The Effects of Absinthe

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER V ~

At the very heart of the absinthe legend is the idea that it provides a noticeably different quality of intoxication. In other words, over and above the normal effects expected from alcohol, absinthe supposedly has “secondary effects”. These are often said to include visual disturbances, unusual sensitivity to light and colour, euphoria and a peculiarly clear-headed type of drunkenness.

The aim in this section is to examine these claims in more detail, with reference wherever possible to original sources.

The Effects of Absinth, Introduction

The Effects of Absinth, Introduction

Absinthe is a spirit. Less reputable sources sometimes refer to it as a drug, a narcotic, an hallucinogen or – an especially popular claim on the internet – an aphrodisiac. That absinthe is a psychoactive drug, or at least similar to one in effect is not true. The hysteria surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fuelled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant. It was said to cause psychotic episodes and epileptic fits. The truth however, is both more interesting and less sensational: Absinthe differs from almost all other drinks in containing a higher percentage of alcohol – up to 72% – and of course in containing extract of wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium. As we shall see it is these two factors which have had a major impact on its reputation. The aim in this section is to examine these claims in more detail, with reference wherever...

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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The evidence for more striking effects either doesn’t exist, or is highly controversial. Perhaps the most often quoted passage is a description by the great poet and playwright Oscar Wilde of a night drinking absinthe at the Café Royal. Although not an alcoholic (at least till the last year of his life), Wilde, was a regular absinthe drinker during the time he lived in France. His descriptions of the effects of absinthe are, on the face of it, sensational: “The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things. One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter...

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Absinthe as an Aphrodisiac

Absinthe as an Aphrodisiac

The myth that absinthe is an amative seems to be a largely modern idea – it’s seldom, if ever, mentioned as such in the pre-ban or even immediate post-ban period. One possible origin might be an article by Maurice Zolotow which appeared in Playboy Magazine- a fascinating and sometimes amusing period piece, which contains this passage of purple prose: ”I remember a girl I knew in my bachelor days. An American, she had worked as a model in several haute couture salons in Paris and had acquired a taste for absinthe. We were at her place one evening and she asked me if I would like to have a martini as a nightcap. I said I was game, though I favoured cognac and water in the evening, when the lights are low and the music is throbbing on the high-infidelity. She stirred up a pitcher of martinis and brought...

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The scientific case

The scientific case

The distinctive herb in absinthe is grand wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), and the chemical name for the principle active ingredient in wormwood is thujone. Thujone is a terpene and is related to menthol, which is known for its healing and restorative qualities. In its chemically pure form, it is a colourless liquid with a menthol-like aroma. Oil of Artemesia absinthium (or wormwood oil as it’s usually called) is approximately 40-60% thujone. Thujone is a naturally occurring substance, also found in the bark of the thuja, or white cedar, tree, and in other herbs besides wormwood – including tansy and the common sage used in cooking. Aside from absinthe, other popular liquors, including vermouth, Chartreuse, and Benedictine, also contain small amounts of thujone. In fact, vermouth, which was originally made using the flower heads from the wormwood plant, takes its name from the German “wermut” (“wormwood”). Extremely high doses of thujone...

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Absinthism

Absinthism

In the 1860’s concern was aroused for the first time over the effect of absinthe drinking. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was first described in a series of influential papers by Dr. Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan wrote: “In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the...

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