_myra@gsbvax.uchcicago.edu) provided editorial comments on an earlier draft of this FAQ file. These individuals deserve much credit for helping to compile obscure data. Nonetheless, the perspectives, arguments, and errors of this file are mine alone.

The file contains the following sections: What is absinthe?; What is the active component in absinthe?; What plants contain thujone?; How was/is absinthe made?; References; Recent references on absinthe/thujone culled from medline; and Books on absinthe culled from the University of California on-line card catalog. Each of these sections is separated by a partial line of minus characters, allowing one to easily page through the document.


WHAT IS ABSINTHE?

Absinthe is an alcoholic drink made with an extract from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). It is an emerald green drink which is very bitter (due to the presence of absinthin) and is therefore traditionally poured over a perforated spoonful of sugar into a glass of water. The drink then turns into an opaque white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Absinthe was once popular among artists and writers and was used by Van Gogh, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, to name a few. It appears to have been believed to stimulate creativity. However, in the 1850's, there began to be concern about the results of chronic use. Chronic use of absinthe was believed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, and hallucinations. This concern over the health effects of absinthe was amplified by the prevailing belief in Lamarckian theories of heredity. In other words, it was believed that any traits acquired by absinthists would be passed on to their children (1). Absinthe's association with the bohemian lifestyle also worked to compound fears about its effects, much as has happened with marijuana in America. Absinthe was subsequently banned in many countries in the beginning of the 1900's.

WHAT IS THE ACTIVE COMPONENT IN ABSINTHE?

This issue is not entirely resolved. Alcohol is definitely one main component. However, another candidate is the monoterpene, thujone, which which is considered a convulsant. Thujone's mechanism of action is not known, although structural similarities between thujone and tetrahydrocannabinol (the active component in marijuana) have led some to hypothesize that both substances have the same site of action in the brain. Thujone makes up 40 to 90% (by weight) of the essence of wormwood, from which absinthe is made (2). Thus, thujone would appear to be a good candidate for a second active component in absinthe. Indeed, thujone has long been considered to be the neurotoxic cause of absinthism.

However, the direct evidence to support this idea is scant. Absinthe is 75% alcohol. Therefore, alcohol's effects will limit the amount of thujone one can ingest. Quite simply, you can only drink a moderate amount of absinthe before you become very drunk from the alcohol. Thujone would have to be active at a very low dose or be present in high quantities in order to have any appreciable effect. In the "This and That" column in Trends in the Pharmacological Sciences, "B. Max" made the following dose calculations:

How much thujone was present in absinthe? Steam distillation of wormwood yields 0.27-0.40% of a bitter, dark-green oil (3) In a typical recipe for absinthe, 2.5 kg of wormwood were used in preparing 100 liters of absinthe (4). Typically, 1.5 oz was consumed (diluted with water) per tipple (5). This is equivalent to 4.4 mg wormwood oil per drink, or 2-4 mg thujone. This is far below the level at which acute pharmacological effects are observed. Even chronic administration of 10 mg/kg thujone to rats does not alter spontaneous activity of conditioned behavior (6). The literature on the pharmacology of thujone is, to put it bluntly, second rate, and conclusions as to its effects have been extrapolated far beyond the experimental base (7).

Furthermore, the symptoms of absinthism do not appear to be that unlike those of alcoholism. Hallucinations, sleeplessness, tremors, paralysis, and convulsions can also be noted in cases of alcoholism. This suggests that the syndrome "absinthism" mayy well have been caused by alcohol. Because absinthe is no longer popular, little research has been done into its effects on health. Reports on thujone's/absinthe's toxicity seem to rely mostly on case reports from the beginning of the century or earlier. Lacking more recent research, it seems most reasonable to take reports of absinthe's toxicity with skepticism. Essentially, there is little good data to suggest that absinthe's active components were anything other than alcohol.

(In fairness, I should mention that several individuals who have taken home-made absinthe or who have drunk it where it is legal have claimed to me that it produced an intoxication unlike that of alcohol.)

In addition to alcohol and thujone, absinthe sometimes contained methanol (wood alcohol), which could have contributed to the symptoms of absinthism. Calamus (acorus calamus) and nutmeg (myristica fragrans) were also sometimes used in making absinthe. Both plants have reputations for being psychedelics, although to my best of knowledge only nutmeg's psychedelic properties have been well established. However, it seems unlikely that either plant would have been added in the quanitities necessary to produce psychoactive effects.


WHAT MODERN ALCOHOLIC DRINKS ARE THERE WHICH ARE RELATED TO ABSINTHE?

Pernod is basically absinthe without the wormwood. It is named after Henri-Louis Pernod, an individual who ran an absinthe factory in France in the early 1800s. As a substitute for wormwood, the modern drink Pernod uses increased amounts of aniseed. Ricard is the name of another modern wormwood-less absinthe.

Also, vermouth, chartreuse, and benedictine all contain small amounts of thujone. In fact, vermouth, which is made using the flower heads from wormwood, takes its name from the german "wermuth" ("wormwood").

Absinthe (made with wormwood) is still available in Spain and reportedly in Denmark and Portugal as well.

Wormwood is popular as a flavoring for vodka in Sweden.

It is also possible to buy oil of wormwood (produced by steam distillation) from companies that sell essential oils. One such company is The Essential Oil Co., PO Box 206, Lake Oswego, OR, 97034. 503-697-5992; FAX 503-697-0615; Orders 1-800-729-5912. Catalog is free, but there is a $50 minimum order (orders under $50 are accepted but charged an additional $5 service charge). The company also sells other oils of interest to readers of this newsgroup. Caution should be exercised with these oils since they can contain significant amounts of pharmacologically active and/or toxic elements.


WHAT PLANTS CONTAIN THUJONE?

According to W. N. Arnold's Scientific American article: Thujone occurs in a variety of plants, including tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and sage (salvia officinalis), as well as in all the trees of the arborvitae group, of which the thuja (Thuja occidentalis), or white cedar, is one. It is also characteristic of most species of Artemisia, a genus within the Compositae, or daisy, family. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica) were the main sources of the thujone in absinthe (4).

HOW WAS/IS ABSINTHE MADE?

Simon and Schulter's Guide to Herbs and Spices tells us that Henri-Louis Pernod used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, and lemonbalm along with lesser amounts of angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and veronica. These ingredients were mascerated together with wormwood plants. After leaving the mixture to sit, water was added and the mixture was distilled. Dried herbs, including more wormwood, were added to the distillate, which was then diluted with alcohol to give a concentration of about 75% alcohol by volume (8). Different absinthe manufacturers used slightly different ingredients, sometimes using calamus, which has been purported to have psychoactive effects.

In addition to these ingredients, manufacturers sometimes added other ingredients to produce the drink's emerald green color. Normally, this color was due to the presence of chlorophyll from the plants. However, in the event that the product was not properly colored, absinthe makers were known to add things like copper sulfate, indigo, turmeric, and aniline green. Antimony chloride was also used to help the drink become cloudy when added to water. Presumably modern makers of Pernod and absinthe use safer ingredients for their concoctions!

Here are some recipes for "absinthe" which were originally posted to rec.food.drink. Absinthe is placed in quotes since only the last recipe here will produce something resembling the traditional drink. I have not personally tried these recipes and do not claim that they are safe or even tasty.

** Absinthe #1 **

Place vodka in large jar with tight fitting lid. Add wormwood and shake well; steep 48 hrs and strain out. Crush seeds and pods in mortar. Add them and all remaining spices to vodka and steep in a warm place 1 week. Filter and sweeten. (The sugar syrup mentioned above is your standard simple syrup.)

** Absinthe #2 **

Steep wormwood in vodka for 48 hours. Strain out and add peppermint leaves and lemon peel. Steep for 8 days, strain and sweeten. Smells good but is more bitter than #1.

** Absinthe Wine **

All herbs are dried.

Steep herbs one week, filter and bottle. My notes describe this as "bitter, aromatic and potent". ** Absinthe #3 ** >From Arnold's article in Scientific American: An 1855 recipe from Pontarlier, France, gives the following instructions for making absinthe: Macerate 2.5 kilograms of dried wormwood, 5 kilograms of anise and 5 kilograms of fennel in 95 liters of 85 percent ethanol by volume. Let the mixture steep for at least 12 hours in the pot of a double boiler. Add 45 liters of water and apply heat; collect 95 liters of distillate. To 40 liters of the distillate, add 1 kilogram of Roman wormwood, 1 kilogram of hyssop and 500 grams of lemon balm, all of which have been dried and finely divided. Extract at a moderate temperature, then siphon off the liquor, filter, and reunite it with the remaining 55 liters of distillate. Dilute with water to produce approximately 100 liters of absinthe with a final alcohol concentration of 74 percent by volume (4).


REFERENCES:

(1) Murphy, R. B. and Schneider, L. H. (1992) Soc. Neurosci. Abstr., Vol. 18, Part 1, p. 180.

(2) Simonsen, J. L. (1949) The Terpenes Vol. 2, Univ. Press.

(3) Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils Vol. 5, Van Nostrand.

(4) Arnold, W. M. (1989) Scientific American 260 (June), 112-117.

(5) Vogt, D. D. and Montagne, M. (1982) Int. J. Addict 17, 1015- 1029.

(6) Pinto-Scognamiglio, W. (1968) Boll. Chim. Farm. 107, 780-791.

(7) Max, B. (1990) TiPS 11 (Feb), 58-60.

(8) Simonetti, Gualtiero (1990) Simon and Schuster's Guide to Herbs and Spices, Simon and Schuster.


RECENT ARTICLES ON ABSINTHE AND THUJONE CULLED FROM MEDLINE: 1. Bonard EC.
[Absinthe and malaria].
Revue Medicale de la Suisse Romande, 1992 Oct, 112(10):907-8 Language: French.
(UI: 93067843)

2. Bonkovsky HL; Cable EE; Cable JW; Donohue SE; White EC; Greene YJ; Lambrecht RW; Srivastava KK; Arnold WN.
Porphyrogenic properties of the terpenes camphor, pinene, and thujone Biochemical Pharmacology, 1992 Jun 9, 43(11):2359-68.
(UI: 92304361) Pub type: Historical Article; Historical Biography; Journal Article.

Abstract: Camphor, alpha-pinene (the major component of turpentine), and thujone (a constituent in the liqueur called absinthe) produced an increase in porphyrin production in primary cultures of chick embryo liver cells. In the presence of desferrioxamine (an iron chelator which inhibits heme synthesis and thereby mimics the effect of the block associated with acute porphyria), the terpenes enhanced porphyrin accumulation 5- to 20-fold. They also induced synthesis of the rate-controlling enzyme for the pathway, 5-aminolevulinic acid synthase, which was monitored both spectrophotometrically and immunochemically. These effects are shared by well-known porphyrogenic chemicals such as phenobarbital and glutethimide. Camphor and glutethimide alone led to the accumulation of mostly uro- and heptacarboxylporphyrins, whereas alpha-pinene and thujone resulted in lesser accumulations of porphyrins which were predominantly copro- and protoporphyrins. In the presence of desferrioxamine, plus any of the three erpenes, the major product that accumulated was protoporphyrin. The present results indicate that the terpenes tested are porphyrogenic and hazardous to patients with underlying defects in hepatic heme synthesis. There are also implications for the illness of Vincent van Gogh and the once popular, but now banned liqueur, called absinthe.

3. Arnold WN; Loftus LS.
Xanthopsia and van Gogh's yellow palette.
Eye, 1991, 5 ( Pt 5):503-10.
(UI: 92175120) Pub type: Historical Article; Historical Biography; Journal Article.

Abstract: A survey of van Gogh's work from 1886 to 1890 indicated that paintings with a yellow dominance were numerous, episodic, and multi-regional. His underlying illness, by his own admission, affected his life and work; furthermore, episodes of malnutrition, substance abuse, environmental exposure, and drug experimentation (all evident from correspondence) exacerbated his condition. Accordingly, we reviewed plausible agents that might have modified the artist's colour perception. Xanthopsia due to overdosage of digitalis or santonin is well documented elsewhere, but evidence of useage of either drug by van Gogh cannot be substantiated. It is unlikely that ageing of the human lens was an influence because of the artist's youth. Sunstroke is too restrictive to fit the multiplicity of regions and motifs. Hallucinations induced by absinthe, the popular liqueur of the period, may explain particular canvases but not the majority of 'high yellow' paintings. Van Gogh's proclivity for exaggerated colours and his embrance of yellow in particular are clear from his letters and, in contradistinction to chemical or physical insults modifying perception, artistic preference is the best working hypothesis to explain the yellow dominance in his palette.

4. Arnold WN.
Absinthe.
Scientific American, 1989 Jun, 260(6):112-7.
(UI: 89266842) Pub type: Historical Article; Journal Article.

Comment: As one would expect from _Sci Am_, this is a good general article written by someone who has obviously written extensively on the subject. However, IMHO the author is insufficiently critical of of his historical sources.

5. Arnold WN.
Vincent van Gogh and the thujone connection.
Jama, 1988 Nov 25, 260(20):3042-4.
(UI: 89037535) Pub type: Historical Article; Historical Biography; Journal Article.

Abstract: During his last two years Vincent van Gogh experienced fits with hallucinations that have been attributed to a congenital psychosis. But the artist admitted to episodes of heavy drinking that were amply confirmed by colleagues and there is good evidence to indicate that addiction to absinthe exacerbated his illness. Absinthe was distilled from an alcoholic steep of herbs. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) was the most significant constituent because it contributed thujone. This terpene can cause excitation, convulsions that mimic epilepsy, and even permanent brain damage. Statements in van Gogh's letters and from his friends indicate that he had an affinity for substances with a chemical connection to thujone; the documented examples are camphor and pinene. Perhaps he developed an abnormal craving for terpenes, a sort of pica, that would explain his attempts to eat paints and so on, which were previously regarded as unrelated absurdities.

6. Ishida T; Toyota M; Asakawa Y.
Terpenoid biotransformation in mammals. V. Metabolism of (+)-citronellal, (+-)-7-hydroxycitronellal, citral, (-)-perillaldehyde, (-)-myrtenal, cuminaldehyde, thujone, and (+-)-carvone in rabbits.
Xenobiotica, 1989 Aug, 19(8):843-55.
(UI: 90051443)


BOOKS ON ABSINTHE CULLED FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA ON-LINE CARD CATALOG:

1. Conrad, Barnaby, 1953-
Absinthe : history in a bottle / Barnaby Conrad III. San Francisco : Chronicle Books, c1988.

2. Delahaye, Marie-Claude.
L'absinthe : histoire de la fee verte / Marie-Claude Delahaye. Paris : Berger-Levrault, c1983. Series title: Arts et traditions populaires.

3. Sangle-Ferriere.
Nouvelle methode d'analyse des absinthes, par MM. Sangle-Ferriere ... & L. Cuniasse ... Paris, Vve C. Dunod, 1902.

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