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Nov 14, 2007 02:43 PM

Attraction of Absinthe vs. Arak

[Split from:


OK, I know that the ban had something to do with the adverse health effects of one ingredient - wormwood?

For the uninitiated, such as myself, what's the attraction of the "real thing", as opposed to similar drinks from countries around the Mediterranean, such as Lebanese "arak" that have similar characteristics (the licorice/anise-y flavor, the "add water, and it turns cloudy" trick, etc.), but no wormwood?

Is it a noticeable flavor difference, or is there some sort of "wormwood buzz" that makes the real stuff "worth the risk" to some?

Not trying to be a wise guy, I don't drink much, and so I honestly don't know what the attraction is reputed to be, and have been curious.

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  1. It's reputedly the thujone in the wormwood. Apparently, tests of some very old bottles of absinthe showed that the thujone levels weren't really as high as they had always been reputed to have been and there's as much myth surrounding absinthe as anything else. But just in time to answer some of your questions, there was an article in today's NYTimes:

    1 Reply
    1. re: MakingSense

      Ask yourself these questions:

      1. Who did the tests?
      2. Which brands of pre-ban absinthe?
      3. Do you think the thujone molecule degrades over 100 years?


      1. The guy that makes "thujone free" Lucid..TA.Breaux
      2. Nobdoy will tell you
      3. Yes.

      "Thujone Free" is the FDA definition. The test is carried out by the TTB. Welcome to America :-(

      This is what Lucid has to say:

      Does Lucid contain Thujone?

      Lucid contains an amount of thujone that is within the legal limits set by the US regulatory authorities. Any product that comes to the US containing Grande Wormwood must also meet those same requirements, which are similar to the requirements of many other countries. Lucid also meets the thujone requirements of the European Union. According to extensive research conducted by T.A. Breaux, contrary to some common misconceptions, it was not unusual for genuine, high-quality absinthe from the Belle Epoqué period also to contain levels of thujone that would, today, be within US and EU regulatory limits. T.A. Breaux collected vintage absinthe bottles from estate sales and applied modern chemical analysis and determined the thujone content of vintage absinthe was much lower than was commonly believed. His research has been well documented and his findings remain generally undisputed.

      According to Dr Niels Arnold of the University of Kansas (a better source than a manufacturers website) the real thujone level in old absinthe was 260mg/l. It does not exist today. The highest that you can find is 100mg/l

    2. Historically, it has been claimed that absinthe had a hallucinoginic effect on the drinker. Many others claim that it causes a different type of drunkeness, where the user is inebriated but still clear-headed (often referred to as "lucid drunkeness"). Both these are due to the supposed high levels of thujone found in the liquor.

      I say "claimed" and "supposed" because in modern times much of this has been shown to be myth. The banning of absinthe happened during the late 19th century, when temperance movements were on the rise. Additionally, France had suffered a plague of its wine grapes in the late 1800s, leading to a shortage of wine. Since France has a long and wonderful history of inebriation, the population was moving towards increased hard liquor consumption which did not sit well with the very powerful wine interests.

      These wine makers' associations and the temperance movement publicized several very sensational murders which they linked to absinthe ingestion. Public hysteria followed, along with the banning of the liquor.

      The fact is that absinthe, now and in the past, had pretty small amounts of thujone. It's recently been pointed out that the deliterious effects of absinthe use (the addiction, tremors, bizarre and violent behavior, hallucinations, etc.) are in fact the exact same effects of severe alcohol abuse. And absinthe is potent stuff alcohol-wise, usually between 120 and 150 proof. So while it certainly may be true that these various crimes were commited by intoxicated on absinthe, it's generally conceded nowadays that it was due to the high alcohol content and not some effect of thujone (which is not know to be an hallucinogen.). In one of the most sensational cases, for instance, it was discovered that the perpetrator had only drunk a couple of glasses of absinthe and had drunk an enormous amount of other liquor afterwards. Other theories suppose that some of the claimed wild effects were a result of some of the other herbs that different distilleries would put in their version of the drink.

      For awhile, all you could find in the US was absinthe made without the wormwood or with a different species of wormwood that did not contain thujone (it's called, fittingly, Absente). Now they have decided that actual absinthe can be imported and sold as long as it doesn't contain thujone. All imports are tested but get this--the amount of thujone found in "proper" european absinthe is within the margin of error of the test. In other words, the product you can buy here is identical to the product you can by in Europe, it just has a label claiming there is no thujone (even though there most likely is)!

      I've tried it, it's a nice anise-y liquor and gives you a good buzz. But I think most of the "wild" effects are either myth and poetry or a result of the placebo effect.

      1. Notions of thujone's "toxicity" can be greatly exaggerated, a current example of the mystique continuing to surround absinthe. FYI, a lot of background information on this subject (some of it hard to find in recent absinthe writings) appears in past absinthe threads here. For example, about where you probably get thujone in your diet currently --

        Earlier general information on absinthe, its mystique, and longtime US regulatory contradictions:

        1. Absinthe has a romantic association with the French impressionists. Lonely ladies (probably hookers) drowning their loneliness in the glowing glass of absinthe.

          All anise flavor spirits have a different taste. The only way to find out which one you prefer is to give them a try. And every brand will have a slight to great difference in taste from another brand from the same country. I think I've had a glass of a large number of Greek ouzos and Turkish rakis, as well as other drinks from other countries, but my personal preference is Pernod. I like it as a before dinner drink, and after as well. I guess you could say I just like it.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Caroline1

            Absinthe started life not as an aperatif but as an herbal elixir. It's existence predtaes the fairy stories invented by the 19th Century commercial absinthe dynasties.

            The French word for wormwood is absinthe. Wormwood water was around long before that, and if you believe the modern fairy stories about "no thujone" in old bottles of absinthe...that's up to you.

            Dr Niels Arnold (Biochemist, University of Kansas) reports 260mg/l thujone in old absinthe. The highest thesedays is 100mg/ l and the effects are pronounced. It is not a drink to be taken lightly....unless you want to sip some faux absinthe with a cute old French name and a decorative label.

            Real absinthe in the tradition of the elixirs of old is hard to find in the noise of the modern mass market. One is called Century Absinth 100 and there's another private label called 330

            Hausgemacht and the tradition of the farmhouse distiller is what you should look out for.