How much thujone did pre-ban vintage absinthe contain?

Absinthe is an alcoholic aperitif made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts, amongst them grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and green anise, but also usually including 4 other herbs: petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), fennel, hyssop, and melissa (lemon balm).

The most popular misconception about absinthe is that it is an illicit drug, or at least similar to a drug in effect. This is not true. The hysteria surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fueled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant, caused hallucinations that drove men mad, threw them into epileptic fits, and made van Gogh slice off his ear.

The truth however, is both more interesting and less sensational. The story centers around a substance called thujone, which is a natural constituent of wormwood, and regarded as its 'active' ingredient. Thujone was said to be hallucinogenic and/or harmful, causing the distinct syndrome 'absinthism'; this is why there's been a de facto ban on absinthe all these years.

Scientists from the USA, the UK and Germany have now uncovered the truth about thujone in absinthe by, for the very first time, analyzing the actual thujone content of a representative sampling of original vintage absinthes. Their study has recently appeared in the American Chemical Society's peer-reviewed Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry but is already available on the internet. The full text can be accessed for free at:

Perhaps surprisingly, samples of absinthe made in France and Switzerland before the ban survive today. Still-sealed intact original bottles of the famous elixir emerge from the dust of history from time to time. In an extensive international effort, more than a dozen samples of authentic vintage pre-ban absinthes were collected, from bottles found in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the USA. Only bottles of unquestioned authenticity were used (e.g. intact wax seals, original corks and labels).

In total, thirteen pre-ban absinthes, including many of the largest and most popular brands, were analyzed for thujone as well as for further parameters that have been hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of pre-ban absinthe, including naturally occurring herbal essences (e.g. pinocamphone, fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony.

The results of the analysis show conclusively that the thujone concentration of pre-ban absinthe has been grossly overestimated in the past. Papers published in the 1980's and 1990's postulated thujone concentrations as high as 260 mg/L, on the basis of purely theoretical calculations, not actual analysis. It's already well known that modern absinthes made according to historical recipes don't have anything like these levels of thujone ' now, this new study has shown that the original absinthes of the Belle Époque also had only moderate levels of thujone. The total thujone content of the 13 pre-ban samples was found to range between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/L. Contrary to ill-informed speculation, the average thujone content of 25.4 ± 20.3 mg/L fell within the modern EU limit of 35 mg/L.

All other constituents were also toxicologically inconspicuous. Nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes able to explain the so-called syndrome 'absinthism'. In other words, the entire historical demonization of absinthe is based on a false premise ' that it is a thujone-rich drink. It isn't.

It is now increasingly clear in fact that well-made absinthes following authentic traditional recipes seldom have thujone levels much in excess of the EU limit. It seems that irrespective of the quantity of wormwood used, relatively little thujone makes it through the distilling process into the final distillate. The significance of this finding can't be overstated. Many herbs, including those commonly used in cooking, contain substances that if consumed in enormous quantities are potentially harmful. But common sense tells us that they are safe to use, because in practice these substances are only present in miniscule amounts. Likewise with absinthe ' yes it contains thujone, yes thujone is potentially harmful, but the quantity of thujone actually in a bottle of absinthe is extremely small.

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About The Author,
David Nathan-Maister is the MD of Oxygenee Ltd, a UK-based company operating in the field of absinthe, and rare and ancient spirits. A former winemaker, his involvement with absinthe dates back more than a decade. He's the proprietor of the acclaimed Virtual Absinthe Museum at , the most comprehensive online resource for the history and lore of absinthe, which showcases his own remarkable collection of absinthiana.