Thujone in Absinthe: Low or High?

by James on May 2, 2009

What is thujone and what are thujone effects? The wormwood plant has an active ingredient called thujone (thuyone in French), a monoterpene ketone, and absinthe drinkers have long noted the difference between low thujone and high thujone absinthes.

High thujone absinthes use more wormwood in the recipe and have less anise (licorice) flavour. Thujone is also found in herbs like tansy, sage and tarragon and these are also used in some absinthe recipes as well. Thujone effects may only be felt in combination with quality high proof alcohol, so forget about smoking it or making cakes :-)

During the decadence of the late 1890’s thujone was all the rage in the brains of the patrons of literary cafes from Paris to Prague. The reason? Absinthe and the process known as “la louche” - a ritual, and an intrinsic part of the amazing absinthe experience.

This ritual involving water, a serrated spoon, and sugar truly liberated the strange powers of thujone from the wormwood in absinthe. Louche is the word used to describe the clouding when iced water hits the green concentrate, absinthe. The louche was originally a kind of yellow opalescence due to the wormwood oils held in suspension in the alcohol being released. It should be stressed that in real old absinthe this was mainly the wormwood oils being liberated and in modern copies this is unfortunately largely replaced by anise (licorice) just like with ouzo.

As the alcohol concentration drops, the terpenoids come out of solution to form a yellow opalescence. This louche effect is retained in modern absinthe substitutes (pastis, such as Pernod and Ricard), which are rich in anise but contain no thujone”

British Medical Journal
Professor John Strang, King’s College, London

The power of thujone had been recognised since the mists of time but in the smoky cafes loved by bohemian Parisians like Verlaine they reached their mystical peak. The Green Hour or “La Heure Verte” became a set fixture for early evening inebriation of a very special kind!

All manner of claims have been made for the inspiration that was found during La Heure Verte. It is probably true that writers like Rimbaud and Verlaine, who had a tumultuous affair with absinthe and each other, were inspired by their copious quantities of liquid alchemy. Thujone has a chemical structure which was once believed to be very similar to THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol is the active ingredient in cannabis), wormwood itself has even been prescribed to assist with perception, thinking and memory.

So does Absinthe really help great thinkers or great drinkers? Maybe both is the simple answer, with the stress on maybe.

Hang on! A 70% proof alcoholic drink that does what? Curious indeed as one does not normally associate alcohol with improved perception or thought - quite the contrary in fact!

Toxin in absinthe makes neurons run wild by Corinna Wu (Science News)

Drinkers of absinthe describe a clear headed form of inebriation and a form of thinking which seems at odd with any other experience they have had. Amazingly research in 2001 has suggested that wormwood and even certain other ingredients in Absinthe cause “CNS cholinergic receptor binding activity” and according to the scientists this improves cognitive functions. The secret of the Green Fairy and the tulips that blossomed from a café floor in front of Oscar Wilde’s absinthe bottle may be science fact rather than romantic fiction.

So here are two descriptions of the absinthe effect, one historic and one modern:

“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.”

Oscar Wilde (1890s)

“Thujone brightens colours and gives them a tendency to strobe, without transforming them into flames and snakes and other scary stuff. Plus you can still understand people when they are talking, only their voice is seriously out of sync with their lips and every gesture seems hyper-exaggerated. It’s kind of like watching an animated cartoon drawn by Picasso with dialogue by Frank Zappa. And that is why I dance with the Green Fairy”

The Free-Floating Hallucination
Lone Star Nirvarna by Richard Eugene

Please feel free to share your experiences and perhaps help to unlock the mystery of the absinthe effect.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Roche 06.30.09 at 5:53 pm

Your assertion that Absinthe is not primarily an anise liquor is grossly mistaken. An original 19th C. recipe calls for 4x the quantities of anise and fennel over wormwood.

Grande absinthe sèche et mondée… 2 kilog. 500 gram.
Anis vert 5 kilos.
Fenouil de Florence 5 kilos.
Alcool à 85° 95 litres.

Anon 08.17.09 at 12:37 am

My experience has been that absinthe gives a clarity of thought and an elevation to one’s mood that simply isn’t present in other drinks. I tried to explain it to a friend:

“It’s a really delightful, refreshing drink. With enough, you’ll feel the effects of the alcohol (much like drinking several shot of [insert mundane liquor here]), but without the dulled senses or heavy feeling you’re used to. In fact, you’ll find your senses to be somewhat *heightened*, rather than dulled”.

I also get an effect after a particularly heavy night with la fee verte which I call “contrast”…. things seem visually to be crystal-clear… but at a distance, they take on an almost two-dimensional look. Across a room, I can clearly tell the distance at which my friend is standing, but at that distance, he almost looks like a cardboard cut-out.

Anyone else ever experience this?

wade mcleod 11.28.09 at 3:45 am

my absinthe experiences vary from one drinking episodes to the next,but there are constants the seem to happen every time i drink absinthe. the first affect is pretty nice,a nice flush warm feeling spreads throughout your body,a euphoric feeling is affect #2,very nice and gives a great feeling of well being. now these next affects are kinda intermittent,and don’t always happen.mental clarity,this is a very cool effect,and makes you see things in a new way.varying visual,effects these generally range from barely noticeable to pretty strong(generally this depends on the brand and thujone content),there are other effects,but they can be attributed to alcohol,so i cant say one way or the other. i can say that brand,and thujone content do make a difference.

Danny 08.13.10 at 5:19 am

i have been drinking absinthe for few years now, i found it intersting, it is like the key to the back of the mind.
i still would love to try some of the strong Absinthe? any recommendations

Ivar 07.04.12 at 11:43 am

I have bought a bottle of german absinth apertif “own brand”, from the blue bottle company. I dont think this is a commonly used absinthe. Because i cant find much about it on the internet. But does anyone know the wormwood/thujone level in this one?

Leandro 09.22.12 at 12:16 am

this blog was definitely the most eearnttining comment string I’ve read in a long time. 4th one that I’ve read on the subject and though I’ve only tried absinthe twice, I feel like I could set a few people straight already.Here are the highlights:1. Absinthe has been made and marketed lots of different ways throughout history.2. Le Tourment Vert is not consistent with some of those ways, and consistent with others.& 3. Marketing companies go to great lengths to service their clients.Now for my review. I’m a TX local bar manager, I’ve worked in the service industry for almost 8 years, have earned recognition both locally and nationally for cocktail recipes/crafting, and am a level 1 Sommelier.Overall it’s a great product, well marketed, well crafted for it’s purpose and audience, well presented and well priced.I definitely recognized what I would Identify as a louge when preparing the drink in a traditional manner.I certainly recognized the distinct characteristics of anise, wormwood, and fennel, as well as many other notes some might call favorable and others not so much.I’m all about approachable Particularly with things like Absinthe. purrists cry fowl, calling LTV a perverse imitation. It is not, it is not the same thing, it is a modern and different conception of something else, that is all.It’s like making a movie out of a book, and then remaking the movie. The book was first a story, and the story first a thought, everything changes in stages of time.What makes these new manifestations, AWESOME is their ability to reach new audiences. To create an experience for someone that may not have chosen or had the option to experience it otherwise. That is beauty..You may look down on those that praise the film.. or the remake of the film, because you feel like you were a part of something closer to the truth, to it’s inception. That somehow your experience is more valid because of it. I cannot say that you are wrong, only that as human beings, we must learn to accept each others experiences as valid. While the debate itself offers insight, the kind of abhorrent dissension that is often displayed by one party or another serves no purpose at all.Furthermore it weakens your point..Seek clarity, repugnance is a sign of strong passion, you clearly have something worth saying but do so in such a way that your words make it beyond the ears of those in the quire with you and into the community.

Randy Ward 12.23.12 at 7:42 pm

I just recently found out about absinth and being a writer I would like to know more and where I could make a purchase in USA.

Rebel 01.01.13 at 4:51 am

I had absinthe twice, the first being that warm feeling inside of your body, whereas the outside feels like a cold breeze. There was a good feeling of doing whatever, I was energetic and calm at the same time. Things were blurry but I could still focus on them. The last thing that day was what I thought was a halucigenic effect, very slight of a a random waterfall coming out of a still pond. The second time I drank it was at night, all what happened were my shadows were more obvious and kept popping up in different numbers, my sense of smell also was heightened to the point where I could smell everything as one smell, which was cool, my thinking was slightly improved. It was a great experience.

WormWoodYes 11.28.13 at 3:55 am

If you can get a bottle of Korean Cherry Vinegar (Hong-Cho) and add it to the mix. It really will release the Thujone and add a most interesting flavor. I cut my Green Fairy with Soju– and it works.

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