No, This Isn''t Bar Chat
Until I got married at the age of 23, I had never had an alcoholic
drink. My parents were teetotalers. Not so my bride’s family
and on our honeymoon I was introduced to my first bottle of
wine. With the temperature outside being well below zero
Fahrenheit in windy Chicago, the wine seemed quite appropriate.
(Why Chicago in January? That was as far from Cleveland as
my meager funds would allow back in 1951.) In the years that
followed, I became familiar with mixed drinks, starting with
whiskey sours, and eventually evolved to enjoy the usual
varieties of scotch, gin, bourbon or whiskey drinks either mixed
In recent decades, my wife and I have looked forward to our
relaxing evening drink, never more than one with the exception
of an occasional second glass of wine with our dinner. However,
since my wife’s spinal surgeries last July and August, she has not
had a single alcoholic drink because of the various pain and other
medications. I, however, continued to have my one drink in the
evening and over a period of months finally exhausted the
contents of every economy size bottle of liquor in our cupboard
except for a bottle of Glenmorangie single-malt scotch, a gift
from our cartoonist, Harry Trumbore. So, Glenmorangie not
being a libation to be depleted hurriedly, it was off to a new
discount liquor store in our area to replenish my supply. I was
pleasantly surprised to be greeted at the door with a taste of a $40
a bottle wine and cheese – to my knowledge, I have never before
had a $40 wine. It was smooth and tasty.
Why am I going on like this about my drinking habits and
preferences? It’s a shameless segue into the subject of absinthe,
a drink that I’ve never tasted, partly I’m sure because it’s been
illegal. Also, I may have looked up absinthe in my 1962 World
Book Encyclopedia, which states that absinthe “is a yellowish-
green alcoholic beverage. It contains wormwood and anise. The
use of absinthe can destroy the nerve centers of the brain.
Production of absinthe is prohibited in the United States and
some other countries.” That’s enough to scare away any sensible
person from drinking it!
However, the May 5 issue of Chemical and Engineering News
(C&EN) contains an article by Stephen Ritter titled “Absinthe
Myths Laid to Rest”. Surprisingly, absinthe was a very popular
drink after its “invention” in Switzerland sometime in the 1790s.
By the 1850s it had become popular throughout continental
Europe and soon was known throughout the world. I was
especially surprised to learn that in France in the early 1900s,
absinthe was more popular than wine. But trouble was brewing
and absinthe began to have a somewhat shady reputation,
becoming associated with the Bohemian artists such as
Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh. Absinthe was reported to cause
hallucinations, convulsions and even insanity; van Gogh’s ear
cutting was supposed by some to be a consequence of imbibing
absinthe. Absinthe was also thought to account for some of the
intense creative periods of some of the artists of the time.
These psychedelic properties of absinthe were attributed to a
chemical known as thujone, a chemical found in the wormwood
herb. Thujone is indeed a bad actor when too much of it is
ingested. It can cause convulsions, muscle spasms and kidney
failure. So, does or did absinthe contain enough thujone to
warrant its ban in most European countries, except for Spain and
England, by 1915? And why in 1988 did the European Union lift
the ban on absinthe, with the United States following by lifting
its ban last year?
Without going into the numbers as to the concentrations of
thujone allowed for different types of absinthe, note that thujone
and other psychedelic chemicals are present in herbs such as
fennel, in addition to being in wormwood. One reason that the
bans have been lifted on absinthe is that studies have been made
of the thujone contents of absinthe samples bottled before 1910.
The researchers who managed to find and analyze these century-
old absinthe samples found that the content of thujone and other
psychedelic chemicals were not significantly different from the
amounts allowed today, after the bans have been lifted.
The conclusion is that by the time those Bohemian artists drank
enough thujone to have a serious effect they would have become
so drunk from the alcohol they couldn’t have continued to
imbibe! But I must add a word of caution. The C&EN article
says that there are absinthe “essences” being sold on the Internet
(and elsewhere?). Apparently, they are intended for the customer
to make his or her homemade absinthe by adding the essence to
grain alcohol. The essences contain high amounts of thujone and
those making super potent absinthe or even drinking the essence
could be in serious trouble.
As for me, I’m not fond of anything anise-flavored and will stick
to my standard varieties of alcoholic drinks. After posting this, a
gin and tonic sounds good.
NOTE: With my care giving role, I’m finding posting these
columns on Wednesdays to be rather difficult. If I can
remember, starting next week, I’ll be posting my columns on
Allen F. Bortrum