Podcast 175: Herbs A-Z: Artemisia absinthium – Wormwood & Absinthe

We’re turning our attention to all the herbs we keep on the shelves in our apothecary, two at a time, in this ongoing series. (Check out the podcast stream for previous episodes!) We know that we tend to focus on a small group of favorite herbs, and we’re trying to make sure we don’t neglect helpful plants out of habit.

Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is an herb we work with rarely. Yet it has a very long history as a medicinal plant, and it has a particular notoreity as an ingredient in the alcoholic spirit, absinthe. In fact, wormwood – and its constituent, thujone – are often “blamed” for the purported hallucnogenic effects of absinthe. But is this the whole story? Not quite!

Katja leads us on a romp through history, looking at the development of kräuterlikör from folk recipes to commercial liquors. We see how absinthe is one among many such drinks, and wormwood’s place in the formula. We also get some insight from modern science about the actual levels of thujone in these spirits, as well as certain other substances which might better explain their effects. Let’s do some herbal myth-busting!

Mentioned in this episode:

These quick plant profiles done off-the cuff & on-the-spot. If you enjoyed them, we have more! Our organized & comprehensive presentation of our herbal allies is in the Holistic Herbalism Materia Medica course. We have detailed profiles of 90 medicinal herbs! Plus you get everything that comes with enrollment in our courses: twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, discussion threads integrated in each lesson, guides & quizzes, and more.

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This episode was sponsored by Mountain Rose Herbs. We thank them for their support!


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:00:02):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:00:02):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:00:19):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. Well, we’re back to our herbs A to Z series. We’re continuing onwards. Those of you who are really good at the alphabet may have noticed that we’re taking a slight detour. And that might actually happen again, because I realized that Arctostaphylos didn’t get an entry and deserves one.

Katja (00:00:43):
That’s because it was in the wrong place on our shelf.

Ryn (00:00:46):
Yes. So this is the A to Z of our shelf, as it currently exists.

Katja (00:00:50):
This is not every herb in the world A to Z. This is just the herbs that are on the shelf, and not the herbs that are on the shelf in the basement. Although today…

Ryn (00:01:01):
We did bring one up from the basement. The rules are flexible. That’s what’s going on.

Katja (00:01:07):
So, today is artemisia absinthium. And if there’s time also Artemisia vulgaris. So, this is wormwood and mugwort. And I’m pretty excited because y’all, I have a story and he doesn’t know it yet.

Ryn (00:01:23):
And I didn’t peek ahead at the plan here too much. So, I’m going to learn some wormwood facts, I hope.

Katja (00:01:32):
Yes, it’s story time for everyone, including Ryn. It’s going to be really fun.

Ryn (00:01:36):
Yeah. But first let’s give you our reclaimer where we remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (00:01:43):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (00:01:55):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, we’re not trying to present a dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (00:02:09):
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about, and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (00:02:20):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. But it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make.

Katja (00:02:35):
And also we want to say that this episode is being sponsored by Mountain Rose Herbs. So, thank y’all very much, Mountain Rose.

Ryn (00:02:43):

Katja (00:02:45):
Yes. The last time that we were talking about Mountain Rose Herbs, we were talking about how they’re expanding tincture line is so helpful for herbalists working with people online, and how we were talking about this in the business mentorship. Because if you don’t love to ship lots of little packages to the folks that you’re consulting with, which I definitely don’t, you can just give them the links to what they need from the Mountain Rose Herbs tincture line. And then they can order it themselves. And one of the great things about that is that they also then can be self-sufficient. They can reorder it themselves without having to like check in with you, if things are going well, and it’s working for them and they like it.

Ryn (00:03:28):
Yeah. We love to cultivate that kind of self-sufficiency in our clients whenever possible.

Katja (00:03:34):
Yes. So, I was thinking about how the tincture line came as a surprise to some of my business students, and they were so delighted about it. And so I wanted to share that that is in fact not all they have. It’s not just like bulk herbs and oh hey, a tincture line. They have other stuff too. And I wanted to talk about their tea blends, because they are pretty great. I’m a particular fan of the Berry Bramble blend, which is like all of the antioxidants right there in one teacup. It’s berries. It’s leaves. It’s awesome.

Ryn (00:04:08):
They have a good turmeric ginger one that we’ve got before.

Katja (00:04:11):
Yeah. That one is really delicious. Listen, I’m not a fan of turmeric. But they put in ginger and like all the lemony herbs. So, it’s really good. It’s nice for your guts. It’s excellent.

Ryn (00:04:23):
Yeah, for sure. So, if you’re new and you’re not sure about formulating yet, you can try some of these tea blends and see what you like about them. And then take that as a starting point for your own formulation experiences, you know?

Katja (00:04:35):
Oh. And also if you want to send tea blends to your clients, if you’re consulting online, then you also can use the Mountain Rose Herbs tea blend section as a little blend apothecary.

Ryn (00:04:50):
Ready-made, yeah. Cool. So again, that’s MountainRoseHerbs.com. If you didn’t know already, well now you do. Okay. So, shall we talk about wormwood?

Katja (00:05:01):
I’m so excited. So listen, I have never – like to be completely honest here – I’ve never been a huge fan of wormwood. It was quite popular in the late eighties and early nineties when I was learning with folks who were really into cleansing and parasites. But that has never really been my style. And since mugwort is so delicious, I never really got into wormwood. Because wormwood is not so delicious.

Ryn (00:05:31):
Not delicious.

Katja (00:05:33):
It’s not delicious. But it’s an herb with a very fun story. And even though it’s not delicious, it also is an herb with a lot of skills and talents. So, they’re worth talking about.

Ryn (00:05:44):
Yeah. It has some potency.

Artemisia absinthium: Wormwood & its Properties

Katja (00:05:47):
Yeah. Incidentally, the Latin Artemisia absinthium. Absinthium here actually comes from the Greek, and it means undrinkable.

Ryn (00:05:54):
Oh, for real?

Katja (00:05:57):
Yeah. And it is true, ya’ll. Absinthe is just, I mean wormwood is just so bitter. It’s really bitter. So, you had put in here a note from Cook in 1869.

Ryn (00:06:12):
Oh, right. Yeah. Here’s a little piece of a quote from a write-up about this. Commenting that it makes a good fomentation in sprains and rheumatism and other subacute difficulties about the joints and in bruises and local congestions. And then a little bit later in the write-up Cook was saying that the oil is not used internally, but makes a good ingredient in liniments designed for sprains, bruises, congestion of the kidneys and uterus and other places where an outward application needs to be strengthening as well as stimulating. And I picked out just these two little quotes from the write-up. The rest of it has some other things that you might expect, and that I’m sure you’re going to address around stimulation of digestion and menstrual activity and so on. But I liked this about the topical applications for wormwood, right? Because both of these things that I’ve selected out here are about working with wormwood as a topical herb. And it’s really about the stimulation and the movement that the herb can provide. But they also used this word strengthening, which I might connect to like a tonifying activity, or even to improve the contractibility of the muscles in that area too.

Katja (00:07:28):
Yeah, it’s funny because I have never really thought about wormwood in that way. I really have it in the digestive and yeah, menstrual, but mostly digestive box. And kind of in that centaury place, and that is not unreasonable. Even back to 1525 BCE, the Eber’s papyrus. And now listen, that papyrus, like all of the other historical documents that we reference when we’re talking about Hippocrates or whatever, these are summarizations of things that people knew previously. Most of that stuff was not like novel at the time it was being documented. And I’m not saying that not a single thing was novel at the time, because people are always like trying new things. But when we talk about these historical documents like this, it is typically an indication of ways that people were already working with the plants. So, predictably in this papyrus, they were in fact writing about lots of digestive stuff. And really specifically like the remedy for drinking bad water, all the things you would expect.

Ryn (00:08:47):
Right. Yeah. I mean the herb has some pretty notable antimicrobial qualities to it for sure. Yeah, I mean we’ll probably end up talking about malaria at some point today.

Katja (00:08:57):
And so listen, if it were just that. If the only thing about wormwood was oh, bad water. Put it in your whatever. Then honestly wormwood wouldn’t really be any more interesting than centaury. And I want to be clear that centaury is of course a wonderful herb.

Ryn (00:09:15):
It’s a very excellent herb. Yes. I mean it is extremely bitter. And it doesn’t come up as often as I think it really should in a lot of herbal discussions. And I think the real culprit here is that people got used to working with gentian. And if you want like a very pure, simple, straightforward, bitter herb, gentian will totally do that job for you. And it became kind of the standard.

Katja (00:09:39):
But gentian doesn’t even come up anymore. This is a type of work that we really don’t do much anymore, because sanitation. As soon as we started cleaning the water, we no longer needed daily I’ve got to keep my digestive system…

Ryn (00:10:00):
Yeah. And also have something that’s got powerful enough bitter agents in it that it can like literally stun an intestinal worm, and help you to get it out of you.

Katja (00:10:11):
Right. And so, you know, I think that like centaury, which unless you’re a student at our school or if you listen to the pod, because Ryn loves it so much would be an herb that… Or like, I guess if you were an herbalist in Switzerland, maybe. If you’re listening in Switzerland, you can let us know. If you’re not in one of those three categories, then centaury probably is not super familiar to you. And I think wormwood would fall into that category, honestly just like gentian. Gentian is just not that common either these days, simply because that category of action is just not as necessary anymore. But here’s the thing, wormwood has this association with absinthe, and that makes it kind of infamous.

Ryn (00:10:54):
Infamous absinthe. Yes. Right. The green liqueur with the fairy motif turned up in, what, Moulin Rouge, a bunch of other places in there. Yeah. The Nine Inch Nails video for the perfect drug. He’s making absinthe in there. Pouring the water over the sugar cube, and then the thing all turns… okay, well. That stuff, right? You remember.

Kräuterlikörs & Their Content

Katja (00:11:17):
Okay. So, let’s talk a little bit about the story of absinthe, because wormwood is really wrapped up in the story of absinthe. And this is actually not the story of wormwood at all. Like poor wormwood got swept up in a scandal that actually had nothing to do with wormwood. And I think that makes this story so fascinating. All right. So, the recipe for a thing that is called absinthe was originally developed in the Bavarian region of Germany, although at that time it wasn’t called Bavaria yet. And to be clear, this kind of drink had been popular for a very long time. Hildegard Von Bingen writes about kräuterlikör. And that is like herbs liquor. She did not invent it. So, we’re back to these historical documents, right? But she just documented it, and she may have had her own particular recipe. But there were lots and lots and lots of variations on these kräuterlikör. And the medicinal application of these were mostly digestive focused. And again, given the state of water and sanitation in general, that’s a thing that they needed a lot of support for. And also the various recipes that I’ve found all contained herbs as well that had a lot of respiratory support action. Which, again, if we think about the time, the biggest complaints that people had besides, I don’t know, farm accidents were digestive problems and respiratory problems.

Ryn (00:13:01):
Yeah, febrile illnesses that spread respiratory route, yeah.

Katja (00:13:04):
Right. Exactly. So it makes sense that these preparations would be focusing in those areas. So, you might not have ever had any experience with absinthe. It only just became re-legalized, I don’t know, 2005. I have the date later in my notes. But you might be familiar with Jägermeister. That is another kräuterlikör that you may have come across in your times, but even still today. I mean at this time there were tons of them. But even still today there are lots of them. It’s just that here in the states, and they have such a weird flavor, that if it’s not something you’re super into, probably Jäger is the only one you’ve ever heard of.

Ryn (00:13:54):
Yeah. We’ve picked up a couple of these over the years. I liked the one that’s called Riga Black Balsam. I have to say it that way. I don’t know why. I really liked that one. It feels like it has a lot of evergreen and cedar elements to it, at least from what I remember last time we had some.

Katja (00:14:10):
That seems good. Okay, so you might be thinking well, what are these herbs? Typically fennel and anise form a very strong core for these. And then it might be described fennel, anise, and a load of other herbs, right? So, always we’re looking in these digestive areas. So, when we try to describe that load of other herbs a little bit more descriptively, there’s always some bitters going on in there. Always some warming stimulants.

Ryn (00:14:46):
Yeah. Including calamus in some recipes for absinthe that I’ve encountered.

Katja (00:14:50):
Angelica root. And okay, so wait, what did I say? Bitters, warming stimulants, and some respiratory plants. So, this may be like mint area plants.

Ryn (00:15:02):
Have you seen any with elecampane? That could be intriguing. I would see where that would kind of hit all three of those points.

Katja (00:15:08):
It would, and I did not make a note of that.

Ryn (00:15:10):
Well, when we make our own kräuterlikör we can include elecampane there.

Katja (00:15:14):
Yes. And you’ll see also that a bunch of nutritionals end up in some of these recipes. Some of them call for nettle or parsley. One even calls for spinach. And we’re going to talk about spinach later too. So, kind of crossing that line between… I mean, at this time nettle was food too. Nobody would’ve considered that medicine. Okay. So, and in this pile of herbs, if we’re talking specifically about absinthe, then wormwood was in the mix as well. Now listen, wormwood would have been in other variants of these recipes too, but right now we’re talking about absinthe. And wormwood of course, was a key figure, and it’s not an unreasonable addition. Because even though today, like in 2000 whatever, parasites are not nearly as common as the internet wants you to believe, at that time it’s really important to remember people were dumping sewage into the rivers, and then taking buckets of water back to their houses to drink like in the same river. And cholera was a huge, huge problem. Really until like 1893, I think was the last major cholera epidemic in Hamburg. And so in the sort of German speaking region, since we’re kind of in that region right now, 1893 I believe was the last major outbreak. So, honestly that wasn’t that long ago. Until they invented sanitation systems and also convinced people to stop, you know… Like even once they invented the sanitation systems, I’m pretty sure they still were dumping the poop in the rivers. They just weren’t taking the water out right after dumping the poop to drink. I just, okay. Anyway, I don’t understand why people didn’t know better than that, but they didn’t. My point here is that because of this, including these herbs with these anthelmintic actions was really important, because it really did impact people’s everyday lives. But you have probably heard other things about absinthe. In fact you probably never heard that it was respiratory support and helping fight off cholera,

Ryn (00:17:34):
Digestive disinfectant.

The Actual Story of Absinthe

Katja (00:17:35):
Right. Probably you did not hear that. Probably all you ever heard was that it was a hallucinogen, and it was outlawed. And that the thujone content from wormwood is what causes the hallucinations. All of these are really common stories. You may have heard that famous artists were inspired by the hallucinogenic actions of absinthe. But actually the wormwood aspect of these claims doesn’t really bear out. There is a very exciting history around absinthe. But it doesn’t really key in on the wormwood at all. Although at various points in history, including as late as 1992, all sorts of people have made very official proclamations that it was in fact the wormwood and the thujone content. Yeah. So, this story is really fun. And I love any kind of story that romps through history. And this particular history has some really interesting stuff going on. Some of it has some interesting parallels with today as well. So let’s dig into it. There is this book that I just learned about, and I’m very excited to read it. It’s called… well, it’s actually called Absinthe – Die Wiederkehr der Grünen Fee: The Return of the Green Fairy by Mathias Bröckers, Chris Heidrich, and Roger.. you know, Liggenstorfer. But I’m actually not sure how he says Roger. Roger Liggenstorfer. And this book was brought to my attention by this excellent podcast that I love, that I’m going to talk about in a minute. But there’s one other paper that we’re going to link to in the show notes, because that one is in English. And that is Absinthism: A Fictitious 19th Century Syndrome with Present Impact. And that is by Stephan Padosch, Dirk Lachenmeier & Lars Kröner. And the link to that is in the show notes. So, I love this podcast. It’s by two history professors. One is in Vienna, and one is in Hamburg. And it is called Geschichten aus der Geschichete. And if you’re a German speaker, or in this particular case if you don’t mind Austrian, then it’s episode 298.

Ryn (00:20:17):
Is that…I’m not great at German. Is that like facing the faces?

Katja (00:20:20):
No. Well…

Ryn (00:20:22):
Faces of the face?

Katja (00:20:25):
No. Geschichete, it’s history.

Ryn (00:20:27):
Oh, history of the history.

Katja (00:20:28):
Yes. It’s also story. It’s stories out of history. But it’s funny, because it looks like it’s history out of history.

Ryn (00:20:36):
Stories of the story. Yeah, all right.

Katja (00:20:38):
Yeah. It’s funny in German and funny in English. Yeah. Okay. So anyway, if you are a German speaker, then you can check out episode 298. Except one of them is Austrian, so does that make it zwei hundert acht und neunzig? I think it’s the “zwo” there and not “zwei.” Anyway, it’s quite entertaining is what I’m trying to tell you. And in this episode one of the professors had been doing a lot of work around this. And he gave a really excellent recap of the whole story, which I thoroughly enjoyed and will include in this. But we’re going to put in a bunch of extra herbal commentary here, because this is an herbalism podcast. So lots of kräuterlikörs, and like with lots of these things – so like craft beverages, right? Craft beer, craft cider, artisanal whatever – there were lots of secret recipes and all that goes with secret recipes. Right, you know, just lots of secrecy.

Ryn (00:21:44):
Right. You had mentioned Jägermeister as an example of such a substance. And it was like two-ish years ago that a distributor for Jäger in the U.S. came to me and asked me if I would teach a class about some of the herbs that are in Jägermeister to a bunch of bartenders here in town, and teach them a little bit about making their own cocktail bitters and things. And it was really fun. And I kept trying to get them to give me a complete list of all of the… what is it, 72 herbs or something that’s in Jägermeister. And they were like no, not at all. But we’ll tell you some of them. And I was able to organoleptically detect some others that I’m certain are in there. And it’s a very fun exercise. But yeah, trade secret, man.

Katja (00:22:31):
Yes. All of the secrecy. So the recipe for absinthe as a sort of specific variant of this craft beverage universe seems to trace back to a certain Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who moved from France to Bavaria in the 1760s. Except that when you get into this…

Ryn (00:22:56):
Doctor Ordinary Pete.

Katja (00:22:57):
Yes. Pete Ordinary.

Ryn (00:22:58):
Yeah, all right. Why not?

Katja (00:23:02):
It turns out predictably that this is actually a pseudonym, and it seems reasonably verifiable that it was actually a woman named Ariette Orieaux – I don’t know, my French is terrible – who actually invented this particular recipe, the base for this recipe, possibly as early as 1737. And possibly that this Pierre Ordinaire was a pseudonym because, you know, a women in a man’s world. But in the end it’s Henri Louis Pernod who actually begins to produce absinthe commercially, I guess we would say, mass producedly. Neither of these words are really quite right at this point in history, because it’s 1797. But he’s the big name of absinthe at the time.

Ryn (00:23:54):
And Pernod is like still an alcohol spirits company to this day, no?

Katja (00:24:00):
Yes. And so in 1805 he moves to France and creates the first absinthe distillery there. And again, it’s not actually the first, right -because people were making these craft kräuterlikörs in their kitchens and whatever – but the first, what I’m going to call, commercial absinthe distillery to corner the French market as it were. And in France absinthe first became popularized with soldiers who were colonizing Algeria at the time. They really liked it as an antiparasitic. They had other options. But here’s the thing, absinthe has an extremely high alcohol percentage, between 40 and 72% alcohol.

Ryn (00:24:52):
Whereas normal vodka is like 40%.

Katja (00:24:53):
Right, right, right. Absinthe was graded at the time. There were three grades. And good absinthe had to be over 68% alcohol. So, by drinking absinthe they were dealing with the parasites and getting drunk all in one fell swoop. So, you can see why they preferred this to some very bitter tasting tea that did not have the extra benefit of drunkenness.

Ryn (00:25:21):

Katja (00:25:25):
All right. So, absinthe was becoming popular. And then in the 1850s there was a wine plague, the great French wine blight, which incidentally seems to have been imported from the Americas. But for a number of years in the middle of the 1800s, there really wasn’t very much wine. And if you could get it, it was very costly. And by now absinthe was widely available. And more importantly it was cheap, and it was very high percent alcohol. So, it became really, really popular. There was a vacuum, and absinthe was very happy to fill that space.

Ryn (00:26:09):
Wow. All right.

Artists & Absinthe & Uproar

Katja (00:26:10):
Yes. Now there’s another part of this, and that is the starving artist aspect, right? We’ve always had sort of the what…

Ryn (00:26:27):

Katja (00:26:27):
Yes, that’s the perfect word.

Ryn (00:26:27):

Katja (00:26:28):
The archetype of the starving artist, and the 1850s were no exception. In 1859 an artist named Manet – not Monet. These are two different guys in the same time period – Manet, he painted a piece called the absinthe drinker. And it caused a complete uproar. Because at that time absinthe was associated with public drunkenness. And honestly, additionally with being low class, because of that association with public drunkenness, and because of in this country we would call it the puritanical, whatever. I don’t know what they call it there.

Ryn (00:27:08):
Yeah. It’s funny to think of a painting causing an uproar. But if I’m not completely off my rocker, at the time, to unveil and to display a painting was kind of similar to like going to see a movie for us today.

Katja (00:27:23):
Yes. This is not the only absinthe painting that is going to cause an uproar in this story, actually. Yeah. It is funny that way. But as with many things considered by the high class people to be low class, like we’re getting into some sketchy stuff here. But as with many of these kinds of things, it wasn’t just a low class thing. It was something that was being judged by people who had agendas. And so other people thoroughly enjoyed absinthe. And a lot of it was the artists, the intellectuals, the poets, people who at the time referred to themselves as Bohemians, basically the revolutionary class. And now you understand the insulting nature of the 1% saying that it was… yes. So, the revolutionary classes… And listen, at that time there was quite a lot of revolutionary stuff going on. This is a really fascinating time in history. We’re moving from lots of monarchies. There’s lots of, you know, this is the time of Marx. This is a time of a lot of shifting in what government is and what government looks like and what it should be and what it should look like. And the people in power really didn’t like any of these conversations at all. So, like I said, this was not the end of the paintings about absinthe. In fact, there were very many, and also paintings because of absinthe. And there was also quite a bit of controversy around all of that. Degas did one of a couple drinking absinthe, and it caused a huge uproar when it was shown in England in 1893. Because the British were afraid that the French were sending their “drunkards” to England. And I’m pretty sure that was propaganda speak for we don’t want your disruptive ideas rousing the rabble. We’re having enough trouble with Marx and the rest of them here already, thank you very much. Yes, that’s… yes. So, at any rate the picture we’re painting here is that absinthe was a threat to the existing power structures of the time. So, then of course there was van Gogh who was he was an absinthe lush. Like I don’t know what the word would be.

Ryn (00:30:09):

Katja (00:30:10):
And that shows up a lot in his paintings. And there’s been tons said about Monet’s paintings. Especially he went through this like yellow phase and that that was attributed to the wormwood and the hallucinations from absinthe and whatever else. But here’s some foreshadowing. It was not because of hallucinations. I think that a lot of people use Van Gogh’s paintings as proof that the thujone causes hallucinations. And, okay, well wait. I want to be a little bit more specific. It was maybe not exactly that those paintings were not because of hallucinations. It’s just that the hallucinations were not coming from the wormwood.

Ryn (00:30:52):
The wormwood. One of the many ingredients in the absinthe.

Katja (00:30:55):
Along with the 72% alcohol content.

Ryn (00:30:58):
Among other things, yeah.

Katja (00:30:59):
Right. But we’re going to get to that. Because there’s one other thing that I want to note here. And that is that I found a document suggesting the absinthe is the origin of happy hour. I personally think that happy hour probably existed for a long time before absinthe. But absinthe brought on this thing called the green hour. And after people got out of work, they would go to get absinthe, because it was cheap to get drunk with. So again, I don’t think that absinthe invented the concept of let’s go get drunk after work.

Ryn (00:31:41):
Just made it green, maybe.

Katja (00:31:42):
They just made it green. Right. And here, there is a theme, right? Like over and over again, cheap to get drunk, right? So, the theory about why people liked this so much was – and this theory lasted for a really long time – that the thujone was binding to the endocannabinoid receptors and had a mind altering effect. Although…

Ryn (00:32:04):
except canna….

Katja (00:32:04):
Right. They wouldn’t have said it that way until 1992 when they discovered the endocannabinoid system.

Ryn (00:32:11):
Okay. But before that like oh, it’s interacting with neurotransmitters or brain function in this or that way. And it’s unique and special to the thujone content. And that explains everything. Okay.

Katja (00:32:21):
Right. So, that would have been said with various different vocabulary, depending on what point in time. But it was that in whatever words they had. But there have been studies done, and it turns out this doesn’t bear out. And as usual there’s a much simpler answer. But before we get to that – I’m so excited – before we get to that, more history. Because honestly we did not figure out the actual thujone content of absinthe, historical versions of absinthe, until the early 2000s. But even back in the 1860s, we were already learning about alcoholism and alcohol poisoning.

Ryn (00:33:05):
Right. Because not everything we know now has been known forever, and certainly not called by the same name, and okay. Alcoholism.

Katja (00:33:12):
Right, alcoholism.

Ryn (00:33:13):
It’s a thing now. At what year are we up to? 1860?

Alcoholism & Revolutionaries

Katja (00:33:18):
1862. A Swedish medical student in France, his name was Magnus Huss. He coined the term alcoholism, and he wrote a paper about France’s alcohol problem, which was certainly not limited to France. That’s just where he was when he was writing it. Although on the other hand, it just seemed like many of the other European countries sort of had given France this stereotype. And I’m thinking come on. I guarantee the people in all the other countries were getting drunk too. But whatever, France got the blame. So Magnus Huss, he wrote about the health problems of alcoholism. And interestingly hallucination was on the list of the health problems and all of the other things that we would expect. All the, you know, everything that we would say today about health problems from alcoholism actually, they had already identified, or this fellow in 1862.

Ryn (00:34:18):
Sure. Yeah. Damage to the liver, damage to the nervous system. Yeah. All that kind of stuff.

Katja (00:34:22):
All of it, yes. Including a lot of the social problems too. I mean, which of course those were probably easier to see.

Ryn (00:34:28):
Yeah. Well, right. And nowadays we think about it and we see social aspects of this kind of addiction as both cause and consequence in a very uncomfortable dance. Yes.

Katja (00:34:41):
Yes. So, especially because hallucination was in the list of symptoms of alcoholism. And I think maybe also just because of the power structure struggle and the sort of stamp that absinthe had gotten associating it with public drunkenness and low class. Which again, yes, it was cheap to get drunk. But that also was propaganda, trying to say people who like absinthe can’t be taken seriously and whatever. So, all of alcoholism ended up getting blamed on absinthe again, not because there was anything coming from the wormwood, but because people were getting drunk on the super high percent alcohol drink that happened to be absinthe. If it had been some other thing that didn’t even include wormwood that just happened at that time, we would still have had all these factors here.

Ryn (00:35:45):
But at the time they weren’t like pointing specifically at the wormwood, right? That came later?

Katja (00:35:50):
Some of it came at the time. Although for the most part, they were separating the wormwood from the alcohol content. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more. But they were able, like the laws that ended up getting passed do separate out wormwood individual from absinthe. They don’t say that wormwood in the context of absinthe is innocent. But wormwood out of the context of absinthe they make exceptions for. But before we talk about that, all of this new talk about alcoholism kicks off a huge absinthe abstinence movement, which of course was immediately supported by two big groups. One the wine farmers, because they are still trying to recover from the blight. And they would prefer folks would drink more wine. And also the church, not because the church really cared much about drunkenness. But because absinthe was associated with revolutionary tendencies, and the church was trying to crush those.

Ryn (00:37:04):
Conservative institutions gonna conservate. I mean…

Katja (00:37:06):
Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Ryn (00:37:10):
Except when it comes to nature for some reason, I don’t even know. All right.

Katja (00:37:13):
Right. So banning absinthe at that time was really like banning Marxism. And people with power were really, really about that.

Ryn (00:37:22):
I mean, you’re right. This does have echoes that stretch through history and towards today, right? We think about when there’s different sentencing guidelines for cocaine versus crack, it’s an expression of the exact same kind of tendency there. Yeah. All right.

Green & Other Absinthe Adulterations

Katja (00:37:36):
Now, in another telling of the story, I have heard that some absinthe on the market was adulterated by winemakers specifically for the purpose of giving absinthe a bad name so that people would buy wine again. They would take bottles of absinthe, adulterate them, and put them back out for sale. Most commonly what I’ve heard is that lead was added to create hallucinations or other health problems. And maybe that happened. But honestly it really wasn’t even necessary, because here’s the trick. Lots of the distilleries were putting in toxic chemicals intentionally to create a vibrant emerald green color. And

Ryn (00:38:24):
Because when you make it, it’s going to be green for like what, a week or a month or something?

Katja (00:38:28):
Not even. When you make it, it’s going to be green for a day. I mean, think about when we tincture, it’s green for like a moment. You look at it, and you’re like oh, it’s so pretty.

Ryn (00:38:35):
And especially if you want it in a clear bottle so you can see the green. That’s not going to last.

Katja (00:38:38):
It’s not going to the last, no. So ,some of the chemicals that they were using, one is aniline green, which you can look up. It’s pretty nasty. Copper sulfate, cupric acetate, and it’s worth noting that at the time people were wildly obsessed with brilliant greens in general. Green fabric, green wallpaper, green rugs. Like the brilliant color green, people were dying for that color. Like actually, literally, right? So people were dying from arsenic poisoning that was used to dye fabric for dresses and other garments like gloves. And I don’t mean like a couple people, but like a lot of people. A lot of people. And other toxic chemicals were used to color carpets and wallpapers. And there were many, many deaths because of it. And they were gruesome deaths. They were not like oh, and one minute this person was dead. They were gross, ugly, terrible, suffering deaths. And sometimes it was children, and documented. Like the child was playing on the green rug. And the chemicals killed..

Ryn (00:39:52):
Had the seizures and everything.

Katja (00:39:54):
Yeah. So, I don’t understand why people did this.

Ryn (00:39:58):
I mean you know, didn’t know better.

Katja (00:40:00):
No, I think they knew better. They knew that the people making these fabrics were dying. They knew that the fabrics had to be properly sealed so that they could be worn safely. And they knew that if you bought cheap ones, it would kill you. They knew this. Whatever. They really liked green.

Ryn (00:40:20):
Yeah. All right. People of 2,321, please look at us and tell us what ridiculous things we are doing now. I’m sure there’s a long, long list.

Katja (00:40:33):
Yes. And so, like you said, if you want that fancy, brilliant, green color, you’re not going to get it from herbs. There’s a quote from 1912 – the fellow’s name is Tebbings – claiming that the color of properly made absinthe is entirely due to chlorophyll derived from the green leaves of wormwood, hyssop, spinach, parsley, nettles, and veronica. But if you have ever made tincture, you absolutely know that green color is super fleeting. There’s nothing you can do to preserve that color. It lasts for like a second and then… Okay. Longer than a second, but not a whole day. And ultimately tinctures end up brown like tea. So, if you want to get that fancy color, some kind of food coloring was required. And many varieties of absinthe were made with the hydrosols of the plants in question. Sometimes potentially also essential oils – that part is actually fairly unclear. But the hydrosols, not infusions, so that’s not going to have any color at all. That’s going to be clear. Which means that if your absinthe was green, you were drinking some pretty sketchy stuff.

Ryn (00:41:48):
Okay. That’s yeah. All right.

Katja (00:41:50):
Okay. Wait.

Ryn (00:41:51):
But wait, there’s more.

Katja (00:41:52):
But wait, there’s more. As if that wasn’t enough, while we’re on about additives, there was this whole excitement about absinthe turning milky when the sugar water was added. And I suppose this could be an indication that there’s a high level of volatile oil content dissolved in high percentage alcohol. And that was what they were trying to say was going on. They were like ah ha, hoity-toity, very high percentage, blah, blah. This is good for you. Or this is good quality, not necessarily good for you. What it actually was antimony salts or antimony sulfate, which was added to react with the water to create the milkiness. Antimony is a toxic mineral that is used for flame retardants. It’s used to harden anodized metal. It’s used in batteries. This is not food. It is not food.

Ryn (00:42:52):
No, that doesn’t sound like food or drink for that matter. Yeah. No, thank you.

Katja (00:42:57):
No. None of this was considered a problem at the time. This was an era of complete fascination with adding super toxic chemicals to life. And okay. I shouldn’t say that no one thought this was a problem, because there was some writing about it right around 1908. There may have been some earlier, but what I found was in 1908. Now that particular work was by Edward Emerson. And honestly it was more of an erudite complaint about the lost true nature of prized beverages. Something along the lines of oh, all these common knockoffs these days. And adulteration cheapens the product kind of a treaties. And so it was more that than a call for regulation of unsafe chemicals in general. On the other hand, like every other case of well, things were just different than, it is important to note that there were absolutely people who were noticing and talking about the dangerous of these chemicals.

Ryn (00:43:57):
Right. People who didn’t have access to a publishing house, make their opinions known amongst the everybody.

Katja (00:44:02):
Right. Exactly. So well, things were just different than does not hold up in this argument. And it doesn’t hold up in any other argument either. So, no. So, there were definitely people noticing and talking about the dangers of these chemicals. It’s just that the people in power were not taking them seriously in terms of doing anything about it, in terms of any kind of regulation. And that is a whole different story. You can watch Radium Girls or read Silent Spring, or…10 million different. Yeah.

Ryn (00:44:41):
Ongoing now, as well.

Katja (00:44:42):
Yes, exactly. What there is documentation about regulation of, was the quality of the alcohol itself. So, some governments were saying that the distilleries weren’t clean, and that the alcohol was contaminated, and therefore needed to be regulated. And although that’s kind of vague, it’s probably not inaccurate. Probably a lot of the distilleries weren’t clean. We are still talking about a time of cholera. By the time that we’re talking now, we’re in the very late 1800s, very early 1900s. So, cholera is kind of… like we are starting to get water sanitation. But probably a lot of the distilleries were using materials that weren’t necessarily clean. On the other hand, the levels of alcohol we’re talking about definitely killed basically anything organic.

Ryn (00:45:34):
Yeah. I mean, you can still get people sick. You know, nature’s clever. And if you have a pile of like, you know, rotting, herbal material, and then you go fermented any way. Maybe some toxins formed while it was alive. And then they died, but they’re still present. I mean, okay, sure.

Katja (00:45:47):
That’s a lot of alcohol.

Ryn (00:45:49):
It’s a lot for anything still alive. That’s going to take it apart. Okay. Well, anyway.

Anti-Alcohol/Anti-Absinthe (but not Wormwood) Movements

Katja (00:45:54):
Anyway, regardless, even if they weren’t drawing a line about all these terrible chemicals, society was drawing a line. And this basically cashed out as wine drinking drunkenness is okay, but high percentage of alcohol drunkenness is not cool. And of course also we don’t like the revolutionary tendencies of certain circles of people who are into absinthe. Also played a role, right? So, this is a spectrum. There definitely was a legit argument to be made in terms of public health and public safety. But I think that there is a much larger aspect of this that was more about preserving power for those who had it. And so who you were and what your role in society was certainly determined your motivation for this kind of drunkenness is uncool. But throughout Europe there was a wave of anti absinthe laws that were passed between the late 1870s and the early 1900s. And interestingly, most of these laws specifically stated in the law that wormwood was not illegal, and recognized the medicinal value of wormwood. It was only absinthe that was made illegal. So, I find that interesting. Now in the U.S., these laws took a slightly different turn. This was a tool of the prohibition movement. And it wasn’t just absinthe that was made illegal, but all alcohol across the board. So, at this point, we can go back to our friend, Henri Louis Pernod and say wait a minute. What’s he going to do with his absinthe production empire now? Actually by this point he’s probably dead, but his empire exists. And so the company transitions to making cough drops. And this is when Ricola and other similar cough drops were popularized. There were herbal lozenges with similar herbal content going back, of course, much further than this. There’s documentation for honey based herbal lozenges in Egypt back to, I found, a 1000 BCE. I’m sure there’s older. But at this point is when the sort of hard candy cough drop was really popularized. Before this, cough drops were more like a cross between a Fisherman’s Friend and a homemade herbal lozenge.

Ryn (00:48:42):
I like those Fishermen Friends. They’re like as if it’s powder, but it dissolves better. I don’t know. Like they’re…

Katja (00:48:48):
It’s very pressed.

Ryn (00:48:48):
Very pressed, little… yeah. Those are pretty good.

Katja (00:48:53):
Incidentally, during all this absinthe hullabaloo is also when Smith brothers and Luden’s cough drops were invented. These were really popular early cough drop brands in the U.S., and they contained opium and heroin to “suppress coughing at its source, the brain.” And what’s extra funny about this is that Smith was a prohibitionist. So, don’t drink absinthe. Take opium cough drops instead.

Ryn (00:49:24):
Okay. All right. Great advice. Thank you. Very good.

Katja (00:49:28):
Okay. So, then also the illegalization of absinthe is when Jägermeister kicked off as a brand. So, that beverage, and honestly that beverage is basically absinthe, just a slightly different formula. I’m not certain whether Jäger contains wormwood or not, but it’s got bitters. It may be gentian, but whatever. There’s something bitter in there.

Ryn (00:49:52):
Yeah. It has gentian and it has a relative of it that’s from further east.

Katja (00:49:56):
Not centaury?

Ryn (00:49:58):
No, I don’t… Well maybe, but I’m not… I wasn’t able to determine. Yeah.

Katja (00:50:03):
So, Jägermeister actually was a recipe that was already very, very popular in its region. It was actually often known as Göring-Schnaps. I think Göring was the guy’s name. The actual Jägermeister of a particular village, the hunt master of a particular village, the guy who’s going to give you your hunting licenses. And so in that region, it was just the schnapps named after…

Ryn (00:50:35):
That guy.

Katja (00:50:35):
Yeah, the warden. The hunting warden or whatever. But it was in the early 1930s, as all of this was really settling in, that Jäger became a popular mass produced stand-in for absinthe. And again, today, at least in the U.S. It’s probably the only kräuterlikör that people really know. The only other one I could think of was chartreuse.

Ryn (00:51:04):
Chartreuse seems a little closer to absinthe, because they’re more translucent, you know. Like Jäger and that Riga thing that I like, they’re very dark when you have them finished.

Katja (00:51:14):
Yes, that’s true. They don’t try to turn them green at all. I’m sure the chartreuse is food coloring. Hopefully it’s not copper sulfate, but yeah. But anyway, all these kräuterlikör we’re basically variations on the same theme. There were, there still are many, many, many of them, just like craft beer today and honestly actually craft beer historically. Yeah.

A Modern Exoneration of Thujone as a Cause of the Ruckus

Ryn (00:51:39):
Right, right. Okay. Well, in modern times then…

Katja (00:51:41):
In modern times absinthe is now no longer illegal since the early 2000s. But they do regulate the thujone percentage based on this notion that has still stuck that thujone was to blame for all the ruckus. So, the current regulation is no more than 35 milligrams per liter, 35 milligrams of thujone per liter of absinthe. Now here’s some interesting math for you. In 1992 they were estimating – there was a paper, a scientific paper written – estimating that there was 260 milligrams per liter of thujone in absinthe. And estimating that that was a ruckus causing amount of thujone, and that was why there was all this problem. So, I did a little bit of math. That works out to be one 16th of a teaspoon per liter. So, one drop from a tincture dropper is about 50 milligrams. So, when you work all that math out, it’s like six drops per liter. One 16th of a teaspoon is about six drops from a tincture. So, that actually works out to be about the same. It is 0.0006 of the liter, right? And the interesting thing is that the standard range for thujone content of wormwood is 0.25% to 0.132% of the whole plant, which works out to 0.0025 drops per liter on the low end. So, what all those numbers work out to is even the estimate of 260 milligrams per liter is not actually likely to cause a ruckus. It’s basically like drinking regular wormwood tea, assuming that you got all of what you could get of the thujone content into your tea.

Ryn (00:53:43):
Which you won’t, right?

Katja (00:53:45):
Which you won’t.

Ryn (00:53:45):
Because there’s never going to be perfect extraction of any constituent from a plant into a menstruum. So, it’s going to be a little bit less than that even.

Katja (00:53:52):
Right. So, I don’t know if that is the reason they came up with 260 milligrams per liter, per liter. If they did it based on saying well, the average content in the whole plant is this, and therefore it must have been this much per liter. I’m not really certain how they arrived at that amount. But the key here is that that is not actually likely to be a ruckus causing amount of thujone in any way. So, then much later… not much later. It was… oh, I didn’t write the date. I think it was 2003 or 2004. There’s another study, that’s referenced in the links in the show notes, that they got the original recipes, some of the original recipes. But even more interesting they got some old bottles of absinthe. And they used gas chromatography.

Ryn (00:54:51):

Katja (00:54:54):
Chromatography. Yeah.

Ryn (00:54:56):
I think chromatography is totally allowed.

Katja (00:54:59):
I think it should be.

Ryn (00:55:00):
I’m sure somebody saying it somewhere.

Katja (00:55:02):
Yeah. So, gas chromatography to study those bottles. And that is a way that they can see the actual chemical breakdown of what’s going on. And between that and the recipes to like confirm one another, what they actually discovered was that the original thujone content of original absinthe during all this ruckus causing time was 1.5 milligrams to a maximum of six milligrams per liter, which is way less than 260 milligrams per liter. It’s like 254 milligrams less.

Ryn (00:55:42):
It’s a bit less, yeah. It’s substantially less.

Katja (00:55:43):
It’s a whole lot less. Which also makes sense, because wormwood was not the only ingredient. It was not a bottle of wormwood alcohol. It was many different herbs, of them one was wormwood. So, of course it doesn’t really make sense that you could concentrate to 260 milligrams per liter. So, I think that wormwood is thoroughly exonerated in this situation. And you know, honestly, when you look at the alcohol content and the symptoms of being drunk on that high of a percentage of alcohol. And then if you consider that some or potentially all of the distilleries were putting toxic chemicals in for coloring. Then I definitely will agree that there was some mind altering happening. You know, I mean, Van Gogh is some proof of that. Lots of people have exhibited mind altered behavior in the time of absinthe. But poor wormwood. It was not wormwood. It never was the wormwood. This would be like saying it was the fennel, you know?

Ryn (00:56:55):
Right. Yeah. I am curious if anywhere along the line of that story you have a sense of when people zeroed in on the wormwood as prime suspect.

Katja (00:57:05):
I don’t have a good sense of that. Except that in the original laws, they felt the need to write in that wormwood was okay. To me that says because they singled out the wormwood, and not the fennel or the anise, to me that says we were already talking about wormwood as a problem.

Ryn (00:57:22):
Yeah. I was going to ask if they had also said and fennel and anise and calamus and…

Katja (00:57:27):
No, they only excluded the wormwood.

Ryn (00:57:29):
Yeah. That’s interesting.

Katja (00:57:31):
Which means that people were already wondering.

Ryn (00:57:33):
Yeah. And it may have been that they were looking at it and saying well, this is a strong medicine. This is a powerful plant.

Katja (00:57:39):
It might have been. It might have also been that it was the differentiating factor. Of course, I think the differentiating factor was the mass production, right, and the cheap availability.

Ryn (00:57:52):
Right. So, you’re saying like we don’t put this herb into these other liqueurs and we don’t see them causing…

Katja (00:57:59):
And we don’t see them causing problems. But also those other liqueurs are not very widely available.

Ryn (00:58:04):
Right. And they’re not bright green.

Katja (00:58:06):
Right. Exactly. And they don’t have special bars devoted to them. And the Bohemians are not drinking them. And you know, like they’re not going to get mad about what the hunt master is drinking in his government offices in some little village in Bavaria. They don’t need to regulate that. Anyway, he’s part of the 1%. So yeah, I think the wormwood was getting the blame simply because it was something a little different about absinthe. I don’t know why we couldn’t have blamed the copper sulfate or the antimony or anything else. But no, we can blame the wormwood.

Ryn (00:58:47):
Well, that’s how it goes sometimes in plant medicine. That the herb gets blamed because it’s the least familiar element in a situation. Yeah, that happens today too. That was a really great story.

Katja (00:59:03):
Did you like it?

Ryn (00:59:05):
Yeah, I enjoyed that very much. Thank you for that. And thanks to the German Austrian dudes for telling us that story in German.

Katja (00:59:14):
Yes. Daniel and Richard in Hamburg and Vienna, respectively from Geschichten aus der Geschichete.

Ryn (00:59:21):
Yeah. Awesome. So we’ll have some links for you in the show notes about absinthe and about wormwood.

Katja (00:59:28):
Yes. We will include a link to the book in case you want to read it in German. I don’t think there’s an English version available. And also to the Absinthism: A Fictitious 19th Century Syndrome with Present Impact, which is available in English for you to read if you like.

Ryn (00:59:45):
Yeah. I think we’re going to close it there for today. And next week we’ll talk to you about the other Artemisia, Artemisia vulgaris, mugwort. And we’ll also do uva ursi too, because we don’t want to skip that one.

Katja (00:59:58):
No, I really love uva ursi so much. And I’m sorry for putting you back on the shelf out of alphabetical order, uva ursi.

Ryn (01:00:07):
Yeah. Don’t worry, we’re going to fix it right up. So yeah, that will be us next time. And we’ll be back there with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (01:00:20):
Or some kräuterlikör.

Ryn (01:00:22):
Yeah. See you later

Katja (01:00:47):
Bye bye.


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