About absinthe, a quote from somebody I know, from another forum
I am not disputing your remarks. I am reminded however of the similar controversies surrounding the substance thujone and the essential oil of wormwood (A. absinthium) the much demonized herbal for which absinthe is named. Supporters of the ban on absinthe maintained that absinthe drives people mad. Early toxicologists pointed to thujone as the culprit. Before and after the recent lifting of the ban in most of EU (there were places where it was never banned) and Switzerland, arguments raged about the controversy from almost every possible viewpoint. The prevailing view is that the high ethanol content along with adulterants in cheaper grades of absinthe were the toxic components. The thujone content is actually quite low and consistent with present regulatory maxima in EU. My former partner studied a lot of well preserved samples of century old absinthe by GC/MS.'
Still others, who really really wanted the legendary storied hallucinogenic properties to be true, opined that even if thujone was not so psychoactive (beyond being a mild GABA antagonist) there must be some minor and overlooked component in real absinthe that was hallucinogenic. This appears to be wishful thinking, but is damnably difficult to disprove (or prove for that matter.)
And at least at one time about 10-15 years ago there was a theory that thujone and THC shared a receptor site. This was just more wishful thinking.
I mention all this not to go OT nor to be argumentative but merely to draw parallels between the seperation science problems, and the other factors involved in evaluating problems like these. It is neither simple nor easy. I think it might be relatively easy to seperate nutmeg oil into several fractions, with identifiable and quantifiable components, and likely some overlap. These fractions might be evaluated individually for activity and thus some eliminated along with their components, thus reducing the problem set to a more manageable scope. The final assault will most likely be a highly demanding and costly prep chromatography one. This really sounds like a project for a multidisciplinary team.
19th century and early 20th century absinthe did not contain high levels of thujone. Despite the name, A. absinthium is not the primary herb used in making absinthe, it is quite secondary. The main herb is P. anisum, anise, or other species containing a lot of anethole, which is the main chemical component of absinthe after ethanol. These include green fennel and star anise.
An understanding of how absinthe is traditionally made demonstrates why larger amounts of thujone cannot be present. The herbs are milled and mixed in a steep with strong ethanol of grape origin - not fermented from corn or beets or grain etc but only from grapes. Typically, inexpensive grape alcohol is produced from the waste of wine production. The French call the resulting brandy marc, the Italians grappa. It takes a ton of pressed grapeskins to produce a liter of this, the stuff is pretty raw and is definitely an acquired taste. But absinthe cannot properly be produced from anything else, or even neutral spirits (vedka) if it is to be authentic.
The steep is diluted a bit then distilled. The essential oils pass over with the ethanol/water while the bitter principles remain behind. If the distillation is continued too long these bitter principles begin to come over and ruin the product.
The absinthe is at this point about 75-80 degree and is adjusted to 68-72 degree with water and then colorated. The coloration process is finicky and imparts the balancing flavors as well as the traditional peridot green color which is entirely due to chlorophyll and is perishable.
In order for thujone levels to be high, the amount of absinthium used would have to exceed the amount of anise/fennel/star anise (often a mix) and this simply is never done. The Scientific American article by Dr Wilfred Arnold, which postulated in the 1990s that antique absinthe contained 100 mg/Kg thujone, was entirely in error and was based on rather faulty conjecture only. Arnold was out to prove that absinthe was the cause of van Gogh's ear-cutting episode.
Antique absinthe made traditionally by the great firms of Pernod, Berger, etc. contained single digit ppms of thujone.
However the five great traditional makers accounted for only 20% of production while the rest was made by scores or hundreds of petty companies, who often used "industrial" (non-viniferous) alcohol, mixed their products up from essential oils (like modern pastis) and colored them green with hepatotoxic aniline green dye or Paris green rodenticide, and simulated the louche of real absinthe with tumeric. No wonder people went mad.
It is not correct that most contemporary absinthe is made if the Czech Republic. A few are and are invariably trash, such as Hills or Sebors. Much better absinthes are produced in Spain, and particularly in France and Switzerland. My former partner makes his Jade Absinthe labels in France on antique copper alembics. I named this product myself. I can honestly say, having no commercial interest in them whatsoever, that they are the finest in the world.
Rather ersatz absinthes are also made in Japan, Bulgaria, Russia, Brazil (where they use rum as bade, ugh!) and elsewhere.
A brand made in Ibiza is entirely from star anise, and is artificially dyed a radioactive green that strongly resembles the reanimator juice in the grade-B horror film of same name, I suspect it is sodium fluorescein.
The Swiss never stopped making absinthe despite the ban, it just went underground and was known as Le Bleu. It was bootlegged in the Neuchatel area at about 30 swiss francs a liter and bottled in second hand wine bottles with computer printed labels. I have several empties (having helped empty them).
Interestingly the Swiss never used star anise. regarding it as toxic. Their French associates in Pontarlier just across the Jura mountains did use it. I looked into this old controversy and discovered that at one time shipments of star anise were admixed with Japanese star anise, a different species and one reported to contain a toxic principle not found in Chinese star anise. This is most likely the origin of the Swiss prejudice.
Thujone's physiological effects are similar to camphor, both have been used in massive doses to induce clonic seizures as alternative to electroconvulsive therapy. It takes 500 mg-1 gram i.v.
Otherwise thujone is a mild transient GABA antagonist and therefore, is something of a risk for undiagnosed epileptics. Depressed GABA levels will result in higher electrical activity in the brain.
Some idiot chasing the Green Fairy drank 10 ml of oil of wormwood a few years ago and went into renal failure, but recovered. This was in the Pacific Northwest, [...]
Likewise some idiot in the UK filled a yard glass with absinthe and downed it, he died of ethanol poisoning. Yard glasses are normally filled with ale, not hard liquor. A yard glass of creme de menthe would have probably killed him. Absinthe was overkill.
I could not put it more eloquently.