Absinthe contained no mind-altering essence aside from alcohol

Absinthe contained no mind-altering essence aside from alcoholHamburg, Germany  - The legend of absinthe as a mind-altering drug-of-choice for Bohemian artists has been dealt a sobering jolt by German scientists who say it contained no mind-altering substances whatsoever - aside from an incredibly high alcohol content.

Picasso, van Gogh, Proust and others praised the strong spiritual qualities of this strong spirit. France banned absinthe in 1915 in the wake of anecdotal evidence of hallucinations and mental aberration as a result of imbibing the green beverage.

Over the years, experts came up with theories that "The Green Fairy" contained a chemical called thujone in wormwood, one of the herbs used to prepare absinthe and the one that gives the drink its green colour.

Thujone was blamed for "absinthe madness" and "absinthism," a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial tics, numbness and dementia.

The problem facing scientists was the fact that absinthe had not been produced since 1915. A modern-day version of absinthe, on the market for the past 20 years, is only a very tame and sanitized version of the original.

But the new study is based on 13 pre-ban sealed bottles of the genuine article, which were found in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States.

A team of chemical analysts led by Dr. Dirk Lachenmeier of the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany discovered the 100-year-old bottles of absinthe did indeed contain some thujone.

However, the amount of thujone was comparable to the modern-day post-ban level and thus harmless.

What the German researchers discovered, however, was that absinthe was incredibly high in ethanol alcohol content.

The century-old absinthe contained about 70 per cent alcohol, giving it a 140-proof kick. In comparison, most gins, vodkas and whiskys are just 80- to 100-proof.

"All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome of absinthism," Lachenmeier says in a report published in the May 14 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Critics immediately condemned the new findings as non- representative. They pointed out that the 13 bottles might have been cheap imitations of the potent original. After all, the critics say, copyright infringement was commonplace in those days.

But Lachenmeier and his team say that the study is based on the best marques and that cheap rip-off absinthe usually was sold by the cask, not by the bottle.

Lachenmeier says the fact that these bottles were lovingly put away for safe-keeping is evidence that their original owners considered them to be precious.

"The majority of the unopened pre-ban bottles of absinthe that have surfaced in recent times are representative of the most widely distributed and most respected marques," he writes.

"The bias of surviving examples toward the better marques can be explained not only by the fact that many of them were among the largest producers, but also by the circumstance that those who possessed the luxury of long-term suitable storage (e. g., wine caves) had the means to accumulate the better brands," he adds.

Lachenmeier speculates that the 1915 ban on absinthe prompted well-heeled aficionados to horde their absinthe caches as a remembrance of a disappearance age.

"It seems reasonable to assume that, upon the interdiction and disappearance of absinthe in Europe and the advent of World War I, those who were in possession of such bottles preserved them as keepsakes and mementos of a happier period," he says.

"Many of these bottles were forgotten following the casualties of two wars and the passage of decades of time, which helps explain why some have remained preserved undisturbed in their cellars until the present day," Lachenmeier writes in the publication.

He says there is little chance that the bottles represent cheap, watered-down, rip-off brands of absinthe for a number of compelling reasons.

"In contrast, those dubious and short-lived marques, usually of Parisian origin, that represented the cheapest, most likely adulterated examples were purchased by those of lower socioeconomic status, in urban areas where storage space would be at a premium, and the prospects of long-term storage were thus far less likely," Dr. Lachenmeier notes.

He theorizes that earlier studies were biased by the mythical legends surrounding absinthe. Scientists interpreted their findings to suit their prejudiced opinions that absinthe must have contained some secret mind-altering substance.

Lachenmeier hints that the true mind-altering substance was just plain ethanol drinking alcohol in huge concentrations. He says the symptoms of "deranged behaviour" are indistinguishable from severe alcohol intoxication.

"Today it seems a substantial minority of consumers want these myths to be true, even if there is no empirical evidence that they are," Lachenmeier writes.

"These consumers seem to feel that absinthe, in view of its fabled and exotic reputation, ought to be dangerous, even in the absence of evidence that it is.

"It is to be hoped that this paper will go some way to refuting at least the first of these myths, conclusively demonstrating that the thujone content of a representative selection of pre-ban absinthe, including the largest and most popular brands, fell within the modern EU limit." (dpa)