Artemisia – Herb of the Year
Absinthe: Seriously Dangerous or Unjustly Vilified
M. Jane Toth, MA Ed.
Artemisia absinthium, commonly called wormwood, grows in our Herb Garden. It is an ingredient in the beverage absinthe, the safety of which and, by extension, the safety of this species has been questioned. I wanted to know why, and if possible dispel any fears about this plant, so I delved into the literature about absinthe and discovered the story of its rise, fall, and redemption. The saga spans 200 years. I offer a greatly abridged version along with my reference list.
Wormwood infused tonics were used medicinally for thousands of years. One, dubbed absinthe, was formulated in Switzerland by a French doctor in the late 1700’s. An alcoholic green elixir of fragrant pleasantly tasting herbs – wormwood, anise, Florence fennel, plus others like mint, lemon balm, and hyssop – was enjoyed by sick and well alike. After the doctor’s death, the recipe was passed on eventually landing in the hands of a commercial French distiller.
French absinthe is traditionally prepared by distilling white grape alcohol, with macerated wormwood, anise, and Florence fennel. A distillate of other macerated herbs like mint, lemon balm, and hyssop is added to produce the characteristic green color. Its alcohol content ranges from 55-75%. It is unsweetened, has a somewhat astringent taste, and is less bitter than tea.
French absinthe is prepared by pouring one ounce of absinthe into a glass. A sugar cube is placed on a slotted flat spoon which is placed atop the glass. About three to five ounces of ice water are dripped on the sugar cube. The resulting sugar solution slowly passes through the spoon into the absinthe sweetening it. The water causes the herbal oils to come out of solution releasing their fragrance and producing a cloudiness called a “louche”. The quality of the louche is a measure of the quality of the absinthe.
Because of its expense, absinthe was first popular among the French upper middle class. As more distillers came on board, the price came down, and by the late 1800’s absinthe was as popular as wine. When French grape crops were decimated by a root blight, wine prices soared. Absinthe became the favored drink of the working class. Starving artists, writers, and other counterculture types who frequented Paris cafes, drank absinthe, and featured it in their work. Cases of alcoholism increased, and cases of poisoning from coloring additives like copper sulfate in cheap absinthe appeared. The stage was set for absinth’s downfall when prohibitionists, social conservatives, and the wine industry opposed it. Evidence was gathered – some from discredited science and some from crimes wrongly attributed to it – showing that absinthe was indeed dangerous and caused psychotic symptoms. A myth was born. The chemical compound, thujone, present in wormwood’s essential oil, was blamed, and by the early 1900’s absinthe was banned in France, Switzerland, and the United States.
Mythic fears were put to rest when, in the late 1900’s, respectable research using current methods on thujone demonstrated that although pure wormwood oil is a strong poison, a miniscule amount of thujone is present in vintage and modern absinthe; any psychoactive properties connected to it other than alcohol were greatly exaggerated. Bans in Europe and the United States were lifted in the late 1900’s. Artemisia absinthium is also vindicated, but asks that we use it with care.
Stone, Gwydion, 2007. “The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of the Green Fairy”.
Ari, 2004, “The Shaky History of Thujone”.