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Absinthism: fictitious 19th century syndrome

Definition of pre-ban absinthe

The drink to which we refer as "pre-ban absinthe" was the icon of the belle époque. When dealing with good quality absinthes, recipe books distinguished between absinthe Suisse, with an alcohol content of approximately 68–72% vol, absinthe demi-fine, with 50–68% vol and absinthe ordinaire, with a content of 45–50% vol. Absinthe suisse was considered the highest quality and consisted of pure herbal distillate, while in the other types, the distillate was diluted with ethyl alcohol. According to these widely ranging contents, these absinthes must have contained different concentrations of thujone.

A definition of absinthe was provided in Swiss law at the time of the prohibition of absinthe. According to this definition, every spirit drink, without regard to its method of production, that contains aromatic compounds of wormwood herb in combination with other aromatic compounds derived from plants such as anise and fennel, is defined as absinthe [24]. Thu jone was regarded as being the determining factor amongst the aromatic compounds in terms of detecting wormwood spirits [25].

In the first step of traditional recipes for distilled absinthe, wormwood and other dried herbs (e.g., anise, fennel) are macerated. The macerate of the wormwood herb is of greenish-brown color, smells aromatic, like all Artemisia species, and reminds one of the composite herbs, like camomile. The taste is lightly stinging, strongly bitter and camphoric. The following distillation of the macerate results in a distillate that is reduced from the bitter compounds, which are relatively non-volatile. The distillation is conducted in a still with a very flat helmet slowly heated in a water or steam bath to avoid boilover that would negatively influence the product quality [ 26 , 27]. The distilla tion process is usually stopped at an alcoholic strength of 60%vol [27 , 28]. The characteristic, lightly volatile, fine aromatic components of the wormwood aroma appear in the first fraction between 80 and 60% volume, while the middle fractions posses a cinnamon or clove-like aroma [ 29 ]. Distillation of absinthe should never be carried on to the end, as the taste of the product would be too strong, and less fine [26]. Therefore, only the main fractions (heart) are used for the production of high-quality absinthe. The heads and tailings are collected separately and added to subsequent macerations or used to make absinthe ordinaire after renewed rectification [ 28 ].

As emphasized by Arnold [20], the distillation of absinthe may have been a type of "steam distillation" as significant amounts of water were added to the alcoholic macerate prior to distillation. Due to the influence of steam distilla tion, higher thujone may have been distilled over [20].

In the second step, wormwood (usually Artemisia pontica) and other herbs are added to the colorless distillate. This is done to accomplish the characteristic green colouring by chlorophyll and to achieve a mild bitter taste, as well as to extract other aromatic compounds. Because of the easy denaturation of chlorophyll through light and warmth, the characteristic color of a traditionally produced absinthe is pale greenish-yellow. Afterwards, the beverage is diluted with water until drinking strength is reached.

Typical historic recipes are given in the books of Duplais [ 30 ], Fritsch [ 27], Bedel [ 31 ] and de Brevans [28]. The composition of herbs used along with the wormwood differs from recipe to recipe. To improve the taste or add coloring, anise, star anise, lemon balm, hyssop, juniper, nutmeg, veronica, angelica root, melissa, coriander, camomile or parsley were added. Each country produced its own types of absinthe. For example, in the Czech Republic, peppermint was added, but neither anise nor fennel. In Switzerland, melissa, hyssop or angelica root were added to the Swiss alpine wormwood, which was a valued ingredient due to its strong aroma [32], while in France, coriander was added.

Because the essential oils from the diverse herbs can be kept in solution only in high alcohol concentrations, the addition of water causes a precipitation visible as an opaque clouding of absinthe. This phenomenon is called the Louche effect. The characteristic bitterness is caused by sesquiterpene-lactone absinthin, which can still be organoleptically detected in a concentration as low as 1 g in about 70 liters. Due to different historical aspects of absinthe, a sub-division into the historic "pre-ban absinthe" and the currently available "modern absinthe" will be used in this article.
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