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Drinking absinthe

Category: Food



Introduction and description

Before I start this explanation I wish to point out one simple fact about absinthe.  It produces hallucinations and visions because its contents give you brain damage.  This can be temporary or permanent.  It can also cause epileptic fits and convulsions.  Thus this is more of an historical description as to why so many painters and writers – many of whom appeared to have manic depression after some years drinking the stuff – were so  ‘inspired’.

Absinthe is alcohol infused with herbs, the defining ingredient being the herb wormwood (artemisa absinthium) from which the drink gets its name. The main active ingredient of wormwood is called thujone.

Thujone is poisonous.



In the mid-1500's, London distilleries were steeping dried wormwood leaves in equal parts wine and water. The resulting "wormwood ale" was popular among the working classes, and Samuel Pepys even describes drinking it in his famous diary.

The first true absinthe recipe was created in 1792 by Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor who had settled in western Switzerland. Ordinaire prepared his own remedies, and he knew that the local residents had been gathering wormwood and distilling it with anise and other herbs for centuries. So he experimented with wormwood elixirs, finally creating a recipe that included anise, hyssop, dittan, sweet flag, melissa, and varying amounts of coriander, veronica, chamomile, parsley, and even spinach.

Dr Ordinaire's emerald green concoction quickly became popular as a ‘cure-all’ [!], and was nicknamed La Fee Verte (the Green Fairy). Legend has it that Ordinaire passed his secret recipe to two sisters on his deathbed, who in turn left it to a visiting Frenchman, whose son-in-law was Henry-Louis Pernod. Pernod was destined to bring absinthe to the world.

In 1797 Henry-Louis Pernod opened an absinthe distillery in Switzerland, and the drink proved so popular that in 1805 he opened a larger distillery in Pontarlier, France. Pernod modified Ordinaire's recipe, using aniseed, fennel, hyssop and lemonbalm along with lesser amounts of angelica, dittany, juniper, nutmeg and veronica. These ingredients were macerated and soaked with wormwood plants, creating a distilled mixture which was diluted with alcohol.

Note that drinks like pernod and ricard are essentially absinthe without the wormwood. Vermouth is made from the flowering heads of wormwood, and even takes its name from the german word for wormwood.

What you may not realise is that absinthe is still available and still contains wormwood and thujone.  Here is a ranking list of the Absinthe on the market today showing the thujone content – it is in order of high to low.  The details come from a Czech website.

  • L`éxtrait de fée Absinthe (34,074 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Songe Vert Absinthe (34,074 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Bairnsfather Bitter Absinthe (ca. 33 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Absinthe 35 (approx. 33 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Cami`s Gold Absinthe (ca. 30 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Lemercier Abisinthe Amer 72 (appr. 30 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Tempel Absinthe (29,3 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Gottesauge Absinthe (29,1 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Absinthium 1792 Absinthe (28 mg/Kg Thujone +/- 10%)
  • Reality Absinthe (26 - 28 mg/Kg Thujone)(first lot not acceptable cause of bad taste due to production failures...)
  • Versinthe La Blanche Absinthe (appr. 28 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Staroplzenecky Absinthe (10 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Staroplzenecky Red Absinthe (10 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Fruko Schulz Absinthe 70% vol. alc. (9,8 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Stromu Absinthe (9,6 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Bairnsfather Absinthe (9,02 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Hypnotic Absinthe (8,5 - 10 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Martin Sebor Absinthe (8,5 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Havel`s Absinthe highest level of thujone (8 - 10 mg/Kg Thujone)
  • Havel`s Alpen Absinthe (8 - 10 mg/Kg Thujone)
Not in the Ranking list: King of Spirits Absinthe and Zelena Muza Special Absinthe, because in the bottle there are additional wormwood herbs, and so the thujone content cannot be exactly fixed.


Pablo Picasso’s absinthe drinker

How it works

Brain damage and poisoning

Over some time and in too high a dose, absinthe destroys the brain. 

Thujone and thujone-containing herbal medicinal and botanical products: Toxicological assessment.
Pelkonen O Abass K, Wiesner J.; 
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Institute of Biomedicine, University of Oulu, Finland; European Medicines Agency, Committee of Herbal Medicinal Products, London, United Kingdom.

Thujone, a major component of the notoriously famous absinthe drink, is neurotoxic, ….. In animal studies, thujone inhibits the gamma-aminobutyric acid A (GABA(A)) receptor causing excitation and convulsions in a dose-dependent manner, …… Toxicity of thujone has been extensively studied. Neurotoxicity is the principal toxic outcome in acute and chronic studies…... Although the data base for determining exposure limits is of variable usefulness, the best estimates for allowable daily intakes via herbal preparations and diet are of the order of 3-7mg/day. There are still important gaps in the knowledge required to assess thujone toxicity, the most important ones being human dose-concentration-effect relationships including the elucidation of bioavailability, and the actual toxicological consequences of potential pharmacogenetic variations and environmental factors.  PMID:  23201408


I suspect that few people are aware just how popular absinthe used to be.  Absinthe was especially popular among the' literary and artistic set', and devoted drinkers included Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Dowson, George Sand, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

Most of these artists included absinthe in their work, immortalizing the drink either in painting or prose. Degas painted L'Absinthe, and both Picasso and Manet made paintings titled The Absinthe Drinker. Picasso created numerous other absinthe-related works, including Woman Drinking Absinthe and a painted bronze sculpture called Glass of Absinthe. Hemingway referred to absinthe in books like Death In The Afternoon and For Whom The Bell Tolls. Wilde rhetorically asked "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?" and Dowson replied "Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder."

In America absinthe was also popular. The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans' French Quarter was frequented by celebrities like Walt Whitman, William Thackeray, Aaron Burr and President William Taft. The most popular drink was the absinthe frappe, and the bar featured marble fountains with brass faucets which dripped cool water, drop by drop, over the sugar cubes perched above the glasses.

Related observations