Absinthe

Frequently Asked Questions


By Matthew Baggott
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Other Occasional Ingredients With Possible Psychoactivity

Calamus (Acorus calamus) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) were also sometimes used in making absinthe. Both plants have reputations for being psychoactive. (See Panayotopoulos and Chisholm, 1970; and Shulgin, 1966 for information on nutmeg.

See Ott, 1993, for a good brief discussion on calamus' use as a stimulant and sedative). However, it seems unlikely that either plant would have been added in the quantities necessary to produce psychedelic effects. Still, either might have exerted minor effects on absinthe intoxication, since both have been said to have sedative effects in moderate amounts.

It is also worth noting that some of the effects of alcoholic beverages are due to congeners of ethanol. Congener is a general term for small molecules other than ethanol which are found in alcoholic beverages. They include aldehydes, esters, and primary alcohols such as methanol and isoamyl alcohol.


The amount of congeners in an alcoholic beverage varies depending on the type of drink. In general, a high concentration of one congener will be accompanied by high concentrations of the others.

Congener content is significant because they can act as CNS depressants, mucosal irritants, and produce nausea. With the exceptions of methanol and acetaldehyde, there is little good research on congeners' effects. However, they appear to increase the duration of intoxication, the amount of hangover, and the toxicity of alcoholic beverages (Kissin 1974, Murphree 1971).

Congeners may be particularly significant with respect to absinthe since the rise of absinthe's popularity coincides with the introduction of alcool d'industrie (made from beets and cereals rather than fruits) into the alcohol industry. Such alcohol would have required secondary distillation to further remove congeners.

Since absinthe's strong flavor would have masked the taste of any congeners, it seems possible that the amount of congeners was often quite high and that some less scrupulous manufacturers may have skipped the second distillation.


Absinthe makers sometimes added colorants to achieve the expected emerald color. These adulterants included 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 1988, 1989).

These ingredients must have contributed to absinthe's toxicity and, perhaps, subjective effects. See the toxicity section for further discussion of these ingredients.

Richard Alan Miller's book The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs reports that absinthine (a dimeric guaranolide) is the principal agent in absinthe and is listed as a narcotic analgesic in the same group of codeine and dextromethorphan hydrobromide (p. 52).

Although lists of wormwood's constituents (Duke, 1985) contain absinthin (the main source of absinthe's bitter taste), I have found no research which identifies it as having any psychoactivity.


A Final Note On Active Ingredients

In addition to those ingredients mentioned above, there may be other unidentified compounds which are important. We should not overlook the possibility that a group of compounds might together play a central role in absinthe intoxication.

Groups of compounds in a plant may have some pharmacological effect which the individual compounds lack when studied separately. (Ginko biloba seems to be an example of this).


What Modern Alcoholic Beverages Are Related To Absinthe?

Herb Sainte and Pernod are names of modern wormwood-free absinthes. Typically, additional star anise is added to balance the flavor. Herb Sainte is manufactured in New Orleans. Pernod is named after Henri-Louis Pernod, who founded the most important absinthe distillery in France in the early 1800s.

Pastis is a similar liqueur to absinthe and was also originally made with wormwood. However, the dominant flavor in pastis is licorice (rather than the star anise of modern Pernod or Herb Sainte). Pastis brands include Ricard, Duval, Jeannot, Casanis, and Henri Bardouin (Steinriede, 1996).

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).

There are, of course, many other essential oil containing drinks, such as Ouzo and Jagermeister.

Wormwood is popular as a flavoring for brannvin (an alcoholic drink made from potatoes) in Sweden.


What Is The Legal Status Of Absinthe?

(What follows is an attempt to describe absinthe's legal status. The wise reader will remember that I am not a lawyer. There may be relevant laws or legal rulings with which I am unfamiliar.)

Although it is banned in most Western countries, absinthe isn't controlled as a drug but as a food. As with many other things considered poisonous, you aren't allowed to commercially make food or drink containing more than trace amounts of thujone.


However, simple possession of thujone-containing ethanol solutions will probably not get you into legal problems. Presumably you would be legally liable for any possible damages if you gave absinthe to others to drink. Artemisia species are completely legal and are attractive perennial ornamental plants.

In the United States of America, absinthe was originally banned by Food Inspection Decision 147 in 1912. Now, thujone is banned as a food additive according to Section 801A of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of August, 1972. Wormwood was included on a list of unsafe herbs which the FDA released in 1975.

The European Community Codex Committee on Food Additives has restricted the levels of thujone to 0.5 ppm (mg/kg) in food and beverages, 10 ppm (mg/kg) in alcoholic beverages containing more than 25% alcohol, 5 ppm (mg/kg) in weaker alcoholic beverages, and 35 ppm in bitters. Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1907, in Italy in 1913, and in France in 1915.

Absinthe (made with wormwood) is still available in Spain (contrary to Pendell (1995)) and reportedly in Denmark, Andorra, and Portugal as well. It has also recently become popular in the Czech Republic under the brand name Hill's Absinth.


Information On Plants Relevant To Absinthe

Information on wormwood's traditional uses and names can be found by consulting the entry for wormwood in the AGIS Ethnobotany Database.

A nice description of wormwood's appearance, biology, and habitats can be found in the Nature Conservancy's Element Stewardship Abstract on wormwood. Although the abstract is aimed at providing information on managing land and plants, it is still worth checking out.


Wormwood's Constituents

Duke, in the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs gives the constituents of wormwood as:

The essential oil (up to 1.7%) contains phellandrene, pinene, thujone (3 to 12%), thujyl alcohol, thujyl acetate, thujyl isovalerate, bisabolene, thujyl palmitate, camphene, cadinene, nerol, and azulene (chamazulene, 3,6-dihydrochamazulene, 5,6-dihydrochamazulene).

Formic and salicyclic acids occur in the saponification lyes of wormwood oil. The herb also contains bitter glucosides absinthin, absinthic acid, anabsinthin, astabsin, artametin, succinic acid together with tannin, resin, starch, malates, and nitrates of potassium and other salts. Lactones include arabsin, artabin, and ketopelenolide (a germacranolide). (Duke 1985, p. 67)


Wormwood oil is produced by steam distillation of the leaves and flowering tops of dried wormwood. In terms of smell, appearance, and flavor, Arctander (1960) describes wormwood oil as:

...a very dark green, brownish-green or bluish green colored liquid with an odor that is intensely herbaceous-green, warm and deep, and a sharp and fresh top note, reminiscent of cedarleaf oil.

The body-note is very warm and dry-woody, long lasting and highly interesting as a unique perfume note. The flavor of wormwood oil is intensely bitter, and has an astringent mouthfeel and a long-lasting unpleasant aftertaste.


The flavor is pleasant, green-herbaceous, somewhat reminiscent of hop and chamomile only in very high dilution. (Arctander 1960, p. 662)

It is possible to buy wormwood oil from companies that sell essential oils. Caution should be exercised with these oils since they can contain significant amounts of pharmacologically active and/or toxic compounds.

Some of these compounds may be absorbed through the skin. If enough essential oil is absorbed or ingested, life-threatening medical problems, including convulsions, kidney failure, and muscle disintegration (rhabdomyolysis), may result.


Pharmacology Of Wormwood

Wormwood has been used medicinally since antiquity. Many of its uses have been supported by modern research. However, for each situation in which wormwood might be useful, there are probably safer herbal and non-herbal alternatives.

Wormwood is rarely recommended these days. In fact, the prominent herbalist, Michael Moore, in his list of Herbal-Medical Contraindications categorizes Artemisia absinthium as lacking any socially redeeming value. As you read on, you may wish to keep this in mind. What follows is neither a source of medical advice nor a guide to self-medication.

As its name implies, wormwood has been used to expel worms from people and animals. However, Caius and Mhasker (1920) did not find oil of wormwood to be an effective antihelmintic when tested against the hookworm.

Whatever antiparasitic properties wormwood has may be partially due to its santonin content (Perez-Souto et al 1992), which is recognized as a medicine for parasitic diseases. Of course, wormwood's measurable toxicity prevents modern herbalists from recommending it.


Wormwood contains unidentified antimalarial substance(s). Alcoholic extracts of the dried leaves have 'considerable antimalarial potential' when administered orally, subcutaneously, or intraperitoneally to mice (Zafar, Hamdard, & Hameed 1990).

Wormwood leaves are used traditionally in Pakistan as an antipyretic (anti-fever) and an active antipyretic compound has been isolated from the dried leaves. This compound alleviates yeast-induced pyrexia in rabbits (Ikramet al 1987).

Dilute (1:1000) oil of wormwood has some antimicrobial activity. Kaul, Nigam and Dhar (1976) found that the dilute oil inhibited the growth of 4 (out of 7) different types of bacteria.


Wormwood is also hepatoprotective (liver protecting). Gilani and Janbaz (1995) found that an aqueous-methanolic extract of Artemisia absinthium protected against acetaminophen and CCl4-induced hepatotoxicity in mice.

This protection seems to be at least partially due to inhibition of microsomal drug metabolizing enzymes (MDME), since the plant extract prolonged the sleep-inducing effects of pentobarbital in mice.

Gilani and Janbaz speculate that this putative MDME inhibition may be due to sesartemin, which has the methylene-dioxybenzene group common to MDME inhibitors.


The presence of antioxidants and calcium-channel blockers in wormwood (Gilani 1994) also probably contribute to its hepatoprotective effects.

For a discussion of wormwood's psychoactivity see the above sections on absinthe's psychoactive ingredients.


Other Plants Containing 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 arbor vitae 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 (Arnold, 1989, p. XX).


Van Gogh And Absinthe

Still Life with Absinthe - by Vincent van Gogh - Paris, Spring 1887

Although the Dutch post impressionist Vincent Van Gogh is now highly acclaimed, he received little recognition in his lifetime.

Instead, he lead a difficult life which included depression, bizarre psychiatric symptoms, and finally suicide.

Van Gogh's difficult life with all its romantic and tragic elements has been the focus of much medical speculation.

His unusual painting style, psychiatric internment, and voluminous correspondence have proven fertile ground for the theories of modern physicians seeking to diagnosis his ailments. Some of these theories have suggested that some kind of drug-induced intoxication was responsible for his painting style and medical symptoms.

Arnold (1988) has argued that Van Gogh's absinthe drinking played an important role in his illness. In various publications, he (and his colleagues) have suggested that Van Gogh suffered from acute intermittent porphyria (Bonkovsky et al., 1992; Loftus and Arnold, 1991).


In this syndrome, a genetic defect in hepatic heme synthesis causes attacks. Symptoms during these attacks can include acute abdominal pain, anxiety, hysteria, delirium, phobias, psychosis, organic disorders, agitation, depression, and altered consciousness from tiredness to coma (Burgovne et al., 1995).

Sometimes only one or a few of these symptoms are present during an attack. Attacks can be brought on by nutritional and environmental factors. Van Gogh's fasting, overworking, malnutrition, and alcohol and absinthe use could have all contributed to triggering attacks.


If Van Gogh did indeed have acute intermittent porphyria, absinthe could have played a particularly significant role. In an in vitro study using chick embryo liver cells, Bonkovsky et al. (1992) have demonstrated that alpha-thujone and some related terpenes are porphyrogenic.

In other words, assuming terpenes accumulate to a sufficient extent in the liver, drinking absinthe could trigger attacks in someone with a genetic defect in hepatic heme synthesis.

This theory seems particularly compelling because it explains Van Gogh's symptoms, the age of onset of his problems, the diseases suffered by other family members, and the role of his lifestyle in contributing to his illness.

Arnold (1988) has further suggested that Van Gogh's fondness for absinthe developed into a generalized craving for thujone and related terpene molecules.


Van Gogh is known to have used large amounts of camphor (another terpene) in an attempt to treat insomnia. Furthermore, there are several instances of bizarre behavior which (attempts to eat paint and drink turpentine and kerosene) Arnold sees as evidence for this craving. Although this idea is interesting, there is no strong evidence that terpenes are addictive in this manner.

I also wonder if Arnold is not reading too much into Van Gogh's behavior. Not every action of mentally ill or delirious individuals can be explained, after all.

Still, even if Van Gogh were only addicted to the alcohol in absinthe, such an addiction could conceivably have kept Van Gogh see-sawing between alcohol withdrawal and porphyric attacks.

Other authors have focused on Van Gogh's paintings and whether his illness or drug use might have contributed to his creativity. One theory (Lee 1981) is that the bright yellow hues and character of his later works were the result of digitalis intoxication, which can produce xanthopsia (yellow vision) and coronas (glowing haloes around objects).


Although there is no definite record of Van Gogh receiving this drug, it was used as a treatment for epilepsy and Van Gogh twice painted his physician holding a fox glove (Digitalis purpurea) plant, from which digitalis is extracted.

Santonin, which is found in low concentrations in Artemisia absinthium and Artemisia pontica, is also known to cause xanthopsia. However, Arnold and Loftus (1991) have determined that the amount of santonin in absinthe would have been insufficient to produce xanthopsia.

Santonin therefore cannot be an explanation for Van Gogh's painting style, while digitalis may have played some role.

In general, I think this type of speculation on the contribution of drugs and illness to art is unproductive. It often seems to rely on an underlying assumption that breaks from 'realistic' representation require some explanation other than the artist's intent.


Despite these reservations, I think a case can be made that Van Gogh's experience with mental illness and absinthe intoxication may have influenced his painting. As Arnold and Loftus (1991) write:

...novel experiences of relative sizes, shapes, and colors perceived under the influence of absinthe may have been recalled later and incorporated into new and daring compositions, perspectives, and palettes (p. 507).

Other artists have been known to find inspiration in drug use. However, the connection between creativity and drug intoxication is complex. Drug taking is a social activity. At the same time as an artist is taking a drug, he or she is often interacting with some social group with its own beliefs, behaviors, and aesthetics.

When Van Gogh began to drink absinthe, he probably did so in a cafe frequented by writers and artists. It is impossible to separate the artistic influence of that stimulating social environment from whatever effects absinthe could have had on his perception and creativity.


Other Artists And Absinthe

Famous absinthe users include:

Edouard Manet
Charles Baudelaire
Paul Verlaine
Arthur Rimbaud
Oscar Wilde
Ernest Dowson
Edgar Degas
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Vincent Van Gogh
Adolphe Monticelli
Paul Gauguin
Alfred Jarry
Pablo Picasso
Ernest Hemingway


Visual artwork inspired by absinthe include (expanded from Max's (1990) list.):

Edouard Manet's 1859 The Absinthe Drinker
Jean-Francois Raffaelli's 1861 Absinthe Drinkers
Honore Daumier's 1863 Absinthe Lithographs
Edgar Degas' 1876 L'Absinthe
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1887 Portrait of Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh's 1887 Still Life with Absinthe
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1887 Portrait of Van Gogh (pastel)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1893 Monsieur Boileau at the Cafe
Pablo Picasso 1901 Harlequin and his Companion
Pablo Picasso 1901 The Poet Cornuty
Pablo Picasso 1901 The Absinthe Drinker
Pablo Picasso 1902 The Absinthe Drinker
Pablo Picasso 1911 Glass of Absinthe
Pablo Picasso 1914 Absinthe Glass

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