In the U.S., thujone levels in absinthe are capped at 10 milligrams per liter, while absinthe in Europe may have 35 milligrams per liter. Modern science has estimated that a person drinking absinthe would die from alcohol poisoning long before he or she were affected by the thujone. And there is no evidence at all that thujone can cause hallucinations, even in high doses. We now know that properly manufactured absinthe — an anise-flavored, alcoholic drink — is no more dangerous than any other properly prepared liquor.
The chemical that’s taken all the blame for absinthe’s hallucinogenic reputation is called thujone, which is a component of wormwood. In very high doses, thujone can be toxic. It is a GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) inhibitor, meaning it blocks GABA receptors in the brain, which can cause convulsions if you ingest enough of it. It occurs naturally in many foods, but never in doses high enough to hurt you. And there’s not enough thujone in absinthe to hurt you, either. By the end of the distillation process, there is very little thujone left in the product.
Traditional absinthe is made of anise, fennel and wormwood (a plant), and various recipes add other herbs and flowers to the mix. The anise, fennel and wormwood are soaked in alcohol, and the mixture is then distilled. The distillation process causes the herbal oils and the alcohol to evaporate, separating from the water and bitter essences released by the herbs. The fennel, anise and wormwood oils then recondense with the alcohol in a cooling area, and the distiller dilutes the resulting liquid down to whatever proof the absinthe is supposed to be (based on brand variations or regional laws). At this point, the absinthe is clear; many manufacturers add herbs to the mixture after distillation to get the classic green color from their chlorophyll.
What about the tales of hallucinations, Oscar Wilde and his tulips, family massacres and instant death? Not absinthe’s fault, technically speaking. Absinthe does have a very high alcohol content — anywhere between 55 and 75 percent alcohol by volume, which equates to about 110 to 144 proof. It makes whiskey’s standard 40 percent (80 proof) seem like child’s play, which is why absinthe is supposed to be diluted. Absinthe is not a hallucinogen; rather its alcohol content and herbal flavor set it apart from other liquors.