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What is Absinthe?
Clinically speaking, absinthe is an "anisette" liqueur, meaning
that its primary flavouring is anise (similar in taste to
licorice, fennel). Other liqueurs to fall in
this category are ouzo, Pernod, and Sambuca. Unlike the others,
absinthe usually contains many other herbs as well, including
wormwood, or Artemisia Absinthium to use its latin name, hence
the name "absinthe". Wormwood has long been used as an herbal
remedy for stomach problems, and as a "dewormer", which is how it
got its common name. In fact, my grandmother used to drink
wormwood tea to help digestion.
Wormwood is a shrub-like plant native to Europe and Asia. It is
a long-lived perennial, two to four feet high, with greyish-green
leaves and greenish-yellow flowers. Both leaves and flowers
exude a strong aromatic aroma and are extremely bitter, and in fact
the word absinthium is probably derived from the Greek
"apsinthion", meaning "undrinkable". Legend has it that wormwood
grew up along the path the serpent took leaving the Garden of
Eden. Some parts of Europe call wormwood "Girdle of St. John",
and believe that it wards off evil spirits. Wormwood is
mentioned several times in the Bible, most famously in
Revelations, "And the third part of the waters became wormwood;
and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
By strange coincidence, wormwood in Russian is "Chernobyl", the
name of the Russian city which had a nuclear reactor literally
blow up in 1986, poisoning the surrounding landscape and tainting
much of Europe.
These days absinthe is prepared using double-distillation methods and is flavoured with a variety
of herbs to remove and mask the bitterness, and when properly
produced wormwood's unique taste is present but not overpowering.
The essential oil of wormwood is made up of about 60% thujone by
volume. Thujone is an oily compound, a terpene, chemically similar
to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active ingredient
in marijuana) and salvinorin-A (a diterpene, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum). This is one of the reasons absinthe was banned
in most of the western world in the early 20th century, apparently
because it was making people go mad. As I point out in the
History section, this was not the case - at least, it wasn't
thujone that was to blame. Notable exceptions to the ban are
Canada, the Czech Republic, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
France still produces absinthe, but for export only. Canada and
the UK have never produced absinthe (at least not commercially).
For the pharmacologically-minded, thujone is a GABA-antagonist, meaning it deactivates/suppresses the brain & nervous system's GABA system. GABA normally acts as an "inhibitor", calming down neurons and nerves. Alcohol is a GABA-agonist, meaning it acts like GABA or activates/stimulates the GABA system. Long story short, thujone has stimulant-like effects, and alcohol has sedative-like effects. At first glance this might seem like an odd combination to drink, as one would think they cancel each other out. However, alcohol is also an NMDA-antagonist, deactivates/suppresses the NMDA system, which is involved in sensory perception and higher reasoning. So, again, long story short, drinking the combination has a net NMDA-antagonistic effect, similar to small amounts of ketamine, nitrous oxide, dextromethorphan... my guess is that this is the effect that supposedly helps the creative process. THC has no affinity for GABA or NMDA receptors either-way, it's a CB1 and CB2 agonist, and neither does salvinorin-A, it's a kappa-opioid agonist, so when I say thujone is chemically similar to these compounds, the similarity ends there, pharmacologically they are very different beasts.
There have been some studies which suggest other essential oils in absinthe add to the overall effect - primarily the anise oil. Anise oil is mostly made up of anethole - a methoxylated phenylisopropene which when metabolized by the liver might convert in small amounts into 4-methoxy-amphetamine (aka para-methoxy-amphetamine or PMA - often passed off as ecstasy by unscrupulous dealers, it's a fairly powerful stimulant with somewhat of an MDMA/Ecstasy-like character but without the "e-tarded" silliness MDMA is famous for) and 4-hydroxy-amphetamine (another stimulant, similar in action to dopamine and adrenaline). The likely metabolic routes are anethole -> 4-methoxy-phenylisopropanone -> 4-methoxy-alpha-methyl-phenethylamide -> 4-methoxy-amphetamine, and anethole -> 4-hydroxy-phenylisopropene -> 4-hydroxy-phenylisopropanone -> 4-hydroxy-alpha-methyl-phenethylamide -> 4-hydroxy-amphetamine. Other metabolites could include 4-oxy-amphetamine, 4-oxy-phenylisopropene, 4-oxy-phenylisopropanol, 4-oxy-phenylisopropanone, 4-methoxy-phenylisopropanol, and 4-hydroxy-phenylisopropanol. It should be noted however that of the grams of anethole consumed in one sitting, only milligrams would likely be converted into these amphetamines.