Absinthe: Myths and Truths

Absinthe, the “Green Fairy” (Fee Verte) as it came to be called, originated in Switzerland in the late 1700’s as an elixir/tincture. It is a distilled, 68-70% alcohol, liquor flavored by several herbs, notably wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, and also green anise, hyssop, lemon balm and Florence fennel.

However, it is better known for its popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers such as Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Picasso and van Gogh. Part of its fascination is its ritual preparation: a shot of absinthe is added to a glass then a sugar cube is placed in a special spoon laid on the rim of the glass. As cold water is poured over the sugar it dissolves into the Absinthe resulting in an opalescent milky-green emulsion.

Absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug that could cause hallucinations, epileptic-like attacks and madness. By 1915, it was prohibited in a number of European countries and the United States. The culprit in the drink was believed to be thujone, found in wormwood – a ketone and a monoterpene that exists in two stereoisomeric forms: (+)-3-thujone or α-thujone and (-)-3-thujone or ß-thujone. It has a menthol odor.

Scientific analysis in recent years by an international team led by Dirk W. Lachenmeier and including David Nathan-Maister and Theodore A. Breaux has shown that absinthe contains only small quantities of thujone, and cannot be responsible for absinthe’s reported hallucinogenic effects. They analyzed recent productions as well as authentic absinthe produced before 1910.

Pre-ban samples averaged 25.4mg/L while modern samples ranged between 7.6mg/L and 26mg/L. At these concentrations it is impossible to ingest enough thujone to affect the central nervous system, long before that would happen the person would be very intoxicated. It should also be pointed out that thujone is also found at low concentrations in some other herbs such as sage.

The ban on Absinthe was lifted in Europe in 1988 with a limit of 10mg/L and in the US in 2007 where the limit on thujone is set at less than 10mg/L as well. Today over 100 different brands are produced in more than a dozen countries.

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