Well, in fact, absinthe isn’t quite that terrible, quite that addictive, though it has aroused some remarkably strong passions. It does indeed pack quite a chemical punch, most of them derived from the genus Artemisia. Artemis, you will recall, was the Greek goddess of forests and hills, child birth, virginity, fertility, the hunt, and often was depicted as a huntress carrying a bow and arrows, though it is not clear quite why such a ‘grande dame’ was associated with plants more commonly called ‘wormwoods’. They were, and are, so called because intestinal parasites hated the stuff and left as soon as it was consumed.
Wormwood has been listed amongst materia medica since ancient times. It is mentioned in the Ebers papyrus as a vermifuge in 1550 BC. Dioscorides suggested it and because he did, doctors were using it into the 20th century.
More generally, the Greeks also used it as a remedy for jaundice, as a moth-killer and mouse-killer amongst stored clothing.
Surprisingly, considering its extreme bitterness, they also used it as a digestive and a flavouring for wine. It was a popular summertime drink in the regions of Propontis and Thracia.
At least by the 16th century, it had become clear that the wormwoods consist of a number of species. All are pungent leafed shrubs or herbaceous perennials, with an annual or two thrown in for good measure.
Many are still in the garden. Some, like the silver leafed Artemisia pontica (called Old Warrior, or Roman Wormwood), the shrubby and grey green A. abrotanum (Southernwood, sometimes Lad’s Love on account of its supposed aphrodisiac powers), A. lactiflora, A. absinthium, and of course the familiar A. Dracunuculus (dragons, or tarragon), are still in use for their original purposes.
As domestic and culinary cleanliness improved, the neeed for vermifuges lessened. Many found dramatic new uses for themselves. They often moved on to other organs. Culpeper’s ‘English Physician and Complete Herbal’ of 1651, says of the virtues of Artemisia: ‘… to expel worms in children, or people of ripe age. … (the leaves) made into a light infusion, strengthen digestion, correct acidities, and supply the place of gall, where, as in many constitutions, that is deficient.’ Gerard says pretty much the same: it “…voideth away the wormes of the gut… strengthen and comforteth the stomacke… yeeldeth strength to the liver also cureth the yellow jaundice.”
If the worms couldn’t cope with the sesquiterpenes that give the leaves their sour, pungent smell, the same sesquiterpenes and flavonoids also have a stimulating effect on the some of the specialised cells of the lower part of the stomach called the antrum, increasing their secretion of gastric juices. Digestion really is thereby improved. They also stimulate the gall bladder to squeeze its bile into the gut, aiding later stages of digestion too.
Following the ‘bon vivants’ of Propontis and Thracia, Artemisia absinthium and others became used, when combined with wine, as a digestive. The combination was often taken before a meal, or even throughout the day.
Dr. John Hill recommended in 1772 the closely related Common Wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris) in many forms. He says: ‘The Leaves have been commonly used, but the flowery tops are the right part….. One ounce of the Flowers and Buds should be put into an earthen vessel, and a pint and a half of boiling water poured on them, and thus to stand all night. In the morning the clear liquor with two spoonfuls of wine should be taken at three draughts, an hour and a half distance from one another. Whoever will do this regularly for a week, will have no sickness after meals, will feel none of that fulness so frequent from indigestion, and wind will be no more troublesome; if afterwards, he will take but a fourth part of this each day, the benefit will be lasting.’
This recipe is a water extraction, leaving all the essential oils still in the plant. These need alcohol to dissolve them. Hill was aware of this, and goes on… ‘ if an ounce of these flowers be put into a pint of brandy and let to stand six weeks, the resultant tincture will in a great measure prevent the increase of gravel – and give great relief in gout. … The celebrated Baron Haller has found vast benefit by this; and myself have very happily followed his example.’ He also notes that the common wormwood is the ‘most delicate, but of least strength. The Wormwood wine, so famous with the Germans, is made with Roman Wormwood, put into the juice and work’d with it; it is a strong and an excellent wine, not unpleasant, yet of such efficacy to give an appetite that the Germans drink a glass with every other mouthful, and that way eat for hours together, without sickness or indigestion.’ These German infusions were called ‘vermuts’. Or vermouths.
At the end of the century, a new patent medicine appeared in Switzerland. Its origin is often attributed to a man called Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, and to the year 1792. Used as a cure-all, it was speedily nicknamed “La Fee Verte”. It combined most of the Artemisia species during some stage of its preparation. It also included melissa (Melissa officinalis, or sweet balm), angelica (Angelica archangelica), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and large quantities of anise and fennel. The artemisias were distilled in alcohol, in an attempt to leave the worst of their bitterness behind. The distillate was then further flavoured with Roman wormwood (A. pontica) and the other herbs to give its final taste and colour. It ended up being intensely flavoured, immensely alcoholic, and, in the bottle, a glittering light peridot green. Diluted with water in the glass, it turned opalescent as the dissolved oils came out of solution. The medicine slowly caught on.
The recipe was brought to France in the early 1800’s by a Major Dubied, who purchased it from the sisters Henriod. It is uncertain how it became the sisters’ property. However, Dubied’s son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod set up a factory for its production at Pontarlier, France, in 1805. The major seems to have ensured that the cure-all was sold to the army. It was used by French troops fighting in Algeria from 1844-1847. They needed something to protect them against fever and fatigue. Many soldiers developed a taste for it, and wanted to keep it near to hand when they returned to France.
Better still, the word had spread that it was an aphrodisiac (perhaps from its use of southernwood). There were also whispers that it was a mild hallucinogen. There were vaguer whispers still that it was addictive. In other words, it was dangerous.
If so, then avante garde artists and their hangers on, the racier parts of high society and their hangers on too, all wanted to try it. The absinthe market grew like wild fire. It was expensive at first, so other distilleries set up to make cheaper versions. There were substitutions in the plants used. More dangerous ones crept in. In the mid -1870s, phylloxera attacked the vineyards and destroyed the vines. Wine and brandy prices rose drastically. Absinthe manufacturers turned from using now expensive brandy to grain alcohol. This was abundant and still cheap. Suddenly, absinthe was available to everyone. Competing brands fuelled public interest with advertisements suggesting that it was merely a healthy, herbal tonic
No cheap one admitted that its product was no longer coloured with fresh herbs, but with poisonous copper salts. Some of the posters, even of the deadliest concoctions, were exceptionally elegant. Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Pablo Picasso, Artur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Alistair Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire all sat and drank it, watching the inhabitants of passing carriages or the drivers of cars.. Van Gogh may have sliced off his ear under its influence. Toulouse-Lautrec made a special concoction called ‘atremblement de terre’, or ‘earthquake’, which combined absinthe and cognac. Some lesser folk combined absinthe with red or white wine instead of water. Purists drank it neat.
In 1874, France consumed 700,000 litres of absinthe. By 1910, the French drank 36,000,000 litres. It was becoming a social threat. It became associated with epileptic seizures, with orgiastic behaviour and sexual diseases, with corrupted artists and with criminals. Sensational murders were supposedly committed under its influence. It was soon banned in Holland, Belgium, and Brazil.
It had also taken root in America. Horrified by both alcohol and license, United States health officials imposed a ban on the drink in 1912, even though it continued to be available if the devotee knew what sort of hair tonic to buy.
France finally banned it too in 1915. French aperitif makers, including Pernod, were creative. They designed new aperitifs that did not include any of the supposedly dangerous wormwood, but had far more anise and just as much alcohol.
The chemical usually blamed for absinthe’s exotic reputation is alpha-thujone. It is widespread in the plant world, and is particularly to be found in other herbs like sage (Salvia officinalis), though there are some very strange salvias, and tansy (Tanacetum officinalis). Fennel and anise have plenty too.
The new vermouths and types of pastis ended up containing almost as much alpha-thujone as the strongest absinthes. Alpha-thujone, administered in large enough doses, can indeed cause epileptic fits, at least in laboratory rats. The rats also exhibit a host of other odd symptoms. The rat dosages, though, were the equivalent to a human drinker with thousands of glasses of absinthe. Perhaps the sexual arousal, the hallucinations, the deep mysteries of absinthe were more in the drinkers’ minds than in the glass…
[This is a slightly modified extract from my book DANGEROUS GARDEN, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd and Harvard University Press in 2004]