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A spirit made from the distilled leaves of wormwood (artemisia absinthium). It was invented by a French doctor, strangely called 'Ordinaire'; he sold his recipe to a Monsieur Pernod in 1797.
But while the word rightly has French connotations because of the popularity of the drink in artistic society there around the turn of the 19th century, drinks flavoured with wormwood were very popular with the Romans. It was prized by the French for its aphrodisiac powers, real or imagined.
In Britain wormwood was put into both wine and ale in Elizabethan times, and wormwood leaves made into spirits, often with hyssop and mint during the same period. Wormwood was considered to encourage appetite and cure gripes. The inclusion of wormwood was banned in France in 1915 for health reasons - so proprietary brands such as Pernod and Ricard are now made without it.
However, the neurotoxin causing the problem has since been isolated, and is called 'thujone' - and while wormwood itself is banned, thujone itself, is permissible within the EU (although banned in the U.S.A.).
Absinthe is slowly gaining ground as a 'trendy' drink, and while thujone is allowed under EU law to be used in concentrations of 10 ppm(mg/1), recent (July 2003) tests in Germany have shown that some popular brands of absinthe, on sale there, contain as much as 60 ppm, and advise people not to indulge in more than on glass of the drink a day.
All this has to be put into proportion, as before the First World War, thujone levels in absinthe were as high as 260 ppm! See 'Wormwood'