Absinthe is an emerald green liqueur flavoured with extracts of green anise, Florence fennel and wormwood – a combination sometimes known as the ‘holy trinity’. The medical use of wormwood dates back to antiquity and it is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest preserved medical document. The first evidence of absinthe in the modern sense of a distilled spirit dates to the 18th century.
The exact origins of the drink are unknown. It is often held that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, developed the recipe circa 1792. In 1797, the first absinthe distillery was opened by Henri Louis Pernod. The drink went on to achieve great popularity in late 19th and early 20th-century France. It became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that by the 1860s the hour of 5pm was called the green hour (l’heure verte). By 1910, the French were drinking 36million litres of absinthe per year. Celebrated drinkers of absinthe were Charles Baudelaire, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Owing in part to this association with bohemian culture, consumption of absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and prohibitionists. Absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. It was blamed for a variety of diseases and a syndrome – ‘absinthism’ – was identified. After consuming absinthe, at first the user would have a feeling of well-being but later hallucinations would arise followed by a depressive phase. Prolonged drinking of absinthe caused convulsions, blindness, hallucinations, and mental deterioration. In the syndrome’s advanced state signs of degeneration could be observed which could cause convulsions resulting in death.
The chemical thujone, present in small quantities and deriving from wormwood oil, was blamed for these alleged harmful and hallucinogenic effects. This was based on observations such as those published by Jacques Joseph Valentin Magnan (1835-1916). Magnan exposed various mammals to the vapours of either wormwood oil or alcohol. He reported in 1874 that the animals inhaling the alcohol vapours got drunk, whilst those that inhaled the vapours of wormwood had a heightened risk of epileptic seizures.
By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in most European countries including France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This ban remained largely in place for most of the last century. However many of bans have recently been lifted without any noticeable effects on public health. Absinthe was never banned in the UK and consumption here has always been comparatively low.
The evidence for the true existence of absinthism now looks shaky. It has been suggested that the absolute amounts of thujone in absinthe are so small that its effects are overshadowed by those of ethanol and that it is not possible to distinguish the symptoms of absinthism from those of chronic alcohol abuse. By this reading the hallucinations attributed to absinthism are more properly attributed to either alcoholic hallucinosis or alcohol withdrawal delirium. A further possibility is that the effects reported in the 19th century are not connected with alcohol or to thujone but to the inexpensive toxins, such as copper sulphate, present in cheap absinthe imitations which aimed to mimic the real drink’s characteristic green colour.
Absinthism: a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impact – everything you could want to know about this (and more)