Absinthe FAQ


This FAQ file was prepared by Matthew Baggott 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 archived the recipies 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.

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.



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.



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

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.



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.



According to W. N. Arnold's _Scientific American_ article:

	Thujone occurs in a variety of plants, including tansy (Tanace-
	tum 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).



_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 ** 

1 pint vodka                    2 tsp crumbled wormwood (dried)
2tsp anise seed                 1/2 tsp fennel seed
4 cardomom pods                 1 tsp majoram
1/2 tsp ground coriander        2 tsp chopped angelica root
1 2/3 cups sugar syrup

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 **

1 tsp crumbled wormwood         
1 cup vodka
2 Tbsp chopped peppermint leaves
1 piece of lemon peel, 3/4"x2"
1/3-1/2 cup sugar syrup

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.

2 tsp peppermint                2tsp dried wormwood
2 tsp thyme                     2 tsp lavender
2 tsp hyssop                    2 tsp majoram
2 tsp sage                      2 pints port

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).



(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-
(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.



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
     (with a note on historic implications for absinthe and the illness of
     Vincent van Gogh).
   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.
   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)



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 ... &
   Cuniasse ...  Paris, Vve C. Dunod, 1902.