Hardly any other drink in the world has had such a tumultuous history as Absinthe. Once considered to be a mystical drink with legendary medicinal powers, the green fairy’s popularity – called so lovingly by Absinthe’s many consumers – slowly developed until it became the national drink of the French by the 19th century. But the drink’s decline soon ensued after its glorious reign. Absinthe was forbidden in most European countries, as well as the USA, between 1910 and 1915. With the law forbidding transport of absinthe (RGBl. I S. 257) that came into passing on April 27, 1923, the prohibition of absinthe in Germany and Austria then followed suit.
The reasons for the prohibition of absinthe are diverse and layered, and are still anchored in many people’s heads even until this day. During absinthe’s successful reign, the drink was an omnipresent part of daily life for the French and Swiss citizenry. But with glory also comes jealousy and morality. Wine farmers worried about their rising competition and teetotalers saw absinthe as the root of all evil. What followed was a smear campaign and finally the coronation of absinthe as an all-encompassing sinful substance responsible for the decline of society at large. Thujone, traces of which can be found in absinthe, was used by absinthe’s enemies as the basis for their argument that absinthe was pure poison. A poison, according to absinthe’s enemies, responsible for dizziness, hallucinations, nonsensical visions, out-of-control aggression, blindness, seizures, convulsions, and depression.
Absinthe continues to fight against this negative image, even today. Regardless of its legalization (that happened in Germany in 1981 for example) and countless scientific experiments concluding that absinthe doesn’t have any negative effects with regards to its Thujone content, the prejudices against absinthe remain the same.
The truth about Absinthe and Thujone
From a scientific viewpoint, thujone is an active substance contained in the oils of the wormwood plant. It accounts for 50 to 60 percent of the essential oils of wormwood, and belongs to the category of neurotoxic substances, an overdose of which can induce convulsions and dementia.
But as previously mentioned, absinthe can be consumed legally everywhere and there are good reasons for this. There are still laws in place that govern the amount of thujone contained in absinthe, as well as governing other factors of absinthe production.
The aroma ordinance (Article 22 of the Ordinance for the Reform of Foodstuff Regulations Validation Indicators) limits the amount of thujone allowed in foodstuffs. In relation to spirits, the amount of thujone allowed depends on the alcohol content.
The following rules apply for brandies:
- a maximum of 5mg/kg with an alcohol content of up to 25% Vol.
- a maximum of 10mg/kg with an alcohol content above 25% Vol.
For bitter spirits:
- a maximum of 35mg/kg with an alcohol content above 25% Vol.
There is an interesting point to be made here that speaks in absinthe’s favor, especially when observing the limitations of thujone content allowed. It has to do with the composition of thujone itself. Thujone is composed of two isomer compounds, alpha-thujone and beta-thujone. The beta-thujone compounds has no corresponding receptors in the brain and therefore can have no effect on the physical organism. Alpha-thujone does have a corresponding receptor in the brain and can therefore cause the previously mentioned effects, when taken in a very large dosage. Recent studies, including a gas chromatography, concluded that thujone contains considerably more beta-thujone compounds than alpha-thujone compounds, comparatively. These matters were documented once more by a team of German scientists who studied the composition of Francois Guy Absinthe in 2004. This particular absinthe contains 4.8 mg/l of alpha-thujone compounds and 20 mg/l of beta-thujone compounds. That means a total amount of 24.8 mg and is therefore comfortably under the 35 mg/l restriction by law. When you consider further, that only 4.8 mg/l of the thujone compounds will have any effect, it becomes clear why this insignificant amount of thujone will have no active effect on the body, according to modern studies. That means: In order to allow thujone to have the effect on the human body that it can, you would need to consume more than 6 bottles of absinthe in order to see any results.
The question remains to be answered if absinthe was actually prohibited for these reasons? One already claimed during absinthe’s Belle Époque that it had a thujon content of 260 mg/l, but thanks to countless historical finds this mistake can be corrected. The average thujone content in historical absinthes centered around 6 mg/l and therefore even undershot the current laws restricted thujone content. But there are also theories claiming that thujone content reduces over time during the aging process, whether due to UV-rays or for other reasons, yet even thesis can be rejected thanks to the latest scientific results of German research institutions in 2004 and 2005. That means: we are dealing with quite a few false assumptions. The existence of so many false assumptions about absinthe can be explained in a variety of ways, but indeed there are two main explanations for this wealth of misconceptions. Firstly, the technology to accurately measure the thujone content of absinthe wasn’t available at the beginning of the 20th century. Secondly, the anti-absinthe lobby was enormous. Every obscure collection of prohibitionists, teetotalers and politicians ironically joined forces with absinthe’s competitors, other spirits producers; and don’t forget to include the powerful wine lobby, who were happy to proliferate numerous myths about the green fairy and its toxic effects, especially the myth about its toxic thujone content.
Absinthe – free of all guilt but still imprisoned
Regardless of whether we are discussing historical or modern absinthe, there have been no scientific studies confirming its psychoactive effects. Modern technology has done its job, especially the already-mentioned gas-liquid-chromatography, to shine light into the darkness of this rabble-rousing about absinthe. Absinthe is innocent in every respect.
Even still, opposing countless testimonies acquitting absinthe of its supposed toxic effect, the green fairy has not rehabilitated its reputation even after almost hundred years of its initial prohibition. Because of insufficient explanation, the drink still carries the same image it had just before its prohibition. And the misconception about thujone still follows absinthe today like a dark shadow.
The reality of the situation is much different and we sincerely hope to have informed you about this.