Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ 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 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. Last updated 3-FEB-93.

The following individuals contributed information or editorial skills to this FAQ file: Michael Golden archived the recipes which were posted to rec.food.drink by unknown parties.

Johnny Svensson supplied information about the current availability of absinthe; Johnny Svensson also gave information about wormwood's use as a flavoring in vodka.

Myra Chachkin 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.

What Is Absinthe?

Absinthe is strong alcoholic liqueur made with an herbal extract including wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). It is an emerald green drink (due to the presence of chlorophyll) which is very bitter (due to the presence of absinthin) which has a bitterness threshold of 1:70,000) and is therefore traditionally diluted with cold water which is poured over a perforated spoonful of sugar into a glass containing a shot of absinthe.

The drink then turns into an opaque white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution, forming a colloidal suspension. 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 and to act as a curative and aphrodisiac.

The 1850's saw the beginnings of concern about the results of chronic absinthe use. Chronic use was believed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, epileptic attacks, delirium, and hallucinations.

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 absinth consumers would be passed on to their children (Murphy and Schneider 1992).

In addition to its effects in heavy drinkers, there were several social reasons why absinthe was ultimately banned. Absinthe's popularity seems to have been part of a general increase in alcohol consumption, particularly in the form of distilled liqueurs. This was accompanied by the beginnings of the awareness of alcoholism as a problem in France.

Since wine was considered a healthy drink and absinthe was the most popular liqueur of its time, absinthe was blamed for many alcohol-related problems and became the main target of early prohibition efforts in France. Absinthe's association with the Bohemian lifestyle may have worked to compound fears about its effects, much as has happened with marijuana in the United States.

In retrospect, absinthe seems to have become the focus of fears about the changes that came with industrialization. Absinthe was subsequently banned in many countries in the early 1900's.

In addition to the many social and political factors which contributed to anti-absinthe sentiment, extensive research documented absinthe's potential for toxicity. From a modern perspective, this research appears poorly designed and limited. Nonetheless, it is clear that absinthe had toxic effects when consumed with sufficient quantities and regularity.

It is highly plausible that thujone and related terpenes played an important role in this toxicity, but there are also other possible sources of toxicity. When used in sufficient quantities, ethanol has profound toxic effects. If it is likely that absinthe was toxic to heavy users, it is less clear that the liqueur was uniquely psychoactive.

Until more conclusive research is carried out, theories of absinthe's special psychoactivity remain interesting speculation and anecdotes.

How Was/Is Absinthe Made?

There were two general ways in which absinthe was made. The first method, which was more traditional, is described in some detail below. This was the method used by more established and larger absinthe producers.

The second method involved flavouring industrially produced (and often impure) ethanol with essential oils extracted from the plants listed below. This second method probably came into practice later and seems to have been used mainly by smaller manufacturers.

Simon and Schulter's Guide to Herbs and Spices tells us that Henri-Louis Pernod used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, and lemon balm along with lesser amounts of angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and veronica. These ingredients were macerated 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 (Simonetti 1990).

Different absinthe manufacturers used slightly different ingredients, sometimes using nutmeg and calamus, both of which have been purported to have psychoactive effects.

A more detailed recipe for the first method can be found in Arnold's Scientific American article:

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 (Arnold 1989).

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, cupric acetate indigo, turmeric, and aniline green. Antimony trichloride was also used to help the drink become cloudy when added to water (Arnold 1989, 1988).

Undoubtedly, some of the toxic effects attributed to absinthe were due to these adulterants.

How Was/Is Absinthe Drunk?

Although absinthe was sometimes drunk straight or in a variety of mixed drinks, the classic method of drinking it involves pouring cold water over a slotted spoon which contains sugar into a glass containing a shot of absinthe.

As the water hits the absinthe, the oils precipitate out, and the drink changes from a clear emerald color to an opaque, milky white.

There were several types of specialized absinthe drinking paraphernalia. The most famous one is the slotted spoon (example pictured to the right). These spoons' holes served to allow the absinthe to better carry the sugar into the glass. In addition, the spoons were often designed to fit over the glass, balancing on their own.

Heilig, quoted in Lanier (1995), nicely captures the absinthe culture at its peak:

In Paris the noon hour is a little fete, when people try to forget that they are working for their living. Master and man go off their different ways... All thoughts of business are put aside for a good hour and a half, or two hours even ... from 11 to 1 or noon.

They do not go immediately to eating. They sit outside upon the sidewalk, even in the winter time, look at passers-by and sip their drink. The drink is absinthe. They drink it very slowly; by slow degrees they feel their poor, tired backbones strengthen and their brains grow clearer, and they feel a touch of happiness. It is so pleasant to sit looking at the street and all the pretty ladies passing by.

At great cafes, upon frequented boulevards the price is only 10 cents. In the quarters of the working men, you may have absinthe for three cents. The proper thing is to take but one glass.

In quantity this is about a Madeira glass of the green drink. Poured into your goblet by the waiter, it does not seem much. You fill the goblet up with water, watch it turn a milky sage tint, with the glittering opal tints one learns to love so well; stir up the mixture with you spoon, take one small sip and let it rest.

Now that is nice... In summer especially when the ice water is so agreeable, absinthe captivates the palate by its peculiar and really exquisite fragrance. This fragrance, which is that of paregoric, grows upon you (Helig 1894).

A variation of the traditional drinking ritual is apparently used in Prague where absinthe is currently available. In this variation, a heaping teaspoon of sugar is briefly wet in the glass of pure absinthe, then lit on fire and held over the glass.

As the alcohol burns off, the sugar melts into the glass. When the fire gets low, the remaining sugar is stirred into the drink and the drink is quickly drunk. Obviously, this is a method for drinking quickly rather than savoring absinthe's taste.

What Ingredient(s) In Absinthe Are Psychoactive?

Ethanol (normal drinking alcohol) is definitely one main active component. Undiluted absinthe was anywhere from 60% to 85% ethanol.

Although some, such as Alfred Jarry, were known to have drunk it straight, it was usually substantially diluted. Still, dilution could not change the fact that absinthe contained a lot of ethanol in comparison to its other ingredients.

Another candidate is the monoterpene, thujone, which is considered a psychoactive convulsant. The sources of thujone in absinthe are the herbs wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica). There is good evidence that both thujone and wormwood have psychoactive properties.

Some have suggested that this effect is due to thujone binding at the cannabinoid receptor, at which the active components in marijuana act (delCastillo et al 1974). This seems unlikely. Furthermore, it is not even clear that thujone is present in sufficient quantities to play a role in absinthe intoxication. However, it is possible that thujone accumulates in the body and plays a role in the psychoactivity and toxicity of chronic absinthe use.

Thujone is named after the plant from which it was first extracted, thuja (Thuja occidentalis). Since thujone was also extracted from other plants before its structure was identified, it is also known as absinthol, tanacetone, and salviol.

According to IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists) nomenclature, it is officially called 3 thujamone or 3 sabinone (Albert-Puleo 1978). There are two stereoisomers of thujone: (-)-3-isothujone (or - or l-thujone) and (+)-3-thujone (or - or d-thujone).

Thujone is the major component of wormwood oil and accounts for up to 90% of the oil's weight (Simonsen 1949).

There have been several reports that wormwood has psychoactive effects. In his excellent book, Pharmacotheon, J. Ott writes that he tried smoking dried wormwood leaves and found it had a definite psychoactive effect (Ott 1993). Pendell (1994) repeated this experiment with similar effects.

Furthermore, various other species of the Artemisia genus have been smoked and used as intoxicants in other cultures. Artemisia nilagirica is reportedly smoked in West Bengal for its psychoactive effects (Pal and Jain 1989). Similarly, Artemisia caruthii is inhaled by the Zuni as an analgesic (Ott 1993).

However, these experiments yield little insight into the active component(s) of wormwood and whether these components play a role in absinthe's effects. For example, despite being smoked for its psychoactive effects, an assay of Artemisia nilagirica oil found it contained less than one percent total thujone (Uniyal, Singh, Shah, and Naqvi 1985).

There are also indications that thujone itself is psychoactive. Rice and Wilson (1976) have found that (-)-3-isothujone, the dominant isomer in wormwood oil, has an antinociceptive (pain killing) effect, comparable to codeine, when injected subcutaneously in rats.

Because the effect is stereospecific and not elicited by similar compounds, the researchers suggest that (-)-3-isothujone acts at a specific pharmacological site.

Thujone's mechanism of action is unknown. Structural similarities between thujone (in its delta-3,4 enol form) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active component in marijuana) have led some to hypothesize that both substances have the same site of action in the brain (del Castillo et al 1975).

However, Meschler et al. (1997) recently presented evidence that neither thujone, wormwood, nor HPLC fractions from oil of wormwood bind to the cannabinoid receptor at physiologically relevant concentrations.

This finding confirms earlier but less direct evidence that thujone does not act at the cannabinoid receptor (Greenberg, Mellors, and McGowan 1978, Browne and Weissman, 1981, Rice and Wilson, 1976). It would seem that thujone acts through some other, yet unidentified, mechanism.

Although thujone is apparently psychoactive, there isn't much direct evidence to confirm its importance in absinthe intoxication. Absinthe is approximately 75% alcohol. Therefore, alcohol's effects should limit the amount of thujone one can ingest.

Quite simply, you can only drink a moderate amount of thujone 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.

Arguing against thujone's importance, B. Max, in the This and That column in Trends in the Pharmacological Sciences, 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 (Guenther 1952) In a typical recipe for absinthe, 2.5 kg of wormwood was used in preparing 100 liters of absinthe (Arnold 1989). Typically, 1.5 oz was consumed (diluted with water) per tipple (Vogt & Montagne 1982).

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 oral thujone to rats does not alter spontaneous activity or conditioned behavior (Pinto-Scognamiglio 1968).

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 (Max 1990).

Although I agree with his feelings about the literature on thujone's activity, Max may underestimate the possible effects of chronic thujone intake. The reference which he uses to support his claim (Pinto-Scognamiglio 1968) actually did find some indications of an effect from chronic thujone intake.

Rats treated with 10 mg/kg/day oral thujone increased their spontaneous activity from 4 pm to 8 pm (the early part of the nocturnal rats' active period). In addition, a subgroup of 6 slow-learning rats significantly improved (in comparison to controls) their acquisition of a shock avoidance task after 7 days of 10 mg/kg/day oral thujone.

However, this effect was not replicable in a larger group of 34 rats. Because these 34 rats were naive to the task and therefore of unknown learning ability, we cannot rule out the possibility that thujone may somehow alter the learning abilities of slow-learning rats but not fast-learners.

The appearance of thujone's effects after chronic administration of an otherwise ineffective dose is consistent with the toxicological data on thujone. In rats, at least, thujone accumulates with regular use.

In Margaria's (1963) unpublished rat research (cited in Pinto-Scognamiglio 1967), rats fed 10 mg/kg/day orally accumulated about 5% of the daily dose. On the 38th day of the research, convulsions were evident in the rats.

Similarly, in the human data, quoted in the toxicology section below, humans taking thujone-containing essential oils experienced convulsions after taking approximately the same dose of oil for several days without incident (Millet et al 1980).

Thus, there are indications that a large enough dose of thujone will be psychoactive and that thujone can accumulate in one's body. However, this does not prove that accumulated thujone was partially responsible for absinthe's psychoactivity.

When chronically exposed to a drug, receptors in the brain often become less sensitive to a drug's effects. The brain of a chronic absinthe user might become tolerant to the slow accumulation of thujone, thus blocking any possible psychoactivity.

On the other hand, in some cases, repeated doses of drugs can cause hypersensitivity. It is also possible that this occurred with absinthe drinkers. This is just speculation. The toxic effects of repeated thujone ingestion are more definite.

In summary, thujone seems psychoactive although probably not by acting at the cannabinoid receptor. Small ineffective doses may accumulate in the body to the point of having psychoactive and toxic effects. If this is the case, it validates absinthe's reputation for producing an unusual intoxication.

Still, this reputation mostly dates to the beginning of the century or earlier, a time when medicine and science were very different from today. Lacking more recent research on thujone and absinthe, it seems reasonable to take reports of absinthe's uniqueness with skepticism.

Thujone may play a role in absinthe, but the evidence is not conclusive. Finally, it should be noted that by focusing on one component of wormwood oil, we ignore the many other poorly characterized compounds in wormwood and absinthe's other herbal ingredients which may play some role in absinthe's intoxicating and toxic effects.

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