Absinthe: The most misunderstood drink in history
September 15 is the fifth of six presentations in the 2011 Science Cafe series, and we are thrilled to have Dr. Eric Gaucher lead a discussion called “Resurrecting Ancient Life.” Dr. Gaucher is a professor of biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his research areas include molecular biology, comparative genomics, biomedicine, molecular evolution, and origins of life.
Because this presentation will explore ancient life, we thought an ancient drink would be the best evolutionary cocktail for the evening. We invite you to sample our absinthe cocktail and learn about one of the most misunderstood drinks in history.
While most of us have heard of absinthe, it goes by quite a few other names including “the green fairy,” “the green devil,” and “the green muse” due to its natural green color. Absinthe is derived from the leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium (commonly referred to as “grande wormwood,”), green anise, and sweet fennel. Absinthe is often called a liqueur, but because it is not bottled with added sugar, it is classified as a spirit. It has a very high level of alcohol by volume, but we typically dilute it with water before consuming it.
So where did absinthe get its reputation for enhancing creativity and alertness? Many researchers credit the wormwood plant as the key ingredient to this famed green drink. Its leaves and flowers are naturally rich in the terpene thujone, an aromatic, bitter substance believed to induce the ability to "see beyond." This was discovered by many famous nineteenth century artists and writers, and as a result, absinthe was thought to be a dangerous psychoactive drug. By 1915, it was banned in most European countries as well as the United States. It wasn’t until 1990 that absinthe made a resurgence.
Today we know that absinthe isn’t any more dangerous than other spirits on the market, yet it continues to fascinate scientists with its unique properties. Below are just a few facts we uncovered about this very versatile plant:
- In the Middle Ages, the plant was used to exterminate tapeworm infestations while leaving the human host uninjured, even rejuvenated, by the experience.
- Absinthe was originally marketed as a cure for several digestive diseases in the late 18th century and early 19th century, and then later sold to the French army as a way to ward off dysentery, tropical fever, and fatigue.
- Inexpensive brands would use all type of solvents, copper and dyes to achieve the trademark green color. Those chemicals and toxins often were addressed as the cause for the murder and madness attributed to absinthe drinking.
- The most famous of all absinthe drinkers of the Belle Époque was Vincent van Gogh, who painted many of his works in ochre's and pale greens, the colors of absinthe.
- Absinthe was the favorite drink among struggling artists and courtesans in the Moulin Rouge and the cafes of Paris.
- Absinthe was finally prohibited in 1915 and banned for almost a century until its recent revival.
- In 1990, it was claimed that the scientific community finally recognized that wormwood extract is as good as chloroqine for the treatment of malaria.
Be sure to join our own Colleen Dudley for a pre-Café discussion of this fascinating beverage and discover even more facts about the wormwood plant. Stay for Dr. Gaucher’s discussion, and learn about what he calls “moving beyond the limitations of current therapeutics.”
With the support of the Atlanta Science Tavern, the Science Cafe series is sponsored by the Center for Chemical Evolution. Science Cafe is held every third Thursday from May to October. Admission to the Garden is free for members and $18.95 for non-members and includes access to Cocktails in the Garden. Evolutionary cocktails are $7, wine is $6, and beer is $5. For more information, visit www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org/events.