While I enjoy a good Scotch, good Scotch is expensive Scotch. Thus, I have spent some time experimenting with less expensive tipples. One of my recent forays was into absinthe. I found it okay but not great at first until I learned about the “proper” way to prepare it. Since then, it’s become one of my favorites, on a par with a good Scotch in terms of personal enjoyment.
However, I run into three common myths about absinthe: it’s illegal, it will get you high/cause hallucinations, and it’s toxic.
First, let me dispell that first one. The ban on absinthe was resinded in 2007 making it legal to sell in the United States provided the thujone level (more on that in a moment) is less than 10 parts per million (10 mg per liter specifically). Thujone is the active component in wormwood, the key, defining, ingredients in absinthe, and which is supposedly responsible for the “hallucinatory” and toxic effects. Indeed the scientific name for wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is where absinthe gets its name.
So, yes, you can buy “real” absinthe in the US.
At least some absinthes from before the ban was lifted have been tested and found to be well within the current US legal limit. The highest of 13 tested varieties was about 42 ppm. (And we’ll address that, too, here in a moment.)
The claims of hallucinatory effects of thujone are based on two things: very poor research done by a researcher who believed a-priori that alcohol in general and absinthe in particular was leading to the decline of the French and shape analyses of the molecules which led to guesses (which is all they were) that it would have effects similar to THC. However, that turned out to be false and it’s effect is to cause nerves to fire more easily which can leads to convulsions (i.e. that it’s a neurotoxin) but the dose required is much, much higher than one can practically get even by guzzling absinthe (once again, more on that in a moment). You might get enough to subtly alter the sensation of being “drunk”, but the claimed hallucinatory properties are pure myth. There is simply no evidence of it being a hallucinogen. It is possible that the “easier firing neurons” caused by low levels of thujone can somewhat alter the experience of alcohol’s intoxicating effect, creating a different sensation but hallucinations are not going to be part of that experience, not unless you’re drunk enough to see pink elephants anyway or unless you talk yourself into it in a pure placebo effect.
Now, perhaps you’re worried about that “convulsant/neurotoxin” aspect. That it can cause convulsions certainly sounds bad. However, we can run the numbers. At the legal limit in the US of 10 ppm, a 750 ml bottle of absinthe would have about .75 mg. In tests on mice α-thujone (the most bio-active version) is a convulsant with an LD50 (that is, half of all those receiving that dose die of it) of 45 mg/kg. At 30 mg/kg it had a 0% mortality. For a 90 kg man, that would be 2.7 grams, or about 3600 bottles of absinthe. At the highest tested level in pre-ban absinthes, you would need over 800 bottles of absinthe to hit life-threatening levels. This would have to be done in a relatively short time because thujone is metabolized quickly by the liver. And apparently ethanol inhibits the effect so the thujone would actually be less dangerous in absinthe as compared to the pure thujone used in the study.
The LD50 of ethanol is about 7 g/kg body weight. For a 90 kg man, that’s just over a 630 grams of ethanol, or about one and a half liters of distilled spirits (depending on proof) hitting your bloodstream all at once. It takes time for the alcohol to be absorbed so you would actually need to drink quite a bit more for your body levels to reach immediately lethal concentrations. Even so, the ethanol in eight hundred 750 ml bottles (600 liters) of absinthe would kill you long before you ever reached toxic levels of thujone. One bottle a day for over two years and two and a half months (800 bottles) and I think you’ll have much bigger problems than thujone.
The toxicity of absinthe has a grain of historical truth, however, not because of absinthe itself, but because of a confluence of historical factors. An aphid plague seriously depleted the wine grape crops in France in the mid to late 19th century, causing an extended wine shortage. A lot of people turned to absinthe as an alternate tipple. (Once diluted down in the traditional way for drinking absinthe it’s about the same alcoholic content as wine.) The sudden demand for absinthe drew in some unscrupulous (or perhaps just ignorant) producers. Bad alcohol sources were used but especially copper sulfate was used to produce the characteristic green color. Copper sulfate in the amounts used, is toxic, at least if one drinks substantial amounts (like, say, has a glass or two at every meal). And since absinthe was competition to the wine industry, which, as you’ll recall, was already struggling due to the aphid infestations and subsequent destruction of the wine grape crops) it was in the interests of the wine industry to encourage the belief in the dangers of absinthe as much as possible.
And thus the reputation of absinthe for toxicity was born. Absinthe properly manufactured and properly served is no more toxic than any other drink of similar alcohol content.
So if absinthe is something you’d like to try, feel free. And if it’s something you enjoy, don’t let the myths stop you. Just remember to drink responsibly and read labels carefully. Absinthes do tend to be on the higher side in alcohol content with many varieties being over 140 proof (70% alcohol content), and some novelty varieties as high as 180.