Absinthe thujone is the chemical present in Absinthe’s vital ingredient, the plant referred to as Common Wormwood, or Artemisia Absinthium to give it its botanical name. The compound thujone was partly the cause of Absinthe being banned in the early 1900s in many countries across the globe and thujone continues to be tightly regulated today, specifically in the United States (or states united).
Thujone was thought to be much like THC seen in cannabis and Absinthe was purported to be psychoactive and possess psychedelic effects triggering hallucinations and insanity. Absinthe was favored by the Bohemian set in Montmartre in Paris and many artists and writers believed that Absinthe, the Green Fairy, gave them inspiration in addition to their genius. Famous Absinthe drinkers include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Some claim that Van Gogh’s madness was caused by Absinthe and that he cut off his ear under its control alcohol plant. Absinthe was even held accountable for a man murdering his family, even though he had taken a number of other strong alcoholic drinks following the Absinthe.
Prohibition campaigners used news of the murder to campaign for the banning of Absinthe and blamed France’s growing problems of alcohol dependency on the emerald liquor.
Is Absinthe Thujone Unsafe?
Today’s research suggests that it was in fact the alcohol (ethanol) content of Absinthe which was dangerous instead of the thujone. Absinthe is doubly strong as spirits like whisky and vodka and can be 75% alcohol. Care should therefore be used when taking in Absinthe. Thujone is simply found in minute quantities and must therefore cause no major side effects or health problems. The EU stipulates that alcoholic beverages with an ABV (alcohol by volume) level over 25% may possibly consist of a maximum of 10mg/kg of thujone, beverages classed as “bitters” can contain as much as 35mg/kg, it isn’t totally clear which class Absinthe fits into but a majority of brands of Absinthe have much less than 35mg with many being under 10mg/kg. In the US it is simply legal to buy or sell Absinthes with trace amounts of thujone.
High doses of thujone could be dangerous triggering convulsions but you would have to drink a great deal of Absinthe to consume that quantity of thujone and it would be impossible to drink that amount, you would be comatosed from alcohol before then!
It is known that Henri-Louis Pernod, who owned the initial Absinthe distillery, employed the herbs wormwood, aniseed, fennel, lemon balm, hyssop, angelica root, dittany, star anise, nutmeg, juniper and veronica to make his famous Pernod Absinthe. The essential oil from all of these herbs is responsible for La Louche, the clouding which comes about when water is included with Absinthe. These herbs particularly the aniseed and anise are responsible for the distinctive aniseed or licorice taste of Absinthe and wormwood is responsible for the bitter flavor. Absinthe is sometimes used as bitters in cocktails.
There are several brands of Absinthe or Absinthe substitutes that have been developed over the ban and thus contain no Absinthe thujone or wormwood, however, many would claim that Absinthe is not Absinthe without Absinthe thujone and the bitter taste of wormwood. If you’d like real Absinthe try to find brands that contains wormwood or Absinthe thujone.