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Absinthe Chemistry

Absinthe is a wormwood and anise flavored liqueur that was highly popular in France circa 1880 – 1914. Although sometimes colorless, the slightly bitter spirit is traditionally bright green. It has also been known as 'le fee vert', or 'the green fairy'.

Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor, is credited with creating absinthe in 1789. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to make a 136 proof elixir, which he used to treat the sick. According to some reports, Dr. Ordinaire gave his recipe to Mademoiselle Grand-Pierre, who supposedly sold it to two sisters named Henroid. Other reports indicate the Henroid sisters were making absinthe before the Dr. Ordinaire arrived. In any case, the Henroid sisters offered samples of the elixir to sell in pharmacies. In 1797, they sold their recipe to a Frenchman named Major Dubied. The Major, his son Marcellin, and son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod built the first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet. In 1805 Pernod opened a larger factory called "Maison Pernod Fils". At the height of production, this factory produced 30,000 liters of absinthe per day, which was distributed around the world. Pernod Fils' original recipe included six aromatic herbs: wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica), hyssop, lemon balm, fennel and anise. Herbs added into later recipes include angelica, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and star anise.

Absinthe has appeared in works by Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. It was popularized by famous artists and writers including Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Cezanne, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. By the end of the 19th century, absinthe was the spirit of choice, particularly in France, where the cocktail hour became known as as 'L'Heure Verte', or 'the green hour'.

However, the drink became associated with an outcry over alcoholism, sometimes called 'Absinthism', and there were concerns over its potential effects on the nervous system. In August 1905, the farmer Jean Lanfray shot his family. European news headlines stated he was under the influence of absinthe (he had also consumed several bottles of wine and other alcohlic beverages that day). Public outcry ensued over the sensational headlines. Over the next few years absinthe was banned in many countries.

Most of the blame for the reputed deleterious effects of absinthe was directed at the wormwood used to flavor the drink. Wormwood, Angelica absinthium, contains the terpene thujone, which is used for medicinal purposes, but is toxic in high doses. Interestingly, thujone is present in the culinary herbs sage and tarragon and is used to flavor another (non-banned) alcoholic beverage, vermouth. More likely, the hallucinations and purported insanity resulted from the presence of toxic impurities or additives. For example, the green coloration the spirit derives from herbs was sometimes achieved through the addition of cupric acetate and other copper salts. Antimony trichloride was added to some preparations to enhance the louche effect (the opalescent milkiness seen when water is added to the liqueur).

At the time of this writing, authentic absinthe containing thujone is not sold in the United States. The thujone levels in commercially distilled absinthe must be 10 mg/l or less in order to comply with European Union (EU) limits. The thujone levels in commercially distilled absinthe in Germany must be 30 mg/l or less. Herbal kits for making absinthe are widely available, however, these kits tend not to rely on distillation, which is required to make traditional absinthe.


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