Wormwood – this rather witchy-sounding stuff is something most of us have heard of but never, at least not knowingly, ever clapped eyes on. Certainly until recently my image of wormwood was some kind of gnarly bit of branch with some woodworm holes in it (well, you would, wouldn’t you?). But then the other day I made a trip to Piedmont, a region in northwest Italy that’s not only famous for its wine, but also its vermouth, a drink that must, by law, be flavoured with wormwood. In fact the word ‘vermouth’ comes from the German for wormwood, ‘vermud’. (And wormwood gets its name from the fact that it used to be used as a purgative to treat intestinal worms – nice). There are several different types of wormwood used in vermouth but the one that’s most often used in drinks is artemesia absinthium, a shaggy, silvery-leafed plant that smells a bit like a rootsy cross between sweet garden peas and sage, and tastes insanely bitter.
Have a look at that Latin name again and it may give you a clue to another drink that wormwood plays a big part in – yep, absinthe. All that stuff you hear about absinthe making you hallucinate and go mad and cut off your ear has, historically, been blamed on a compound in wormwood called thujone, which can be toxic in very high doses. In reality, the quantities of thujone you find in absinthe or vermouth are far too small to pose a health risk. In fact, sage contains a lot more thujone than wormwood. And yet amazingly this hasn’t stopped countries including the US and France historically banning absinthe in the belief that it will send us all insane (it’s actually far more likely that the green fairies seen by absinthe-swilling turn of the century artists were down to the strength, and volume, of absinthe they were drinking, which is traditionally somewhere between 70 and 80% abv – about twice the strength of vodka).
The real reason for absinthe being banned, at least in France, was a political one. In the second half of the 19th century three things happened to bring this about: France saw a big rise in alcoholism, the wine and cognac industry was hit by phylloxera, which decimated the country’s vineyards, and an absinthe-drinking culture took off in its place. Angry and powerful French winemakers wanted a scapegoat, so when a study (which is widely questioned today) identified thujone as potentially toxic, they fell upon this as an excuse to target absinthe, and eventually succeeded in having it banned altogether.
So don’t go drinking absinthe or vermouth in search of some psychedelic trip, as you will be disappointed (they probably won’t cure your case of worms either). But if you want to enjoy the flavour-enhancing charms of wormwood, then here are three things to try:
Babicka Wormwood Vodka
A peppery, herbal vodka from the Czech Republic – one for drinking as a shot or trying in martini style drinks of Bloody Maries.
40% abv. £29.20/70cl
Jade Espirit Edouard Verte
An absinthe made by in the authentic pre-ban style by boutique French company Jade – one for absinthe aficionados.
72% abv. £67.07/70cl
This famous Italian red vermouth from Piedmont made with more than 20 different botanicals, including the centerpiece, artemesia absinthium.
15% abv. £8.32/75cl.