Thujone is a monoterpene and ketone found in various plants – wormwood (especially the wormwood plant Artemisia Absinthium or common wormwood), tansy, sage, some types of juniper, mugwort, nootka cypress and arborvitae (an evergreen cypress).
The chemical thujone is known to act on the GABA receptors of the brain and, when consumed in large amounts, is claimed to have a psycho active response causing convulsions and muscle spasms. Thujone is also toxic and is thought to damage the cells of both the liver and brain.
It was alleged many years ago that thujone was similar to THC in cannabis causing psychedelic effects but this claim has now been found to be false.
Thujone is famous for being one of the reasons that Absinthe was banned in many countries around the world and many countries now have laws regarding the amount of thujone in food and drinks.
EU (European Union) regulations regarding thujone are:-
- up to 0.5mg/kg of thujone is allowed in food, not containing sage, and non-alcoholic beverages.
- up to 5mg/kg is allowed in alcoholic beverages with an ABV, alcohol by volume, of 25% or less.
- up to 10mg/kg of thujone is allowed in alcoholic beverages with an ABV over 25%.
- up to 25mg/kg is allowed in food containing sage.
- up to 35mg/kg is allowed in alcoholic beverages if they carry the label “bitters”.
The USA has until recently banned any food or drink containing any plants of the Artemisia family but other herbs, such as sage, which contain the chemical thujone have been allowed. In 2007, Ted Breaux, an Absinthe distiller, was able to prove to the US authorities that Absinthe contained only tiny amounts of thujone and so his brand “Lucid” is now legal to buy and sell within the USA.
Thujone and the Absinthe Ban
Absinthe, which contains thujone, has a very interesting history. Absinthes are classed as spirits not liqueurs and are about twice the strength of other spirits such as whisky and vodka. The Green Fairy, the nickname for Absinthe, is a green liquor made usually from a wine base with a variety of herbs, most notably grand wormwood, aniseed and fennel. It has an anise taste and is prepared by diluting with water.
Absinthe was a popular drink in the 1800s especially in Bohemian Paris. Absinthe bars were popular and the drink was enjoyed by many French people at both the start of the day and the end of the day. Absinthe bars even had Absinthe hour – “L’heure vert” or “the green hour”.
Absinthe devotees include many famous historical figures including the artists and writers Van Gogh, Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Degas, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. These artists and writers claimed that drinking Absinthe gave them inspiration and their genius. Oscar Wilde said:
“After the first glass of Absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
Many Absinthe drinkers claimed that getting drunk on Absinthe gave them a strange “clear headed“ drunkenness. This is thought to be caused by the sedative effects of the alcohol and some herbal ingredients combined with the stimulating effects of other herbs.
The prohibition movement blamed Absinthe for driving people insane, for it causing hallucinations, convulsions and making people violent. The work of Dr Valentin Magnan into alcoholism and the effects of wormwood oil on animals added fuel to the prohibition campaign when Magnan claimed that wormwood oil caused epileptic fits. He said that Absinthe was far more dangerous than other types of alcohol. Absinthe was thought to contain large amounts of toxic thujone and so was banned in many countries in the early 1900s.
Until recent times, it was thought that the Absinthe of the 19th century contained as much as 350mg per liter of thujone but studies on recreated recipes of that time have shown that it probably only contained 4.3mg per liter. Tests were carried out on a vintage bottle of 1900s Absinthe and that bottle only contained 6mg of thujone per liter.
The claims of Dr Magnan have been completely disproved and it has been found that a person drinking Absinthe would die first of alcohol poisoning before suffering any effects of thujone, so little are the quantities of thujone.
It is perfectly safe to drink Absinthe in moderation and if you want real Absinthe you need to look for Absinthe containing wormwood, or thujone, as it is the wormwood which gives Absinthe its characteristic bitter taste. Absinthe essences containing real wormwood, and other traditionally used herbs, are available to buy online at AbsintheKit.com.