Arty with a Capital F and the Myth of Absinthe

ThujoneI’ve got a bottle of absinthe, at the back of a shelf in our store-cupboard. Unopened this bottle of green uber-liquor languishes untested awaiting an appropriate occasion when a drink containing 70 percent alcohol (140 proof) is required. It’ll probably be the day our cat dies…

Anyway, while my bottle languishes, new research suggests that the psychedelic mythology surrounding this exotic green aperitif and its purported mind-altering effects are due to nothing more than the high concentration of alcohol, plain, old EtOH like you find in wine, beer, and spirits.

The likes of van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso quaffed large quantities of the stuff in the hope that its claimed hallucinogenic effects would enhance creativity. However, analysis of the contents of old bottles of the stuff by scientists in Europe and the US show that there were no psychotropic agents contained in the spiritual brew. Moreover, they found negligible quantities of thujone, a bicyclic compound with a three-membered ring that was widely believed responsible for absinthe’s effects. The results are detailed in the mid-May issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The results brought to mind a high-school dance, when one particularly boastful and eccentric classmate (named Keith) was duped by some older boys into smoking common or garden tea leaves in the mistaken belief that they’d given him a spliff and then swaggered brazenly around the school hall under flashing disco lights claiming everything was, “Sooooo cooooooo, maaaaaan! I can almost picture van Gogh swigging the green grog, slicing off an ear and being endowed with a similar swaggering disposition (albeit in Dutch and with a large wad of surgical dressing pressed to the side of his head).

Absinthe took on legendary status in late 19th-Century Paris among bohemian artists and writers. They believed it expanded consciousness with psychedelic effects and called it the “Green Fairy” and the “Green Muse”.

The laboratory tests, unfortunately for Bohemians everywhere, found no compound other than ethanol that could explain absinthe’s effects nor its potent toxicity. “All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the pre-ban absinthe samples that was able to explain the syndrome of absinthism,” the researchers say. And, there I was hoping for a good drowning of sorrows when our cat has used him his full nonet of lives.

12 thoughts on “Arty with a Capital F and the Myth of Absinthe

  1. I’ll recommend a graphic novel, “The Salon”, where Picasso, Eric Satie, Gertrude Stein, et al, have adventures with Blue absinthe. It’s quite droll.
    I also have made a couple batches of homebrew using wormwood in addition to hops. Really, really, really bitter, but otherwise just a brewski.

  2. Dude, every time I discover a new way to get high, some researcher has to go and prove it’s not gonna work. Way to go, science.

  3. To say that ‘it must be the 70% ethanol’ is very disingenuous. When I’ve drunk it, it was watered, and also it went into a gut full of food and other drink. As a scientist I believe I’m quite objective, but my experiences of definitely odd dreams make me wonder about this report. OK, hardly a psychedelic trip, but certainly interesting. Maybe different brands have different components?

  4. Thanks for the comment Clifford, yes the point about the 70% is well taken, most people would drink it with food or diluted in some way, but I do know people who’ve tried it neat too and a few slugs of that in the stomach is going to get through the gut wall very quickly nevertheless.

    As to bad and weird dreams, don’t you find you have those if you drink a lot of beer/wine/spirits in one assault? I know I do, I think it’s fairly well known that an alcoholic stupor can lead to nightmares. Of course, nightmares are hallucinations, the difference is that you’re not seeing them while you’re awake.

    Finally, the researchers tested different contemporary brands from that period. I don’t believe they analysed modern absinthe, but it would certainly be illegal to add anything to that today that was a known psychotrope.


  5. Narcology (Russian). – 2003. – ?9. – ?. 51-56.

    Wormwood (Artemisia sp.):
    a component of the drugs, supplements available for the addiction and strong beverages.

    ROZHANETS V.V. cand.biol sci., senior researcher of toxicological lab. of National Research Center on Addiction, Ministry of Health, Russian Federation, Moscow

    Review. Data about different means for usage of some Aremisia species in traditional and current medicine with special references to actions available for the drugs, food additives (supplements) in the field of addiction, and absinthe production are presented. Different Aremisia compounds possess hepatoprotective, holagogic, antiulcer, hypoglycaemic and neurotropic activities. It is possible, that some Aremisia preparations are useful for the treatment of alcohol hepatitis and pancreatitis. Now it is evident, that neither thujone nor other Artemisia neurotropic compounds are not responsible for special addictional absinthe effect. At the same time it should be pointed, that the “old absinthe” as a product of special distillation of a complex medicinal and fragrance herbs extract may revealed some unusual addictive actions in the case of chronic ingestion of such beverages.

    Key words: Artemisia, wormwood, monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, sesquiterpenoids, volatile chemicals, flavonoids, coumarins. Hepatoprotective, holagogic, antiulcer, hypoglycaemic antipancreatitic and neurotropic activities. Thujone, artemisinin, absinthe.
    (Review, 86 ref.)

  6. Perhaps a bit of research into the art history that is claimed to be the background for this erudite analysis would apply a more “scientific” result in the assessment of absinthe’s relationship to 19th century artists’ application of its use in their work. Alcohol was most certainly the effective progenitor of relief from stress, but the artists of whom you speak were consumed with creative powers that did not seek chemical enhancement. Nor did these artists find anatomical alterations to their hearing mechanisms related to their choices of thirst quenching medicinals.

  7. An addendum to my comment about wormwood in beer- a recent batch of strong ale with less wormwood, more hops has aged out and is quite good. I’ll have to try some another batch sometime. If I can get the aphids off my wormwood.

  8. I just tried to grab an feed for the RSS to your blogsite but it is not properly showing up in Google Chrome. Any ideas?

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