|Oxygénée's Absinthe History & FAQ II
|Welcome to the most detailed, accurate and comprehensive Absinthe FAQ on the web.
This information is constantly being updated and expanded. Please don't hesitate to contact Oxygénée with suggestions for
corrections, improvements or additions.
What is absinthe?
How is absinthe drunk?
What gives absinthe its “secondary effects”?
What is wormwood?
What is thujone?
Which modern drinks are related to absinthe?
What does absinthe taste like?
Is it very bitter?
Where does the word "absinthe" come from?
What gives absinthe its so-called “secondary effects”?
What is wormwood? What is thujone?
The most popular misconception about absinthe is that it is a drug, or at least similar to a drug in effect. This is not true. The hysteria
surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fueled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant, caused hallucinations that
drove men "mad", threw them into epileptic fits, and made Van Gogh slice off his ear. The truth however, is both more interesting and less
Absinthe differs from almost all other drinks in containing a higher percentage of alcohol - up to 72% - and of course in containing extract of
wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium, to give it its correct Latin name. Wormwood is a herb related to the daisy family that grows wild in
many areas of Europe. From ancient times it has been prized as one of the most valuable medicinal herbs. An Egyptian papyrus from
1600BC recommends wormwood as a stimulant and tonic, an antiseptic, and a remedy for fevers and period pains. Pythagoras thought
that wormwood leaves in wine would ease childbirth, and Hippocrates also recommended it for period pains, as well as anemia and
rheumatism. Today, wormwood oil, the oil obtained from Artemisia absinthium, is used as a counter-irritant in many common over-the-
counter pharmacy products, including Vicks Vaporub.
The chemical name for the principle active ingredient in wormwood is thujone. Thujone is a terpene and is related to menthol, which of
course 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 is typically approximately 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 however 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. Thujone's mechanism of action on the
brain is not fully understood although certain structural similarities between thujone and tetrahydrocannabinol (the active component in
marijuana) led to some speculation in the 1970's that both substances have the same site of action in the brain. More recent scientific
research however has completely discredited this idea.
Some researchers have now hypothesised that the reputed "secondary effects" of absinthe have nothing directly to do with thujone at all
- if they in fact exist at all, they may be caused by the interaction of some of the other constituent herbs ( fenchone in fennel,
pinocamphonethe in hyssop, and the anethole in anise, have all been shown to cause epileptiform convulsions in laboratory animals
when administered in very large doses).
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. Since absinthe is 55% -72% alcohol, the
alcohol's effects will in any event limit the amount of thujone you can ingest. Most modern “legal” absinthes, in keeping with EU
regulations, contains less than 10mg of thujone per litre, and recent research has shown that pre-ban 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.
Increasingly it seems clear in fact that well-made absinthes following authentic traditional recipes seldom have thujone levels much in
excess of 35mg/l, the EU standard for thujone in bitters (a category that can, in practice, include absinthe), and many quite naturally fall
under the 10mg/l level. It seems that irrespective of the quantity of wormwood used, relatively little thujone makes it through the distilling
process into the final distillate. So the entire historical demonization of absinthe based on its allegedly high thujone content now appears
to have been based on a wholly false premise.
The high thujone levels claimed by many Czech and German made "absinths" are invariably false (in fact, some of these products, when
analysed by gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, show no detectable thujone at all). As a rule of thumb, any absinthe claiming
exceptionally high thujone levels should be avoided, as it's almost certainly a poor quality oil-mix, supported by bogus marketing hype.
Which modern drinks are related to absinthe?
Pastis has similarities, but is not, contrary to popular belief, basically absinthe without the wormwood. Most pastis manufacturers such
as Pernod-Ricard use far higher concentrations of star anise (which accounts for pastis’ overwhelming aniseed taste) together with
added sugar, and bottle at a maximum 40% alcohol. Pastis contains many herbs not found in absinthe, and also sometimes spices,
which are never used in absinthe. Pastis is made by adding herbal essences to a base alcohol, whereas fine absinthes are made by
maceration of dried herbs in an alcohol-water mixture, followed by distillation.
Real absinthe has a herbal/floral character, without any predominant aniseed character, is dry and slightly bitter (as a result of the
wormwood, one of the bitterest organic substances known) and is bottled at at least 55% alcohol (any lower and the wormwood oils
What does absinthe taste like? Is it extremely bitter?
Despite popular opinion, due mostly to erroneous assumptions about wormwood, absinthe, when properly distilled, is not extremely
Wormwood, whose extract used to be a popular ingredient in many perfumes, actually has a strong floral & herbal flavor (and scent) that
is heightened when extracted by proper distillation, which leaves behind almost all of the bitter absinthins. So yes, there is some
necessary bitterness in good absinthe, but it is a balanced herbal undertone, and not overpowering in the slightest. Nor should the anise
overwhelm, as it sometimes does particularly when badiane rather than green anise is used.
A good absinthe should be cool and refreshing, with a complex herbal and floral character reminiscent of an Alpine meadow, and with no
one herb predominating on the nose or palette.
Where does the word absinthe come from?
The word absinthe is derived from the Greek word “apsinthion” meaning “bitter”, because of the bitterness of the wormwood leaf.
Contrary to widely-held belief, the Russian word for wormwood is not “Chernobyl". In Ukranian, "chornobyl", translating roughly as "black
stalks", refers to mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), not to wormwood (Artemesia absinthium). The fable that Chernobyl = wormwood
originates from a 1986 New York Times article that quoted an unnamed "prominent Russian writer" as claiming the Ukrainian word for
wormwood was chernobyl. This erroneous attribution took root in the popular imagination, because it enabled associations with the
famous verse in the Apocalypse of St. John:
"Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs
of water. The name of the star is wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was
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