Gin and Wormwood

It’s odd, I still find otherwise sensible people parroting the “thujone hype” about Wormwood and Absinthe.

A couple points which I will repeat.

Wormwood contains a compound called Thujone. This compound is toxic in large doses, (as is most everything you can possibly consume, including water.) Experiments with lab animals show large doses may cause convulsions. However, the LD50 (Median Lethal Dose) for Thujone is around the same as that of Caffeine and many other substances which are “Generally Regarded as Safe”. No scientific evidence has ever been found for any sort of hallucinatory experience resulting from consumption of Absinthe or Thujone. Unless you count Delerium Tremens.

It would be impossible to consume enough of Absinthe (or similar) to result in a large enough dose of Thujone to reach anywhere near toxic levels for humans. Even with those Absinthe (or Absinthe-like substances) which tout their high levels of Thujone. Alcohol is far more toxic than Thujone (or Caffeine,) meaning, you would die of alcohol poisoning long before you reached anywhere near toxic levels of Thujone in your system.

Another point, Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) is very, very bitter. A substance in it called “Absinthin” is among the most bitter substances known. Of those plants commonly consumed or used medicinally, only Rue is more bitter than Wormwood. Placing a piece of wormwood leaf on your tongue is not a pleasant experience. However, because properly made Absinthe is a distilled spirit, not unlike Gin, most of the organic substances, including the Absinthin are left behind in the still. Thus Absinthe is not a particularly bitter beverage, (depending on your perspective and whether or not you’re a “super taster”.) In any case, it’s no Campari or Aperol.

A last point, proper distillation of Absinthe leaves almost no trace of Thujone in the final product. Almost all modern distilled Absinthes, and all vintage Absinthes which have been tested to date, fall below the levels of Thujone which the EU declares safe. Most would even probably test safe by the standards which the TTB (US Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau) currently requires. Thujone does not like to be carried by the alcohol vapors along with the other desired elements. It only starts to come across in the still very late in the distillation, as the temperature rises enough for water and other undesirable elements to make their way into vapor. The only practical way to make a beverage with a large amount of Thujone is either by infusion or by adding Wormwood extract.

Interestingly, however, many old bar books contain recipes like the following, from from a 1934 edition of “Harry Johnson’s 1882 New and Improved Bartender’s Manual and a Guide for Hotels and Restaurants”.

Gin and Wormwood: (Use a small bar glass.) Take six to eight sprigs of wormwood, put these in a quart bottle and fill up with Holland gin; leave this stand for a few days, until the essence of the wormwood is extracted into the gin. In handing out this, pour a little of the above into a small whiskey glass and hand it with the bottle of gin to the customer to help himself. This drink is popular in the eastern part of the country, where the wormwood is used as a substitute for bitters.

My initial impression is these recipes were really more intended as hair of the dog type tonics than recreational beverages, but I’m game.

Gin and Wormwood

I infused about a cup of Tanqueray Gin with a sprig of wormwood and a sprig of the indomitable mint which grows in our community garden for a couple weeks.

1 tsp wormwood infused gin and 2 oz Oude Genever. That was OK. Kind of bitter, ginny, and, well frankly, room temp.

I moved a few years forward, adding a teaspoon of cane syrup, and things started getting better.

I added ice and a lemon twist, stirred it up for a few minutes.

Goddamn if that isn’t compelling in some inexplicable way.

Certainly not a modern cocktail by any stretch. But I like it. Funnily, the wormwood infusion seems to have real flavor comparisons to the Picholine olives I’ve been using lately in my cocktails.

Additional Resources:

Wormwood Society
Thujone: Separating Myth from Reality
The Virtual Absinthe Museum