The Scientific Case: Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphene
The distinctive herb in absinthe is grand wormwood (Artemesia absinthium),
and the chemical name for the principle active ingredient in wormwood is
thujone. Thujone is a terpene and is related to menthol, which is known for its
healing and restorative qualities. In its chemically pure form, it is a colourless
liquid with a menthol-like aroma. Oil of Artemesia absinthium (or wormwood
oil as it's usually called) is approximately 40-60% thujone.
Thujone – pronounced "thoo-jone" with a soft 'J' – is a naturally occurring
substance, also found in the bark of the thuja, or white cedar, tree, and in other
herbs besides wormwood - including tansy and the comon sage used in
cooking. Aside from absinthe, other popular liquors, including vermouth,
Chartreuse, and Benedictine, also contain small amounts of thujone. In fact,
vermouth, which was originally made using the flower heads from the
wormwood plant, takes its name from the German "wermut" ("wormwood").
Extremely high doses of thujone are dangerous, and have been shown to
cause convulsions in laboratory animals, but the concentration of thujone
actually found in absinthe is many thousands of times lower than this.
Most modern “legal” absinthes, in keeping with EU regulations, contain less
than 10mg of thujone per litre, and recent research has shown that pre-ban
absinthes like Pernod Fils, contrary to ill-informed speculation by several
authors, including Strang and Arnold in a widely quoted 1999 British Medical
Journal article, also had relatively low thujone levels.
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At the very heart of the absinthe legend is the idea that it provides a
noticeably different quality of intoxication – in other words, that over and
above the normal effects expected from alcohol, absinthe has, in addition,
“secondary effects”. These are often said to include visual disturbances,
unusual sensitivity to light and colour, mild euphoria and a peculiarly clear-
headed type of drunkenness.
Less reputable sources sometimes refer to it as a drug, a narcotic, a
hallucinogen or – an especially popular claim on the internet - an
aphrodisiac. While these wild claims can be easily dismissed, absinthe
undoubtedly has “something”, at least in the subjective experience of many
The aim in this section of the Virtual Absinthe Museum is to examine these
claims in more detail, with reference wherever possible to original sources.
We look first at the acute effects of absinthe – the so called “secondary
effects” and how they were represented by artists and writers of the Belle
Epoque, secondly we briefly overview the scientific consensus on thujone,
widely believed to be the primary active ingredient in absinthe, and lastly
weconsider the effects of chronic abuse of absinthe – a controversial
syndrome which doesn't exist today (and which may never have existed),
but which was referred to as “absinthism” by 19th century scientists.
The so-called "Secondary Effects" of Absinthe
The most controversial aspect of absinthe is the question of its so-called
"secondary effects" - that is, the effects on the drinker over and above those
obvious ones caused by the alcohol itself. Drug like and even hallucinogenic
effects are claimed by some users (and less reputable manufacturers), but there
is little or any evidence of these.
The effect of well-made absinthe varies from person to person, but is typically no
more marked than the mild “buzz” one gets from drinking tequila. Generally, it can
best be described as a kind of heightened clarity of mind and vision, warmed by
the effect of the alcohol. This seems to wear off after 20 or 30 minutes. Some
users report unusually vivid dreams. A significant percentage of drinkers
experience nothing unusual at all, outside of the effects of the alcohol itself. Since
absinthe is 55% -72% alcohol, the alcohol's effects will in any event limit the
amount of thujone you can ingest.
The evidence for more dramatic effects either doesn't exist, or is highly
controversial. Perhaps the most often quoted passage is a description by the
great poet and playwright Oscar Wilde of a night drinking absinthe at the Cafe
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see
monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the
third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.
One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I
had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and
began to pile the chairs on the tables.
‘Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and
began to water the floor.’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must go now, Sir.’
‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.
‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.
‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that
tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the
street I felt - the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
The Long Term Effects of Absinthe Drinking: Absinthism
In the 1860's, there was for the first time concern about the results of chronic
abuse of absinthe. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to produce a
syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction,
hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was first described in a
series of influential papers by Dr Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the
asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan wrote:
"In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying,
sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature.
Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist
cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws
clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine
escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds
the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed,
the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a
bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becaomes purplish, swollen,
the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements
cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the
sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look
of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn't remember one
thing that has happened."
The Victims of Absinthism
Central to the centuries old demonization of absinthe - and, it must be said,
also to its outlaw romance - is the long roll call of "victims of absinthe" - some,
as we'll see here, more imagined than real.