Absinthe and Hallucinogenic Booze

I stepped in it a few weeks ago when I rereported, as bloggers will, that absinthe was back. While I’m vaguely aware of the stuff and would like to try it sometime I had no idea that it engendered such passion. The controversy over absinthe hinges on something called thujone which is found in wormwood, an ingredient of absinthe. Thujone is, apparently, a hallucinogenic substance and the scapegoat for absinthe’s alleged antisocial influence on its drinkers. Hey! I said alleged! Just calm down. (By the way, if you’re interested in the US government’s current position on absinthe here’s an unusually readable circular that was put out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms: “Use of the Term Absinthe for Distilled Spirits.”)

But this entry isn’t entirely about absinthe. I’m reading a fascinating book called Beer – The Story of the Pint by Martyn Cornell. Rather than retelling the same beer stories and legends again, as beer writers will, this is a proper history that relies on lovely historical sources such as archeological records and primary sources. The book focuses on the history of beer in Britain. From it I was interested to learn that some of the ancient alcoholic drinks were laced with hallucinogenic herbs such as henbane, deadly nightshade, hemlock.

Throughout history the primary use of this lovely bunch of these herbs has been poisoning. If you’re familiar with the play Hamlet you’ll remember that Hamlet’s father was murdered by having a poison poured in his ear while he slept. Well, to quote the play it was “cursed hebenon in a vial.” Deadly nightshade is so toxic that eating birds and rabbits that have fed on its berries has killed people. And hemlock is a well known poison.

Now, don’t try this as home but taken in small enough doses these poison plants merely cause hallucinations. Their hallucinogenic abilities are so powerful that a salve made containing deadly nightshade and henbane when rubbed on the arms is absorbed by the skin and creates a sensation of flying. Residue of these plants has been found in 5,000 year old fermentation vessels that were used to make honey-beer called bracket or braggot. Cornell says that it is most likely that it was reserved for religious purposes.

The ATF would have fit if someone tried to brew this stuff today!

10 Comments on "Absinthe and Hallucinogenic Booze"

  1. scott January 10, 2008 at 6:34 am - Reply

    Well, the draconian American justice system (when it comes to drug offenses) is no laughing matter either – that’s why it’s best just to waste your time reading Neatorama

  2. Bill Velek January 10, 2008 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    You said: “The ATF would have fit if someone tried to brew this stuff today!” So are you saying that there are laws on the books that prohibit the making of beer with certain herbs? Would that apply to just commercial breweries, or to homebrewers, too? If there are federal laws prohibiting the use of certain herbs in foods and drinks in general (USDA or FDA regs), such as those specifically mentioned — “henbane, deadly nightshade, hemlock” — would they apply just to people selling food/drinks, or to homebrewers as well? I’m interested because I’m a homebrewer and the founder of ‘Grow-Hops’ — a Yahoo group with over 700 members — which focuses in part on growing and using herbs to brew beer. I trying to build more data about herbs since most of our resources focuses on growing hops, especially with the shortage. Anyone interested should visit us at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Grow-Hops


    Bill Velek

  3. bgbryce January 11, 2008 at 8:26 am - Reply

    Bill – When I said that the ATF would have a fit I was thinking of commercial booze. I don’t have any details about US govt. regs. on the commercial or private use, growing, and selling of these particular herbs. Scott described US drug law as draconian; I would use the adjective arbitrary. It could be that there are no regulations on these herbs or it could be that they are so closely regulated that we are now under surveillance for even discussing them. I do know that extracts from some of these herbs are used in prescription drugs.

    But Bill, these herbs have all been used as murder weapons at various times throughout history. Legal or not is this really something that you want to put in your homebrew? I say stay away from them and stick to safer herbs!

    That said, I applaud your approach to the hops crisis. Herbs used in the pre-hops days may very well provide some relief to the situation. There are a lot of resources out there for old recipes. I’ll be interested to know how your brews turn out.

  4. Bill Velek January 11, 2008 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    Personally, I’m not all that interested in using toxic herbs … at least not at this time. The only herbs I’ve used so far have actually been ‘spice’ additions to hopped-beer, such as cinnamon or pumpkin-pie spices. But there are some “historic” brewing types who brew without hops (gruits and such) using more exotic herbs that I’ve never tried, and I’ve seen recipes for at least three herbs that are considered dangerous: bog myrtle, mugwort, and wormwood. I’ve never heard of the three you mentioned (“henbane, deadly nightshade, hemlock” ) ever being used in beer, and was merely asking out of concern that if they are regulated then perhaps the three I mentioned, and others, are also regulated by the gov.

    Actually, there probably is no need for the gov to control this because breweries would never take the risk of a product liability suit for injuries, real or imagined, and they’d probably never be able to get insurance if the insurance companies ever discovered their use of toxic substances. Plus, what sort of an advertising strategy could you use? No matter how you’d paint it, the competition would have a field day — “drink OUR beer … it’s non-toxic”, etc.

    I have a recipe book for the use of ‘safe’ herbs, but I still haven’t gotten around to brewing a beer without hops; I’ve heard lots of brewers comment about how bad they taste, so I’m a bit reluctant to risk the money and time experimenting. I’d much rather taste one first, but I don’t know where or how to get hold of one. Maybe I need to go to a renaissance fair.

    If the hop crisis actually turns out as bad as it could, we might have a lot of members and other homebrewers try the no-hop recipes, and even engage in some experimentation. But commercial beers … at least the mega-brewers … have a lock on what they need, and they use so little hops that this is not going to be a crisis for them at all. It might even help them by reducing or reversing the recent growth in craft beers which use a LOT more hops and will be more seriously affected.


    Bill Velek — http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Grow-Hops

  5. bgbryce January 11, 2008 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    Bill – You should check out the book that I mentioned in the main entry. I think you’d be fascinated by his discussions of ancient beers. And, since it’s British beer history, I’m guessing that there is going to be some interesting discussion of unhopped ales but I haven’t gotten there yet.

    Good point about the propensity of business to exercise cya at every possible opportunity. For example, I was quick to tell you the obvious: that you shouldn’t brew with stuff that can kill you. Not because I think you would but because I want to cover BoozinGear’s and my butt!

    Obviously hops is superior seeing how quickly and nearly completely hopped beer replaced unhopped beer when brewers started using it. It would take some experimenting to come up with good herbed beers. Something that I’ve done from time to time is use 1 gallon glass jugs (bought jug wine which was cheaper then 1 gallon carboys from a homebrew supply shop) to split up a five gallon batch. Then I tried dry-hopping with different herbs.

  6. Bill Velek January 11, 2008 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Regarding your suggestion about experimenting by ‘dry-hopping’ small batches with different herbs. let me suggest another possible method which you might find better. Use pure ethanol (e.g., ‘Everclear’), or perhaps just vodka (that’s what I’ve used) to make a ‘tincture’; this is done by soaking your herbs in the alcohol for a few weeks. The ethanol acts as a solvent to extract the oils and resins in the herb, and with the higher concentration of ethanol when done separately, I suspect the extraction will probably be more complete. You can then use an eyedropper to experiment with different concentrations in the same beer using shot-glasses. Then when you find the concentration you like, you calculate how much tincture needs to be added to the bottling bucket or keg. Not only will that method probably make the most of your herbs, but it will also give you a much broader range of experiment without wasting much beer. Also, I hope you don’t mind this banter back and forth on your blog.


    Bill Velek

  7. bgbryce January 11, 2008 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Don’t mind the back and forth at all.

    I’ve never used a tincture for perhaps the goofiest reason in the world – somehow it feels like cheating to me. I know it’s silly but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it for that reason. Anything that is used outside of the normal brewing process mash–>boil–>ferment–>storage that affects the beer feels impure. Don’t ask me why but there it is.

    BUT, you’re absolutely right. It is probably the best way to experiment with herbs.

  8. Bill Velek January 12, 2008 at 1:56 am - Reply

    Making a tincture is just a technique, sort of like making a yeast starter using a stir plate, airstone, and oxygen (although I don’t do any of that because I don’t have the equipement). And I’m more concerned with making good beer than feeling like I need to religiously adhere to some established procedures. But whatever floats your boat; it’s your beer, so make it the way you want.


    Bill Velek

  9. bgbryce January 12, 2008 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I know, that’s why I call it goofy. The funny thing about it all is that I’ll throw anything in a beer. I don’t have a fanatical devotion to Rheinheitsgebot or anything. But for some reason this seems like crossing a line to my diseased brain.

    Anyway, I think I’ve beaten that one to death.

  10. Martyn Cornell September 2, 2008 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your kind comments – my new ebook, Amber Gold and Black, available for just £5/$10 from http://www.thecornerpub.co.uk, contains all the information on herb beers, including the many thujone-containing ones, I didn’t have room for in Beer, the Story of the Pint.

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