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Lord Michael Lewis

Absinthe: The Topic

533 posts in this topic

Not true WHT.

Than please back up your statement. From what I have read and found abuse of the substance is the key. In either short or long term from most published sources. Unless you are predisposed or allergic to thujone suffering seizures or hallucinations is rare.

Mugwort tea would be more apt to cause a change in reality perception. I remember my mother’s horticulture books that listed some plants as poisonous. It was not until I found some older books on herbs and pharmacology that I was able to get more of an answer. Belladonna is one of those plants and until you come to understand the how and why of it. Poisonous is more of a scare tactic than explanation.

Much of the lore surrounding the use of Absinthe seems to come off the same way. Look at some of the other lies told about “drugs” over history. From cigarettes being healthful to LSD causing chromosome damage. All designed to scare the masses.


Living hard will take its toll...

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I think part of the confusion may be that, apparently, the Absinthe that's sold today is different than that described in the historical literature, the stuff of hallucinations and fuzzy drunks, 26 times more the "fun" compounds.

This according to scientific studies at UC Berkeley & Northwestern University, summarized for lay-folks at Science News:

In some countries, notably the Czech Republic, absinthe is still available, albeit in a less potent form. Old absinthe contained about 260 parts per million of alpha-thujone, says Arnold. "Present-day absinthe generally has less than 10 parts per million," he says, which is below the maximum concentration permitted by European beverage guidelines. In today's absinthe, "the most toxic compound is the alcohol," quips Arnold.

Good read that describes the mechanisms of the chemicals involved.


Edited by mcdowell (log)

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Totally cool catch, McDowell!

I also wonder whether some of the reported effects of absinthe from the end of the 19th century might be due to methods of distillation which produced significant quantities of alcohols other then ethyl.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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Totally cool catch, McDowell!

I also wonder whether some of the reported effects of absinthe from the end of the 19th century might be due to methods of distillation which produced significant quantities of alcohols other then ethyl.

Or if in fact the thujone concentrations where higher than thought. Thujone degrades over time so testing old bottles would yield poor results.


Living hard will take its toll...

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Yes, good work. My favorite though, was the second to the last sentance in the commentary by RW Olsen.

Do not forget, however, that in absinthe one is balancing the effect of thujone with the intoxicating, disinhibitory, and depressant effects of ethanol, not to mention those of the other herbal ingredients of oil of wormwood and others added to the myriad recipes for absinthe now in existence.

regards,

trillium

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My favorite though, was the second to the last sentance in the commentary by RW Olsen.

I don't see any commentary. Where did you find it? I'd like to check it out.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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I went to PNAS and glanced through the research article and the commentary in PNAS. We have an institutional subscription, but I've gone through PubMed to get you the free access to the article and the commentary.... I'm pretty sure the hoi polloi can access PNAS articles directly for free, if they wish, by going to here, but I can't be sure since I don't have the time to make my workstation look like it isn't coming from my institution since I'm really supposed to be, well, working!

regards,

trillium

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I went to PNAS and glanced through the research article and the commentary in PNAS...

Thanks for the links, Trillium. Interesting reading. I thought two pargraphs in Olsen's response were of particular interest/relevance:

Absinthe was widely regarded as imparting pharmacological effects beyond those of alcohol alone, such as stimulating the imagination and aphrodisiac action, as well as producing hallucinations. Except for the toxicity, there is little research evidence supporting this view and more study is needed.

and

Now why would a drug with toxic and convulsant actions possibly be considered pleasant or at least desirable? A speculation that thujone might behave in a manner similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient of marijuana, was ruled out (22): thujone has a low affinity for cannabinoid receptor binding sites but none of the pharmacological actions, such as locomotor activity (open field test), immobility (ring stand test), and analgesia (hot plate test). Thus cannabinoids, but not thujone, are central nervous system depressants, like a sleeping pill. Thujone, like picrotoxin, is excitatory on the brain (analeptic). Such an agent may produce mood elevation and antidepressant effects. One may note the anxiogenic and possibly alerting effect of GABA antagonists, as opposed to the anxiolytic, sedative, but also amnestic effects of GABA-enhancing drugs like benzodiazepines and ethanol (9, 10, 23). Do not forget, however, that in absinthe one is balancing the effect of thujone with the intoxicating, disinhibitory, and depressant effects of ethanol, not to mention those of the other herbal ingredients of oil of wormwood and others added to the myriad recipes for absinthe now in existence.

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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If you type 'absinthe salts' into Google you can also find a lot of good information about the fact that much the way 'blue ruin' or gin was the scourge that had to be eliminated a century before absinthe was so popular, there were cheap versions that were colored using toxic metal salts like copper sulfate and antimony chloride. These would give the proper milkiness when water was added. So a lot of the neurotoxicity is as easily atributable to poisoning by heavy metal salts as to the lively additives from the wormwood. I have to find my copy of Jonathan Ott's "Pharmacotheon" but it's got information about this in there.

An interesting page on this is What is Absinthe. The industry then was in no way regulated and just as people have made moonshine in radiators and killed people, I can believe that grain alcohol with 'additives' would be sold unscrupulously to those who only had the few pennies or francs for drink.

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I know a few restaurants in Paris who may have ancient bottles of Absinthe, but they will never say this in public.


Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

blog

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please read this if you are interested about recent studies on thujone and absinthe:

http://www.absintheonline.com/acatalog/Thujone.html

i have tasted vintage absinthe and can tell you that the best makers produced a sublime product.

it's trying to reproduce the original taste that is a bitch, since most are convinced it tasted terrible (virtually all modern makers have never tasted vintage absinthe) and had to be diluted with lots of sugar, therefore modern versions (czech) taste like bitter crap, since they have no history of making it, but do have the taste for bitters, and french versions are typically too sweet, since they are trying to make absinthe-aroma pastis, and are required to follow strict regulations based on 19th century science.

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please read this if you are interested about recent studies on thujone and absinthe:

http://www.absintheonline.com/acatalog/Thujone.html

Interesting/relevant passages from this article, in my opinion, include:

What is more likely to have caused harm to regular absinthe drinkers is the adulterants used in the cheaper varieties. Absinthe existed in a quality pyramid much as wine does today, for each quality brand there were many more indifferent and positively harmful versions being sold cheaply to those who could not afford to buy a reputable brand. Common adulterants were cupric acetate (to provide the valued green colour) and antimony trichloride (which provided a cloudiness when water was added in imitation of the milky appearance of diluted absinthe). The purity of the base alcohol used for lesser brands would also have been questionable, and toxic levels of methanol from poor rectification would have been a real possibility. An additional aggravating factor is that as the cheaper brands were lower in alcohol than the quality brands, around 45% abv for ‘absinthe demi-fine’ compared to 68 or 72% for ‘absinthe superior’, someone drinking the cheaper version and seeking to obtain the same effect from the alcohol would have needed to consume more of the absinthe and hence more adulterants.

and

In conclusion, there is no evidence that absinthe ever contained the high concentrations of thujone that would have led to detrimental effects or that it has hallucinogenic or mind altering properties. The health problems experienced by chronic users were likely to have been caused by adulterants in inferior brands and by the high levels of alcohol present. Claims for beneficial effects must also be treated with some scepticism as again, the detrimental effects of the alcohol would presumably outweigh any benefits. It seems likely that the phenomenal success of absinthe during the 19th century was due to one factor, the French love of aniseed drinks. The modern equivalent of absinthe, pastis, is by far the most popular distilled spirit in France with 125 million litres being consumed annually.

This article was apparently originally published not in a peer reviewed journal, but in a magazine called Current Drug Discovery which is a publication of Current Drugs, Ltd. which is, in turn, part of Thomson Scientific, a division of The Thomson Corporation.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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>Recently, I found that there is a product much like absinthe, but finally legal: absente.

I'm really curious about this, but it appears to carry a hefty price tag. I'm curious whether anyone has tried this, real absinthe, and what their opinion is of either.

'absente' is a glorified pastis and does not taste anything like original absinthe. the american version does not contain extracts of the plant artemisia absinthium i.e. grande absinthe, which is the basic ingredient of the spirit, absinthe.

the european version does contain absinthe, but it doesn't make it that much better. this alcohol falls under the french liquor category 'spiriteux aux plantes d'absinthe' (containing 10mg/liter or less of thujone)which must be used as the alcohol's designation in france as 'absinthe' (by its original name) is still banned. to further the producer's marketing strategy, they have also produced a 'bitter aux plantes d'absinthe' (which can contain up to 35mg/liter of thujone under that designation) which comes in a medicine-dropper bottle and is supposed to be used to enhance the thujone content of the original product...it is 70% alcohol, as opposed to 55%, is disgustingly bitter, because absinthe oil has been added to enhance the thujone, and is a pitiful attempt to cash-in on those who search for the mythical thujone

high, which doesn't really exist as was once thought.

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>The only difference between the two is that Absente is palatable, while true absinthe is generally not.

this is not true, if it is made correctly

>I was just a small child when van Gogh and Verlaine where flirting with the green fairy, but my recollection is that nobody ever thought of the stuff as an epicurean experience.

one of the reasons absinthe was so popular was because it was tasty.

>I've had three brands of true absinthe--two from Portugal (actually not entirely positive the portuguese use wormwood, i've heard conflicting reports)

although absinthe was never banned in portuagal, the portugese make a horrible excuse for absinthe (called absinto)...it is nothing like real absinthe.

>and one from the Czechs.

ditto

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>The Spanish stuff is real.

it used to be, but most is not, now.

>People have just exaggerated the claims of thujone content in 19th century Absinthe to strenghen their position against it. Absinthe around the turn of the century was manufactured with steam distillation which yeilds 4 mg per 1.5 oz at the most, but also renders the absinthe very bitter.

the best absinthes of the époque were distilled in an alambic that was heated by water boiled in a double-boiler type rig...this water did not touch the herb/alcohol maceration in the main tank. it could also be heated by direct flame, (i know of one distillery in spain (segarra) that does this with excellent results) but this can burn the herbs and is much more labor intensive.

'steam distillation' to extract essences from each plant ingredient, as i think you mean it, and then assembling these in an alcohol base would produce a bitter absinthe. this process was used by lesser producers and still is used today by most pastis and 'absinthe' makers. (it is much cheaper) and is why most add sugar and star-anise oil to take the edge off) the double boiler actually allows the bitter elements to remain behind and the vapor, and once reduced to liquid 'alcoholate' produces a product that is not very bitter at all. this also reduces the amount of thujone in the final product considerably.

>For taste's sake, it is better at 2-3 mg. However, even at 4 mg, it means at most you would be looking at a 90 mg per litre at the most. This is readily available currently in the brand Serpis, which is the strongest currently available.

how do you know this? serpis is actually red in color, which has nothing to do with original absinthe. the the coloring in absinthe was originally a by-product of a second flavoring step, but is rarely more than food-coloring today...

that said , i do like serpis, the 65% better than the 55%, and think it is a classic spanish absenta (which is also not like original absinthe but more lemony and stronger anise), except for its color. my guess is that it doesn't have more than 10 mg/liter of thujone (not that this makes any difference) or it would not be able to be sold in the EU, besides spain, where absinthe was never banned and has no laws on thujone levels.

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>I can believe that grain alcohol with 'additives' would be sold unscrupulously to those who only had the few pennies or francs for drink.

this is what helped to kill absinthe...absinthe was grouped by the anti-alcohol league and the wine maker's lobby (wine was not considered an alcohol, but food, at the time) as one product with no regard to better makers...it would be the same if MD 20/20 was considered an equal product to petrus...

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> to my knowledge there are no bottles left in existence from that time period.

yes, there are

>However, the recipes do exist and based on the recipes, we can ascertain that absinthes in the "Salon" time period had roughly 90 mg thujone per liter.

no, we can't, especially not as an overall generalization. properly distilled absinthes contain(ed) far less thujone than macerated or essence-oil mixed products. see above comparison...

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Greetings. As this is my first post I will introduce myself and make clear my affiliations right away so that you can take what I say cum grano salis if so desired. I am the author of the 'Myth Reality and Absinthe' article on absinthe and thujone cited a few posts earlier, I am also an analytical chemist and a director of Absinthe Online who are the sole suppliers of Un Emile 68 premium French absinthe.

One of the main points of argument in my article is that 'vintage' absinthe did not contain the high concentrations of thujone claimed in various literature references and that this makes it unlikely that it is solely responsible for the secondary effects of absinthe. I deduced this because Arnold, the most widely quoted source for information on thujone concentrations in 19th century absinthe, seems to have misread the original French reference book by Duplais and has probably confused thujone with oil of wormwood when extrapolating the figures. The figure of 200+ mg/l of thujone has simply been requoted over and over because the original source material was not checked. I also believe that thujone is stable under the conditions found in absinthe and that modern GC is measuring what was present when the absinthe was made as no degradation products are visible on the output trace. Finally it would not be possible to extract the high concentrations of thujone using distillation of plants (although it would be possible using essential oil extracts such as were (and are) used to make inferior absinthes). I will shortly be repeating my earlier GC analyses with a greater and more diverse collection of vintage absinthes.

Absinthe should be enjoyed purely for its taste, and a correctly crafted absinthe is one of the World's finest spirits. There are a few good examples commercially available, but most modern absinthe has been created from a mixture of oils and colouring with no reference to the original product and is marketed on the basis of hype or claims that it contains more thujone than other brands.

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So have samples of original absinthe from the early 20th and late 19th century been analyzed in a modern laboratory environment to prove or disprove any misconceptions about the actual chemical composition, taste and thujone content?

Wouldn't spectrographic analysis, among other techniques, pretty much make this a moot issue?


Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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So have samples of original absinthe from the early 20th and late 19th century been analyzed in a modern laboratory environment to prove or disprove any misconceptions about the actual chemical composition, taste and thujone content?

My analyses were performed at a certified UK standards laboratory using the official GLC set up for thujone analysis in beverages. As well as for thujone they were tested for anethole (a major compound from the anise) and other marker componds which gave us clues as to what other plants had been used in the distillation.

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>Why would you suggest otherwise? Basic organic chemistry and pharmacology might be a start.

Thanks for the return post. Solomon’s post is a good basic explanation. You would have to have a perfectly mad and preserved bottle from that time (I would think that to be rare.) to try and do any form of detailed testing. To many wild factors in just coming across a bottle of anything and being able to test it and have the results mean something.

Or another way of looking at it is the way some drug tests work. They look for remainders of chemicals. Ones that occur in other things besides drugs. Poppy seeds or VICODIN show as opium on some of the testes. Yes, people do abuse prescription medicine but if the test is not followed up on or the right questions asked beforehand the test is useless. I will have to dig out my pharmacopoeia and get the properties and decay rates just to back this up.

Your comment about rehashing and selective quotes rings true. Hence some of my questions as to what and why.

Welcome and have a good time.


Living hard will take its toll...

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Another quick datapoint, this time from an article at the DEA web site, excerpting an article from Forensic Drug Abuse Advisor that says, in part:

Salvia officinalis (common sage), and presumably Salvia divinorum, contains thujone and camphor. These same two ingredients are found in wormwood, one of the ingredients in the original formula for the liquor absinthe, which is now making a comeback, at least in Europe. The thujone molecule bears a very strong resemblance to tetrahydrocannabinol, and it has been suggested that absinthe's psychological effects were really the result of thujone's cannabis-like effects.

Modern receptor studies have proven that hypothesis wrong, but alternate explanations have not been forthcoming. Salvinorin A is easily extracted from the leaves and identifiable with GC/MS, but it is not likely to be detected by any of the normal urine screening immunoassays.

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One of the main points of argument in my article is that 'vintage' absinthe did not contain the high concentrations of thujone claimed in various literature references and that this makes it unlikely that it is solely responsible for the secondary effects of absinthe. I deduced this because Arnold, the most widely quoted source for information on thujone concentrations in 19th century absinthe, seems to have misread the original French reference book by Duplais and has probably confused thujone with oil of wormwood when extrapolating the figures. The figure of 200+ mg/l of thujone has simply been requoted over and over because the original source material was not checked.

I assume you refer to: "Duplais P. Traité des liqueurs et de la distillation des alcools ou le liquoriste et le distillateur moderns. Versailles: Chez l'Auteur, 1855" as cited in this article by Strang, Arnold and Peters? If, as you suggest, they have made a mistake in their translation, perhaps you could provide reference to the passage(s) mistranslated and what you believe is the correct translation? I am also curious as to why you think it might be that this error has not been remarked upon in the scientific community. Or do you suppose you are among a very small minority that has rechecked the original information? I'm not asking this facetiously, I really do wonder.

Have you ever thought of writing to one of the scientific journals or posting a comment on the journal's web site in response to an article they had published citing the figures you think are erroneous?

I also believe that thujone is stable under the conditions found in absinthe and that modern GC is measuring what was present when the absinthe was made as no degradation products are visible on the output trace.

Might there be other explanations for why your gas chromatography didn't find any degradation products? For instance, might any such products have reacted into still different forms over time? Or might they have precipitated and formed a sediment in the bottle? Or is is possible that the sample which you tested was not representative of all 19th century absinthes?

Finally it would not be possible to extract the high concentrations of thujone using distillation of plants (although it would be possible using essential oil extracts such as were (and are) used to make inferior absinthes).

Ah, but isn't this part of the point? Presumably most of the people suffering absinthe's alleged ill effects were did not have sufficient means to drink the expensive stuff. Unfortunately, I rather imagine that there aren't too many 100 year old bottles of carefully preserved rotgut absinthe hanging around in old cellars waiting to be tested. I would be very interested to see the CG analysic results of some really crappy absinthe, as I strongly suspect that contaminants and non-ethyl alcohol were responsible for most of absinthe's reported effects not explainable by alcohol intoxication.

I will shortly be repeating my earlier GC analyses with a greater and more diverse collection of vintage absinthes.

Great! I look forward to seeing your results. Do you intend to write them up for publication in a scientific journal?

Thanks for your contributions and welcome to eGullet, by the way. Assuming your culinary interests extend beyond absinthe, you should check out our other forums as well. For what it's worth, I am rather in your camp when it comes to the alleged mind-altering effects of the various substances in absinthe other than alcohol.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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>Over time, the ring would open and you'd have something that tasted akin to smog or road tar instead of thujone.

are you saying that the vintage absinthe would have this flavor because of the thujone, or just a liquid essence of a plant that contained high amounts of thujone (which would be unbearably bitter in the first place)?

and how long is 'over time'?

this has not been my experience with samples of almost 100-year-old absinthe that i have tasted (though some survive in much better drinking condition than others)

but if what you are saying is true, that would suggest then that these absinthes did not contain much thujone in the first place, becaiuse with high amounts of thujone, they would become undrinkable because of the aging process.

I agree that this suggests that these fine vintage absinthes probably did not have much thujone. But, I'll also put out that a proper steam distillation will tend to bring out into the distillate many alkaloids that are naturally found in plant products. For instance, if you steam distilled coffee, you would find caffeine in the distillate.

That being said, steam distillation is an evil process from a "good separation scheme" standpoint. It's too long, provides poor yields, and requires baby-sitting a lot more than, say, an ether or benzene extraction (something similar was probably used to make the inferior absinthes). Think of it as brewing coffee by extracting the coffee flavors from beans using the absolute cheapest vodka you can find and then dumping that liquor in boiling water to drive off the alcohol to make coffee. I would rather chew on donkey's sphincter than drink that coffee. It would taste perfectly despicable because the essential liquors you get from a steam distillation are much different than those you get from a benzene solution because steam is not benzene, and these things have differing solubilities in the two substances.

What I did imply, and I will state it more strongly this time is that good absinthe will not be an acidic beverage because you would turn your thujone into something quite awful in the bottle instead of your stomach. So, if your absinthe tastes like road tar, it's because 1: it was poorly made, and 2: it is old.

As for how long this would take, that depends on factors of temperature and pH, mainly, and I do not have enough experience with real absinthe to be able to hazard a competent guess.

Unfortunately, my qualifications are not as august as ihutton's (being more of a physical chemist, myself), so I shall defer to ihutton.


I always attempt to have the ratio of my intelligence to weight ratio be greater than one. But, I am from the midwest. I am sure you can now understand my life's conundrum.

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