Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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That Edgar Allan Poe abused alcohol regularly from his college days until his death at age 40 is of course well known, and described in many places including my recent post. What is less well understood is that, in addition to a relentless quality, his drinking often produced a kind of wildness, an excited and sometimes hallucinatory state, which led psychiatrist Donald Goodwin, an alcohol researcher, to suggest that some other substance may have been involved. (1) His particular candidate was absinthe, which as formulated in Poe’s time, contained at least one known hallucinogen, and often two. Here is a look at the history of absinthe, its involvement in the culture of nineteenth-century writers and artists, and how the aura of absinthe lingers, even today. Currently, the mystique of absinthe, and the mistaken belief that it has effects similar to cannabis, has led to the online proliferation of sales of allegedly psychoactive herbal products, with consequences yet to be determined.

Source: Albert Seigneurie in Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Source: Albert Seigneurie in Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Constituents and History of Absinthe

Absinthe is made by macerating fennel, green anise, and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in alcohol, then re-distilling to a clear liquid containing 60-80 percent alcohol. Additional wormwood and other flavorings including licorice and herbs are added, producing the characteristic green color due to chlorophyll. The high alcohol content is necessary to dissolve the essential oils, but it is diluted with water to some degree to increase palatability.

The delirium and hallucinations associated with absinthe are attributed to alpha-thujone, a constituent of wormwood which among other properties is a convulsant and modulator of the GABA-A receptor. (2) In the nineteenth century, it was also often spiked with methanol and antimony (which themselves can be very toxic) and additional plant additives including tansy, which also contains tujone, and sweet flag (Acorus calamus). The latter contains a psychoactive substance related to the psychedelic MDA (3), whose hallucinogenic properties were described in antiquity by Hippocrates, Celsus, and others. Whether the toxicity of the original absinthe was due to its very high alcohol content, sometimes approaching twice that of whiskey, or to the wormwood and other additives, remains uncertain. It is less likely that currently available absinthe, without these adulterants, has effects beyond those attributable to alcohol, and some have questioned whether the original nineteenth-century form contained sufficient quantities of thujone to produce a distinct syndrome. The complicating factor is that the presence of additives must also be taken into account.

References to the medical use of wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe, are found in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus going back to 1550 BC; the first century BC Roman poet Lucretius described its use as a children’s medicine. Although a wormwood-flavored wine may have been available in ancient Greece, it is usually thought of as having been created as a remedy for a variety of disorders by the French physician Pierre Ordinaire in 1792. Its potential as a recreational drink was soon recognized, and by the end of the decade distilleries, including one which employed Henry-Louis Pernod, began to appear. In the 1830s, French soldiers in Algeria diluted it with wine and consumed it both recreationally and to stave off malaria. Upon their return and in the celebratory atmosphere following the annexation of Algeria in 1834, a public eager to identify with the victorious military embraced its drink.

In the following decades, absinthe also became popular with writers and artists. It was used by Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, and later by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Picasso. Some writers have attributed Van Gogh’s death to absinthism, though many alternative theories have also been raised. Toulouse-Lautrec was so fond of it that he carried a hollow walking stick filled with the green liquid so that it would always be available, and invented various absinthe drinks, including the maiden blush, which was combined with champagne and red wine. The bohemian reputation of absinthe no doubt appealed to writers and artists, and its low price made it a popular drink for the less affluent. In the 1860s, the phrase l’heure verte (the green hour), the time to imbibe absinthe, was a precursor to what is now known as happy hour. Its popularity grew after grape crop failures in the 1870s led to soaring prices for wine, while absinthe, often made with industrial alcohol, remained cheap. While the artistic and working classes were busy consuming vast quantities, others named it the queen of poisons and attributed to it the crowding of mental asylums and increasing aggressiveness of the labor union movement.

Goodwin pointed out that in A Chapter of Suggestions, Poe noted that creative persons are prone to living too fast and hence use up their energy; later on, they often look for ways to stimulate the imagination through artificial excitement. (1) It seems possible that his search for stimulation led him to a drink containing what we now know is a GABA-A antagonist. Whether it was responsible for his wildness and hallucinations while inebriated remains a mystery, as does so much of his life, including what happened in the six days he disappeared before being found stuporous and dying on the streets of Baltimore in 1849. Several decades after his death, when the brilliance of his writing began to be recognized, there was a movement in Baltimore to put up a memorial headstone, but the many mysteries of his life were such that no one could think of what to write on it, and it was placed without an epitaph (1).

Subsequent History of Absinthe

Absinthe was banned in Europe and the U.S. by the mid-1910s, but in the 1990s it became popular once again, beginning with the adaptation of the European Union regulations permitting its sale with limited thujone content. Since 2007 it has become available in the U.S., in a form that does not contain thujone, and is made without wormwood. Some authors have expressed concern about the availability online of largely unregulated absinthe essences, wormwood oil, and related herbal products. (4) Capitalizing on absinthe’s reputation, and sometimes (incorrectly) suggesting that they produce effects similar to THC, their health consequences are not yet known. (5)

Portions of this article are adapted from Fragile Brilliance: the Troubled Lives of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Other Great Writers.

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