Absinthe thujone is the chemical found in Absinthe’s vital ingredient, the plant called Common Wormwood, or Artemisia Absinthium to give it its botanical name. The chemical thujone was partly responsible for Absinthe being banned in the early 1900s in many countries across the world and thujone is still tightly regulated today, especially in the United States.
Thujone was thought to be similar to THC found in cannabis and Absinthe was alleged to be psychoactive and have psychedelic effects causing hallucinations and insanity. Absinthe was popular with the Bohemian set in Montmartre in Paris and many artists and writers claimed that Absinthe, the Green Fairy, gave them inspiration and their genius. Famous Absinthe drinkers include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Some say that Van Gogh’s madness was caused by Absinthe and that he cut off his ear under its influence. Absinthe was even blamed for a man murdering his family, even though he had consumed many other strong alcoholic drinks after the Absinthe.
Prohibition campaigners used news of the murder to campaign for the banning of Absinthe and blamed France’s growing problems of alcoholism on the emerald liquor.
Is Absinthe Thujone Dangerous?
Today’s research suggests that it was actually the alcohol (ethanol) content of Absinthe that was dangerous rather than the thujone. Absinthe is twice as strong as spirits like whisky and vodka and can be 75% alcohol. Care should therefore be taken when consuming Absinthe. Thujone is only present in minute quantities and should 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 only contain a maximum of 10mg/kg of thujone, beverages classed as “bitters” can contain up to 35mg/kg, it is not entirely clear which class Absinthe fits into but most brands of Absinthe have much less than 35mg with many being under 10mg/kg. In the US it is only legal to buy or sell Absinthes with trace amounts of thujone.
High doses of thujone can be dangerous causing convulsions but you would have to drink a large amount of Absinthe to consume that amount of thujone and it would be impossible to drink that amount, you’d be comatose from alcohol before then!
It is said that Henri-Louis Pernod, who owned the first Absinthe distillery, used 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 these herbs is responsible for La Louche, the clouding which happens when water is added to Absinthe. These herbs especially 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 many brands of Absinthe or Absinthe substitutes which were developed during the ban and therefore contain no Absinthe thujone or wormwood, but many would say that Absinthe is not Absinthe without Absinthe thujone and the bitter taste of wormwood. If you want real Absinthe look for brands containing wormwood or Absinthe thujone.