So it seems that absinthe is gaining back a bit of its historical popularity. We have all heard the absinthe myths and legends. It is one of those things that crosses science and history in a way that I really love. We have these long term ideas about a beverage that very few of us have ever even tasted. I am going to be the dick that tells you that you that you have been fed a line of crap. That one dude you met who swears by certain legendary precepts that he claims to have learned when he was in Prague for three days, you know him, is not a biochemist or a plant biologist. He is a doofus. Never take scientific advice from a guy who cannot put a ballcap on straight.
Let’s break it down. Absinthe is a distilled liquor. Generally pretty high proof, it runs 50 to 75 percent alcohol depending on the maker. That is stout stuff. It belongs to the family of European liquors that are distilled with anise. This gives it the bold “black licorice” flavor that drinks like raki and ouzo are famous for. It is also flavored with fennel, wormwood, and any number of other herbs and botanicals again, depending on the whims or traditions of the maker. Curative botanical distillations have a deep and long history. They predate “drinking” alcohol and go way back to the alchemical explorations of the priests of Alexandria and historical timelines coincide with the earliest writings about the solving algebraic equations. Both of these things were perfected by Arab scholars over the next few hundred years. Go figure.
These herbs, especially wormwood and anise, are part and parcel of the myths and legends that relate to absinthe. Well, the herbs and one hell of an industry lobby against it. The qualities that I want to address are results of those tasty spices. Wormwood has the unfortunate aspect of containing a terpene called thujone.
I talked about terpenes in our recent discussion about hops. They are molecules produced by plants and have various properties, some important to us as they provide interesting flavors and aromas when extracted by alcohol. Thujone has a very nice menthol vibe to it. Cleans out your nasal passages and can provide a slight numbing sensation to the oral mucosa. Thujone is found in quite a few different tasty herbs. The myth is that thujone as presented in absinthe causes hallucinations, convulsions, madness, and death. Sounds rad. It is true that the compound in large enough quantities can cause these symptoms. Maybe not so much madness and there are no verifiable cases of hallucination from our little molecule of interest. Thujone is a convulsant and very deadly in the right dose. That dose is about 192mg/kg in rats and at 390 mg/kg, it’s even higher in guinea pigs. Even at the lower dose, since I am a bit of a fatty, I would need to consume 19 grams of pure thujone orally to kill myself. Let’s put that in perspective. Chemical analysis of old pre-ban bottles of absinthe to contain at the very top end, 50 mg/L. That means that I would need to drink 380 liters or almost an even 100 gallons of absinthe to take on a (rat’s) lethal dose of thujone. Needless to say, death from alcohol poisoning is going to occur long before even the leg twitches start getting to you.
Now, the French wine industry was taking a beating in the mid to late 1800s due to flagging popularity as well as a blight on the vineyards caused by an insect called phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) that throughout its life cycle eat the roots and leaves of the grape vine. It was running rampant and destroying wine stock which in turn, caused the price of wine to skyrocket. Absinthe was a good value as well as being quite in vogue at the time. Around the turn of the 20th century, the French wine lobby used the early forays into research about thujone (gassing mice with volatilized compound and calling it good science) and prohibitionists’ bad attitude toward strong hard liquor, as well as moralists’ displeasure with the “sordid” activities occurring in Paris, to start a tide of anti-Absinthe-ism. On a side note, I have seen Moulin Rouge. That movie made me want to punch somebody so maybe they were sort of right. Anyway, throughout the early 20th century, this combination of spoilsports led to the French government abolishing the production, with other governments following suit without doing any research of their own. After about a hundred years, we started seeing these bans being lifted as new research began to blow away the mists of legend. In 2007 we saw absinthes being produced in the States and they are now commonly found on back bars.
Obviously, prohibition leads to an inflamed reputation around the banned substance but in the case of absinthe, it led to very resilient urban legends. Unfortunately, that is all they are. So the next time you hear some gasbag prattling on about tripping after one glass, tell him he is a moron.
When writing about this subject, I figured that I had better go out and verify that I will not die if I drink the stuff. I am still alive but I did find something beautiful and sort of magical in the drink. Traditionally, water is slowly dripped into a glass of absinthe causing a micro emulsion to occur in the glass. It is a cool transformation to watch. It is helped by the fact that the drink has equipment with it. The water fountain being placed on the bar draws attention, saying, “Yes, I am drinking absinthe with my friends. I assume that you believe foolish tales so I look terribly sexy due to the risk I am taking. I understand. It is an evolutionary response to the Handicap Principle.”
When the water drips into the glass, the dilution disrupts the concentration of essential oils dissolved in the alcohol. Anethole, the main anise-y or licorice-y flavor component, in essential oil form has an unstable relationship with the alcohol and when the solution is diluted, it falls out and–since it is hydrophobic–forms tiny droplets visible as a cloudy precipitate in the glass. It is really quite a pretty reaction. Watching the crystal green liquor swirling with a cloudy aspect, one can easily see why folks attributed some mystical quality to the stuff.
You really should go out and try this for yourself. It is a good connection to history. It also tastes delicious. I will definitely say that while there were no hallucinations, the buzz is pretty damned nice. I say go try a few but Pernod (not pastis!) and Leopold Brothers made my favorite of the night.