Artemisia absinthium or grande wormwood is a herb used as one of the essential ingredients in the production of absinthe. This tall-growing herbaceous plant is found throughout Europe and leaves a taste that is most commonly described as being bitter. In the early part of the 20th Century it achieved a level of infamy which would seem at odds with its historic use as a herbal remedy. As early as 1550BC it has been recorded as an ingredient in hundreds of medicines for many different uses, most notably as an antiseptic and a ward against fever. Pythagoras later recommended its use to relieve pain during childbirth. In fact it is the medical use of Artemisia absinthium that would have recommended it to the central character in Absinthe’s own creation myth, Dr Pierre Ordinaire.
The problems that people perceived to stem from the herb are inseparable from the problems that were widely associated with the drinking of absinthe in general. At the start of the 20th Century governments in Western Europe as well as the USA used absinthe as a scapegoat to symbolise many of the problems of the period, most notably the rampant alcoholism evident at the time. This use of absinthe as a scapegoat lead to the spread of rumours concerning its effects which naturally grew and warped the further they were spread and the more that they were told. Eventually the idea became widespread that wormwood produced a hallucinogenic reaction in anyone who drank absinthe; an idea which was popularised by both its enemies and proponents. While temperance movements naturally used the reported hallucinatory effects of the drink to ward people off it even after it had been banned, artists such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van-Gogh who were well known absinthe drinkers helped enforce this image through the vibrant distorted nature of their paintings.
These misconceptions result from the presence of thujone in Artemisia absinthium and of course in traditional absinthe as well. If consumed in sufficient an amount thujone can certainly create a hallucinatory effect on the brain and the amount of it initially assumed to be contained within absinthe certainly would have done so. However, research has shown that these estimates exaggerated the amount of the compound in traditional absinthes, largely as a result of the distilling process greatly reducing its concentration. Other reports which have stated thujone to have a similar effect to THC the active ingredient in cannabis have also proven to be false.
The EU has stipulated that no modern absinthe can contain over 10mg/L of thujone, well below the amount that would have a serious effect on any consumer.