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Absinthe: The Topic


Lord Michael Lewis
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People following various absinthe sites that surfaced to offer information in recent years may want to know allegations visible on Wikipedia. (I had independently encountered some of the same points.)

Several charges appear, but the one of widest relevance is that a very few people, generally connected to absinthe businesses, control US hobby sites and the Wikipedia absinthe page. That might explain the spins and selective information visible from those sources. (Contrasting with the record in the wider, impartial literature relevant to absinthe, all of which predates these online sources.)

The Wikipedia Absinthe Discussion page has a major item down the page somewhat, under header Page is controlled by a minority.

Conclusion:

The whole absinthe page on wikipedia is littered with links and opinions intended to promote the interests of a small tightly knit group. There are also many "mistakes" in the definition section as well.
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Max, at some point, I'll poke my nose into the Wikipedia fracas. From a cursory skimming, I have to say that it looks like a hot air and baloney sandwich deluxe. However, I'll suspend further judgment until I've read through it carefully.

I mentioned your post over at the Wormwood Society, and one of our members, Shabba, responded:

Quite a few of us are involved in the discussions. The problem with that [eGullet] post was that he used Drabsinthe's statement as a fact in his conclusion.

If he'd bothered to read the discussion, he'd see that we bring up valid points that are supported by fact, while Drabsinthe (RedSalmon) continuously changes topic and makes wild accusations without substantiating any of it.

One thing I find funny is that I am constantly accused of being part of the production/marketing side of absinthe, even though that couldn't be further from the truth. Who knows where they come up with this sh*t.

Then there's this note from a member of the Wikipedia Help Staff:

I have responded to the email complaint from the above user (redsalmon aka drabsinthe). As Ari notes, the complaints are insufficiently specific to permit of any proper action. If RedSalmon would like to be more specific and less accusing perhaps some progress could be made. Guy (Help!) 20:45, 18 November 2007 (UTC)

Here's a link to the Wormwood Society thread. Anyone interested in participating in this discussion is welcome to come over, join up, and dive in.

.

Edited by BrooksNYC (log)
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Thanks Brooks.

This is an unfounded accusation by an anonymous critic who many suspect of being intimately involved with the failing Czech absinthe market and attempting to undermine the "competition's" credibility. The primary absinthe information sites, the Wormwood Society (WS) and the Virtual Absinthe Museum/Fée Verte Forum (VAM/FV) are operated by myself, Gwydion Stone, and David Nathan-Maister aka Oxygenée, respectively.

I have run WS out of my own pocket with very little remuneration for four years. Until a year ago when I finally decided to start producing my own brand, Marteau, I had no connection to the commercial absinthe market whatsoever and in fact quite vocally criticized a few "Franco-Suisse" absinthe producers/distributors, including Nathan-Maister and Ted Breaux. My stance on the various contested issues, primarily the authenticity of certain products and the sensationally inflated relevance of thujone, have remained unchanged by my new "bias". As previously promised, when I went commercial I appointed an advisory board at the Wormwood Society to help assure administrative neutrality.

The evolution of the Wormwood Society is a matter of public record for anyone with the patience to look for it. It started as a small local group having absinthe parties. I created a site with basic absinthe information for newbies. Then I opened a discussion forum, and continued to expand the site. After a while, access was granted to an international audience and the site and forum grew even more. It was inevitable that my own passion for the topic of absinthe should develop into a desire to make it (I'm the guy that decided to start making Celtic harps based on a love of Celtic music). It's a perfectly natural evolution based on a sincere interest and devoid of subterfuge or purely mercenary motives. I'm simply a craftsman who wants to make my livelihood doing what I love to do.

David Nathan-Maister is very likely the foremost authority on absinthe in the English-speaking world, and while his commercial involvement predates my own by a few years, his stance on these same issues remains unchanged.

Further, "spins and selective information" are precisely the methods of this anonymous critic. Wormwood Society and the Oxygenée sites contain the most relevant peer-reviewed science papers as well as historical documentation supporting our views. WS also contains papers espousing contradictory and outdated views and information.

In spite of multiple requests to do so, this critic has never supported his claims and innuendos with documentation, instead preferring to use faulty logic and puerile debate team ruses and ad hominem attacks. He, and apparently others, seem to think that a connection to absinthe businesses is, ipso facto, grounds for suspicion.

Contrasting with the record in the wider, impartial literature relevant to absinthe, all of which predates these online sources.

Priority has been a common thread in your absinthe posts—usually, as now—appearing to call into question anything new, as if priority confers authority, which is quite often not the case.

Very important new information has entered the field in just the last couple of years and it is included among the older literature on both WS and VAM/FV as well as David's thujone.info site.

Would you say what you consider these impartial sources to be, and in what way do they contrast with the information found on the "new" sources? Would you also be specific as to what you consider "spin" on these new sites? If you're not referring to WS and VAM/FV, to which sites are you referring specifically?

Edited by Hiram (log)
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to each there own, but i can't understand why people like absinthe so much... i always thought of it as a low brow peasant liquor (though i have my own low brow bad habits). the anise is cloying and you can't taste anything else for a week... i've come across too many other good things to drink in life. maybe some people with worm wood fetishes can come up with a good commercially available (anise free) sweet vermouth...

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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Since folks are interested, I'll happily elaborate. It may help understanding. I'd also caution against further mis-reading or second-guessing:

...at the Wormwood Society... one of our members, Shabba, responded:
... The problem with that [eGullet] post was that he used Drabsinthe's statement as a fact in his conclusion.
Priority has been a common thread in your absinthe posts—usually, as now—appearing to call into question anything new, as if priority confers authority, which is quite often not the case.

First, I wrote, Wikipedia Absinthe Discussion page has major item down the page [header X, conclusion Y]. Quoted its author's header and conclusion. My posting labeled this "allegations" and "charges;" I'm sorry to see Shabba reading, or at least responding, to my posting as if it "used Drabsinthe's statement as a fact."

Second, Hiram, I don't know where you get that stuff. It doesn't aid your credibility. On what basis do you presume to second-guess my motivations, then reply to your own guesses? ("Call into question anything new" ?? "As if priority conferred authority" ??!?) That's off-base and uncalled-for. Technical and historical information are constantly updated. I identify sources as earlier because they're earlier. Decades of technical scholarship and peer-review work showed me that understanding publications' sequence aids perspective. (I've written professional technical articles since 1973.) Also, where new writing repeats standard sources, pointedly crediting those sources isn't just good grace, it helps the reader separate what's new.

Evidential standards in professional publications are stronger than in popular ones. (It's not good form just to assert whatever you happen to believe.) But I apply them also to my postings here -- what you see is usually just the top of the iceberg.

Now to clarify, I know nothing of Czech absinthe, nor am concerned with such issues from the Wikipedia poster. I've no connection with absinthe businesses and no quibble with any group for absinthe tasting or connoisseurship (I think it's admirable in fact) or any of the Web sites, beyond criticizing certain tutorial information on absinthe. This critique embraces quoted statements by Ted Breaux (on the sites and elsewhere). My points are limited and specific, let's stick to those, OK?

This reply is in two parts, from the two specific assertions I made in the previous posting.

Part 1. Wikipedia talk item alleges a few people, with absinthe business interests, author US hobby sites and the Wikipedia absinthe page. The item opens claiming links from Wiki absinthe page go disproportionately to a few sites. First four are "1. Liquers de France, 2. FeeVerte [feeverte.net], 3. Thujone.info (same as 2.), 4. The Wormwood Society [wormwoodsociety.org] - of which the main writer of this [Wiki] page is a senior member."

That assertion appears not even controversial. Hiram of WWS confirmed his and David Nathan-Maister (feeverte.net, thujone.info)'s commercial activity, above. Two people linked to three US hobby sites and Wikipedia page. QED. Next point.

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Part 2. Spins and selective information are visible on [current online absinthe] sources.

That's actually not hard at all to demonstrate to impartial observers, though it takes space and willingness to look seriously at the subject. (Impartial observers, by definition, lack emotional stake so are undistracted by a need to defend anything.)

Very important new information has entered the field in just the last couple of years and it is included ...

I don't know which new info that alludes to, Hiram; instead of repeating that assertion, please demonstrate it. I've looked at those sites periodically and -- aside from things like esthetic product discussion and comparison, an important exception -- I saw very little substantive scientific or absinthe-history background that I haven't also read in mainstream sources decades (even many decades) old. On the other hand, here are examples of what I mention above:

1. Thujone-free absinthe by analysis isn't a recent claim, it was in absinthe advertising a century ago, reproduced for years in modern absinthe literature. (And if someone knows absinthe literature, they know this.)

2. Whether it contains thujone or not is virtually irrelevant to absinthe's toxicity by standard published LD50 measures, which say that in all cases the principal toxin (by factor at least 100 or so) is the alcohol. (Still rarely a problem, in moderation.)

3. Item 2 also raises question why any recent writing continues to flag thujone as toxic, or uncritically quote comments that say or imply so. My expert friends agree that language like "toxic" or "poisonous" is meaningless without quantitative info and context. Everything is toxic in enough quantity, even water. LD50 (lethal-dose) measures for natural thujone (from common first-reference sources, in any library by the way -- not specialized papers) are in same ballpark as some other herbal constituents consumed daily in foods in far greater quantity than any absinthe would be. Therefore of all substances mentioned here, why acquiesce in thujone's long-obsolete stigmatizing?

3a. Further, if writers of recent tutorials ("foremost authority on absinthe in English-speaking world" or otherwise) know the subject, they also know all the points I raise here, and easy sources for them. If so, why do they withhold this insight; if not, on what basis do they claim expertise? (thujone.info does cite many research papers exploring thujone -- as are published for countless other biochemicals too -- yet doesn't call out the upshots I list here, central to absinthe.)

4. This is a harder upshot to summarize because it covers wide ground. Science learned much about absinthe and thujone within a few decades after the 1912 US ban. That knowledge, to those who saw it, dissipated most residual 19th-century stigmas on absinthe and thujone. Thujone came to be seen like other common herb essences, more widely found in plants than previously thought. (Last sentence paraphrases a standard reference book, 1940.) Grossman, in his US drinks reference book (4th edition 1964), who'd handled absinthe professionally in various countries, dismissed its persistent "aura of mystery" and tagged alcohol as its toxic component. That echoed available scientific information. I raised same point, discussing absinthe publicly on the Internet in 1988. Some of this picture emerges in current FAQ postings, but I fear readers may not come away learning Grossman's key point.

4a. In an odd current contrast, FDA's continued prohibition of thujone in wormwood products resembles a 19th-century view while its simultaneous unrestricted and "safe" classification of sage (thujone-bearing, in similar concentration) reflects more closely a modern (post-1940s) perception of all these plants.

5. A few terminology choices conflict with standard usage in related literatures. An example is Upthread.

In view of these examples, what exactly is the objection to my 1-Jan-08 posting?

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gallery_27569_3448_50645.jpg

I wish I'd gotten a picture of the bottle in a snow bank, but this will have to do.

Exported the monkey to Wisconsin to enjoy with friends on New Year's eve.

An enjoyable flavor and good conversation piece! Nice herbal complexity and very well distilled.

However, after a couple glasses, my wife mentioned that my face was flushing seriously red, so I stopped drinking it. Another of our friends had an even more extreme facial flush from drinking it. Both of us returned to normal after an half an hour or so, with no other symptoms. Others at the party enjoyed several glasses with no effect at all.

I've got no known serious allergies, have had other Absinthes before with no similar effect, and enjoyed most of the unusual herb choices (tarragon, stinging nettles, etc.) in culinary settings with no ill effect. About the only thing I'm not familiar with is "Meadowsweet".

Anyway, just figured I'd mention it, as 2 out of 12 of us had this happen. Curious if anyone else experiences it.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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You're the visitor in Wisconsin, and it's bone cold right now - you reasonably should go red flush before bone white!!

So how did you serve the absinthe?

Ha! Yeah, I considered Absinthe snow cones, given the volume of new beautiful, clean, snow, or frappe.

However, it wasn't much of a cocktail crowd, so I stuck with absinthe plus water.

Kind of regret I didn't try the Absinthe snow frappe...

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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  • 2 weeks later...
In view of these examples, what exactly is the objection to my 1-Jan-08 posting?

None so far, evidently (of course it could come later).

In case anyone doesn't realize it yet, this isn't about a difference of opinions, like some argument in a bar. The body of literature bearing directly on absinthe has certain basic upshots that aren't recent at all, and that anyone can verify to their complete satisfaction if they'll do the work. I'm just pointing this out. (If you aren't familiar with my standards of evidence, please read some of my eG postings.)

As absinthe moved from the back to the front burner of popular interest recently, some people re-hashed standard absinthe tutorial information, and in many particulars I feel they did a good job. Certain quirks, though, appeared in the recent sources I mentioned. (I include Ted Breaux's quoted comments in popular media that repeat accurate published information about absinthe as far as they go, but omit the rest of the story, which significantly changes the message.) I listed some of these quirks previously. Since the upshots are fairly central to popular questions on absinthe, it's striking not to see them clearly laid out in Wikipedia and other recent tutorials, where other, much more subtle, details are punctilious.

That's all background: Here's the immediate issue. People here and there, aware of these quirks (or spins and omissions) in absinthe tutorials, have been speculating about why. Are they conscious spins, or not. I don't know, and don't presume to guess. (I know where I'm coming from, but can only read other people's words, not minds.) The complaint posted on Wikipedia could be relevant (whatever its other messages or limitations -- Czech products and so on). It opens with the undisputed point I also noticed when checking current online absinthe information, that a very small group of people mostly in absinthe businesses do a lot of writing, including on Wikipedia, and are well represented in links there.

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I just talked to a bar manager near where I work that carries the Lucid. They said that the company will give the bar absinth glasses, drip tops for them, and spoons when you pick up the Lucid. Seems a much more economical way than ebaying it. Maybe the St. George does the same?

Sean

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  • 2 weeks later...

I recently picked up my bottles of first release of the "absinthe verte" from respected artisanal California distiller St. George Spirits. First US product with AT-TTB approval for "absinthe" on its label; stories in December-5 numbers of San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times and in late December, aerial photo of queue to buy limited offering at the distillery. I'd put in an order at my regular spirits dealer ($69.95 a bottle) when the story broke, and the order was filled in December. (Should I see any of you in person, I'm happy to share.)

The St.-George has a distinctive bottle and label, declaring 10 herbs used, and generic tag "brandy with herbs." 60% ABV. (The original Pernod absinthe, which started all the fuss 150 years ago, used a brandy base; details in Conrad's standard absinthe book. The Kübler and Lucid absinthes I've tried, retail in US, claim a neutral-spirits base.) Greenish-tan color undiluted, pale-green louche with water,* slightly herbaceous variant of classic absinthe nose and flavor, wormwood discernible. Anise-fennel flavors predominate as usual. There's a resemblance among absinthes I've tried (some better known than others) fashioned after the pre-ban products (especially Pernod) that the makers had sampled, and this one is solidly in that class. Overall a quality, artisanal impression, befitting St.-George (better known for its premium vodkas; I haven't tried them, malt whiskys are more my taste in materia distilleria, and St-George makes small batches of an excellent, distinctive malt).

* Basis of the dialect word "pastis" in southern France, for drinks of this broad class that cloud in water when oils from anise etc. leave solution.

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FWIW I'd like to weigh in on the issue of "spin" wrt absinthe information. The only spin going on is by Eastern European makers of "absinth" and "absynthe" which are not historically accurate absinthe no matter how you slice it.

To accuse experts of bias because they have business interests in absinthe is ludicrous-- their dedication and hard work through "the dark ages" have been critical given that the goal of "crapsinthe" producers has always been to redefine (read: "ambiguate") the term absinthe.

I consider semantics important, and I have been enthralled enough by /real/ absinthe to want to defend it. This is similar in my mind to chocolate lovers fighting not to dilute the FDA's definition of chocolate.

There has been no waffling or contradiction by absinthe experts, only pointless debate baited by crapsinthe makers and distributors to attempt to legitimize their (hopefully collapsing) badly flavored vodka business.

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FWIW I'd like to weigh in on the issue of "spin" wrt absinthe information.  The only spin going on is by Eastern European makers of "absinth" and "absynthe" which are not historically accurate absinthe no matter how you slice it.
Welcome to eGullet, by the way, salsa72.

Why do you assert as above? East-European issues may exist but they have no connection at all to my points here, recently summarized above for instance.

I have a small library of very respectable and public sources bearing on absinthe. Some of their most important, and oldest, upshots are missing, or de-emphasized, in recent information offered to newcomers and journalists. I've followed absinthe honestly, and with interest, for longer than Ted Breaux, Hiram, and other people now commenting.

They rarely say, for instance, that natural thujone's lethal dose (public for decades in any library) resembles those of other physiologically active food components such as caffeine. Caffeine is a convulsive poison at similar gross overdose levels to thujone's, but the caffeine in a cup of coffee (100-200mg) compares to the thujone in a bottle of even thujone-rich absinthe. That's around 1% of a human-lethal dose of the respective component -- but a bottle has 50 to 100% of a lethal alcohol dose. With or without thujone. Why isn't this prominent in Wikipedia or the WWS site? Why does Breaux (New Yorker 13 March 2006) cite a reference book about absinthe toxicity, but not mention caffeine's related toxicity, or alcohol's dominant toxicity in any absinthe liquor -- all in the same book -- which changes the message? There are other examples. I am raising serious points, not rhetoric.

What do you call these representations, if not spin? Or are you not aware of them?

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Max, thanks for the welcome, just trying to figure out what the real conflict is here.

Sorry to group you in with crapsinthe prococateurs, but you're making the same vague, baseless suggestions about the expertise of Messrs. Breaux and Nathan-Maister. I don't have the patience to wade into the Wikipedia debate except to say that it's unproductive to second guess these gentlemen, which is what you seem to be doing.

The summary to which you linked is point after point of hot air, absent of substantive criticism of anything as far as I can tell.

I am curious about your own background on absinthe, other than having "followed" the topic for, in your opinion, longer than some others. No need for a pissing contest-- we're all on the same side here: absinthe is back, it's real, and there's a lot of mythology to clear up. I'm not arguing with you-- I can't find anything to argue with-- but I take exception to your vague attempts to discredit the most qualified experts.

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Look, what do you want, salsa72? First, I am not arguing about individuals, only specific information they've posted. Second, short of exhaustive, point-by-point analysis, comparable to a reworking of the Wikipedia page, I can only point in the right direction and leave it to people to see for themselves. What precisely in the two examples I just gave (quantitative toxicities of thujone, caffeine, and alcohol; Breaux's comment New Yorker 13 March 2006) is vague, or hard to check??? What don't you find to argue with, there? And to repeat, are you aware of those discrepancies already, and if so, what do you call them, if not spins?

I have no commercial or advocacy agenda, I'm just concerned about accurate absinthe information. Became interested in the 1970s after hearing about it from my parents (trained in fine arts in the early 1950s and acquainted with it). Began exchanging about it publicly on the Internet, late 1980s. (What, re the 1970s and 1980s dates, do you consider an issue of "opinion," and why characterize it so?) Saw the Web sites appear, saw the number of search hits grow from literally a handful in 2000-2001 to hundreds of thousands, as absinthe moved from specialized to general interest. In the meantime I'd accumulated some authoritative sources bearing on the history of its demystification. For another concrete example, contrary to frequent assertions lately, thujone-free absinthe by chemical analysis is not recent but was claimed in the early 1900s, as quoted in modern popular absinthe writing. (Why isn't that mentioned by those "most qualified experts?") Most basic tutorial information on absinthe was public by the 1990s in standard sources* and has not changed. The newer sources -- hobby sites, Breaux, etc. -- did a decent job of repackaging that material, but -- my whole point here, for the Nth time -- I wonder at some emphases and omissions. Three concrete examples just given, please don't ignore them further.

* Marie-Claude Delahaye's 1983 book; Barnaby Conrad's 1988 book based partly on it; and Matthew Baggott's 1997 online pharmacology notes are three prominent examples.

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  • 1 month later...

I finally tried the St. George recently as well. Ditto on the taste and louche; a very thoughtful production. Nice botanicals - made my nose itch a little!

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...

I have the New Yorker in front of me-- I'm curious which quote by Mr. Breaux, exactly, is considered to be revealing of a deeper issue? He made no definitive statements about toxicity, as far as I can tell-- page and paragraph, please?

Marie Claude Delahaye, while a historian and the author of some very good books, is not an absinthe drinker nor a chemist. She quoted old estimates which had not been confirmed, and she made no claims that she confirmed the figures. The same goes for Mr. Conrad-- he quoted figures, and was clear on the numbers being estimated and old-- it was a point of interest, and he made no claim of having new analysis. Matthew Baggott similarly made claims based on old estimates.

It appears that these "authoritative sources" are historians and authors, not chemists. Their claims of thujone content in absinthe are based on old estimates which are inconsistent with modern chemical analysis. Vague estimates quoted over ten years ago don't negate data from recent tests.

As for what I want: Please consider reevaluating your assumptions in light of current empirical studies which indicate thujone levels are and were very low. We've all been following this for a long time, and information has been hard to come by-- enjoy the fact that we know stuff now and that the assumptions you were fed previously were bunk!

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  • 1 month later...

Sorry I didn't sooner see salsa72's reply (following my previous related postings by a couple of months).

I have the New Yorker in front of me-- I'm curious which quote by Mr. Breaux, exactly, is considered to be revealing of a deeper issue?  He made no definitive statements about toxicity, as far as I can tell-- page and paragraph, please?

Marie Claude Delahaye, while a historian and the author of some very good books, is not an absinthe drinker nor a chemist.  ... The same goes for Mr. Conrad-- he quoted figures, and was clear on the numbers being estimated and old-- it was a point of interest, and he made no claim of having new analysis.  Matthew Baggott similarly ... / It appears that these "authoritative sources" are historians and authors, not chemists.  Their claims of thujone content in absinthe are based on old estimates which are inconsistent with modern chemical analysis.  Vague estimates quoted over ten years ago don't negate data from recent tests.

As for what I want:  Please consider reevaluating your assumptions in light of current empirical studies which indicate thujone levels are and were very low.  We've all been following this for a long time, and information has been hard to come by-- enjoy the fact that we know stuff now and that the assumptions you were fed previously were bunk!

When I summarize tersely, it invites misinterpretation (especially if the misinterpretation better supports the interpreter's worldview); it isn't the worst such case in this thread, but FYI, my "authoritative sources bearing on [absinthe's] history and demystification" are chemical and biological texts, don't confuse them with popular sources like Conrad that I mention separately.

In the self-appointed absinthe information sources of recent years, I regularly find some elements of perspective missing. This does not reflect on those sources' other, valuable factual and critical content. But a reader familiar with any of the following may question its absence: Sense of the scope of absinthe's scientific demystifications by the 1930s or so. Sense of what's wrong in lurid, anachronistic notions of "toxicity" that omit vital context (quantitative factors, related food substances), completely changing the message. Details like these are are technical, found in technical books. (Popular histories -- Conrad, etc. -- are not my basis for technical details; those books are famously weak technically.) Finally, I sometimes find standard absinthe information expressed by new tutorials in atypical or idiosyncratic ways; example appended at the end.

I function here therefore as a critic of absinthe writing, who has read a bit of it from the last hundred years and gleaned some picture of just what stuff "we know now," also what was actually known 60 years ago yet still doesn't inform the comments I get from salsa72 or others with similar perspectives.

Please stop asserting over and over that more is known today about absinthe's thujone content than a few years ago. That well-established point was already belabored on this site by Hiram by 2005 or so. Most technical points I raise are unrelated to that one, yet I keep seeing it in responses. (It's like those auto-reply email programs that give you canned irrelevant responses when you write into an online business about something it doesn't know about.)

(I'd also request you people please stop interpolating favorite meanings into my comments, then replying to those meanings -- if the posting record suggested that this would do any good!)

I don't have the New Yorker number handy currently to quote page and graph (alas!), but you'll find precisely what I cited above -- Breaux's peculiarly selective comment from a technical reference -- if you read. (Re-evaluate my "assumptions" about absinthe?!? The "assumptions" I was fed ?!? Please point out one.)

Appendix: A minor point of language I've posted elsewhere.

Traditional recipes republished in recent decades (including an 1855 French recipe from the origin point of large-scale absinthe production) specify two steps using relevant herbs. The first (main) herbal extraction uses (among other flavoring herbs) the eponymous Artemisia absinthium, common decorative and medicinal plant almost always called "wormwood" in US, occasionally "grand wormwood" or "grand absinthe" in foreign sources. After distillation, other herbs add green color, the relevant one is "Roman wormwood" in the recipe I mentioned, alternatively "petit wormwood" or "petit absinthe."

Currently, the wormwoodsociety.org FAQ file and the Wikipedia absinthe entry (which share authorship and are both much more recent than most sources I quote) introduce A. absinthium as "grand wormwood." Apparently some journalistic sources are even copying this now. It's unusual and potentially an issue, given that the following better-known sources all call A. absinthium just "wormwood:" the definitive US materia-medica compendium from the USDA's director of that department; all the various editions I have of the standard international biochemical handbook; two standard pharmacology texts; three classic drinks reference books; Harold McGee; the American Heritage Dictionary; Conrad's classic 1988 US absinthe book; and virtually all other anglophone writing I've seen on absinthe liquors from the last 70 years.

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So, I was just made aware of some new (to me) absinthe-related research.

First is: Dirk W. Lachenmeier, David Nathan-Maister, Theodore A. Breaux, Eva-Maria Sohnius, Kerstin Schoeberl, and Thomas Kuballa Chemical Composition of Vintage Preban Absinthe with Special Reference to Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphone, Methanol, Copper, and Antimony Concentrations. J. Agric. Food Chem., 56 (9), 3073–3081, 2008

Thirteen samples of authentic absinthe dating from the preban era (i.e., prior to 1915) were analyzed for parameters that were hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of the spirit, including naturally occurring herbal essences (thujone, pinocamphone, fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony. The total thujone content of preban absinthe was found to range between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/L, with an average concentration of 25.4  20.3 mg/L and a median concentration of 33.3 mg/L. The authors conclude that the thujone concentration of preban absinthe was generally overestimated in the past. The analysis of postban (1915–1988) and modern commercial absinthes (2003–2006) showed that the encompassed thujone ranges of all absinthes are quite similar, disproving the supposition that a fundamental difference exists between preban and modern absinthes manufactured according to historical recipes. Analyses of pinocamphone, fenchone, base spirits, copper, and antimony were inconspicuous. All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome “absinthism”.

According to the article (login required) in Chemical & Engineering News which first brought this paper to my attention, this is the first study to look this closely at multiple preban, postban and modern examples via gas chromatography/mass spectrometry for the convulsants thujone (from wormwood), pinocamphone (from hyssop) and fenchone (from fennel) as well as methanol, other alcohols, and acetaldehyde. The authors also used atomic absorption spectroscopy to evaluate copper content and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to evaluate antimony content. The paper has an excellent chart giving thujone, pinocamphone and fenchone results from their tests for all the samples.

It's interesting to see that there are wide variations in thujone content even among samples from the same maker during the same period -- most likely, the authors felt, due to variability at the time of original distillation and bottling (regional and seasonal variations, herb chemotype, drying conditions, adjustments of recipes, etc.). They also point out that some of the preban makers of highest repute (Dechanet and Berger) had some of the lowest thujone levels measured, despite having all the organoleptic properties that are desirable in the highest quality absinthe. The authors say that they did not find "any evidentiary or investigative support for . . . the proposition that thujone content changes in the bottle, as a result of aging or other factors." Similar results were foind with respect to pinocamphone and fenchone.

There is also a nice chart showing the results for methanol, acetalaldehyde, 1-propanol, 2-/3-methyl-1-butanol, isobutyl alcohol, ethyl acetate and copper. The preban examples "exhibited a very clean base spirit" and "obviously were manufactured using highly rectified alcohol." Only two preban Edouard Pernod samples exceeded the EU's maximum methanol concentrations for neutral alcohol, but the authors point out that these were made with wine spirit which has a higher legal limit than neutral alcohol. The only abnormally high methanol concentration was a bootleg Swiss example from 1953. The authors conclude that "this study did not reveal so much as one sample of preban absinthe that would be in jeopardy as a result of the quality of its base spirit."

Copper and antimony are two other toxins that are commonly supposed to be present in preban absinthe as adulterants, the former to contribute a green color and the latter to simluate the "louche effect" (both on the cheap compared to using herbs). Results showed that both were inconspicuous or unmeasurable in all samples.

The authors do concede that the bottles which were most likely to be saved were of the highest quality from the most reputable manufacturers, as opposed to "those dubious and short-lived marques, usually of Parisian origin, that represented the cheapest, most likely adulterated examples" which were often sold only in cask. They note that "the theoretical likelihood that some of these cheaper products contained significant concentrations of methanol, copper, antimony and/or other likely impurities and adulterants cannot be excluded, although it must be emphasized that no such samples have been discovered thus far."

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There is also: Elke Scholten, Erik van der Linden, and Herve This. The Life of an Anise-Flavored Alcoholic Beverage: Does Its Stability Cloud or Confirm Theory? Langmuir, 24 (5), 1701 -1706, 2008.

The well-known alcoholic beverage Pastis becomes turbid when mixed with water due to the poor solubility of trans-anethol, the anise-flavored component of Pastis in the water solution formed. This destabilization appears as the formation of micrometer-sized droplets that only very slowly grow in size, thus expanding the life of the anise-flavored beverage. The slow growth has been attributed to an extremely low interfacial tension of the droplets. Fitting experimental droplet growth rates to an Ostwald ripening model, interfacial tensions were deduced in the past. Direct determination of the interfacial tensions was not yet reported on these systems. We have measured the interfacial tensions and used these data to predict droplet growth rates using an Ostwald ripening model and a model for creaming of the droplets. The interfacial tension was measured to be about 11 mN/m for a 30/70 w/w % ethanol/water mixture, and it decreases slightly to a value of 1.4 mN/m in the case of a 70/30 w/w % ethanol/water mixture. These values are not as low as those deduced in the past. The theoretical predictions for both the Ostwald ripening rates and the creaming rates, using the directly measured interfacial tensions, are found to contradict with the experimental results on Ostwald ripening and creaming. While the experiments on Ostwald ripening show an increase in stability with increasing ethanol concentration, the results based on our interfacial tension measurements in combination with the same Ostwald ripening model show a decrease in stability with an increase in ethanol concentration. Further research is needed to understand fully which parameters play a role in both droplet growth and the stability of these three-component emulsions to elucidate the current discrepancy between model and experiment. This could be useful for a better control of "spontaneous emulsification" processes.

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It's interesting to see that there are wide variations in thujone content even among samples from the same maker during the same period -- most likely ... due to variability at the time of original distillation and bottling (regional and seasonal variations, ... etc.).

Entirely reasonable. As they indicate, thujone concentration in the starting wormwood (A. absinthium) has some range. (It's listed in botanical chemistry references, and reproduced in many absinthe tutorials.) Also, a physical attribute I cited some years (!) back in this thread suggests, even if you didn't know the actual result, reduction of thujone from the initial alcoholic macerate to the final distillate: Thujone's boiling temp. is in the same neighborhood of alcohol's but is higher.

This excellent recent careful analysis of pre-ban absinthes (Lachenmeier et al.) has gotten some circulation online already. It adds deeper understanding to the firmly-established point of low thujone content in absinthes, and helps to reduce long-obsolete absinthe mythology. In my opinion we still have some way to go before that mythology is gone. Echoes of Magnan's late-1800s anti-thujone campaign still surface in presuppositions that thujone is "toxic," that its avoidance is a priority concern in absinthes, and its absence a boon. Or (separate point) even a revelation.

("Toxic" isn't a yes-no but a quantitative attribute. Everything is lethal at some dosage, even water. Since about the 1930s, science has known and publicized that thujone is in many herbs including herbs commonly eaten. Many ingested substances cause convulsions in high dose, including alcohol and the vegetable xanthines -- caffeine etc. The latter at similar dosages to thujone. Long-public data imply that the strength or lack of thujone has no effect on the lethal dosage level of an absinthe, because alcohol dominates it by a factor of a hundred or more. And writers on the new low-absinthe thujone analyses might enrich their results by placing them in context of the published claims of chemical analysis showing thujone-free absinthe already in the early 1900s.)

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What I found especially interesting was that the study seemed to show that it's entirely possible to have an absolutely top quality absinthe with virtually no thujone.

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What I found especially interesting was that the study seemed to show that it's entirely possible to have an absolutely top quality absinthe with virtually no thujone.

Can you elaborate on why you found that interesting, slkinsey?

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