The first thing most people think about when you mention wormwood is absinthe, the magical green booze with the legendary hallucinatory effects. As it turns out, wormwood has more to do with flavor and less with this temporary (but unproven) madness. The modern history of wormwood gives fresh depth to this classic ingredient. Here are eight little-known facts about how this herb is used today, its purpose centuries ago and what makes it so unique in the plant kingdom.
- Wormwood won’t make you crazy.
Wormwood, as you probably know, was traditionally used to flavor absinthe. Yes, it contains thujone, a compound that can cause seizures and death at very high doses, but the concentration found in absinthe won’t make you hallucinate. The only reason people ever went nutty from drinking with the “green fairy” was due to the exorbitant amount of alcohol found in the beverage. During absinthe’s heyday in mid-19th century France, most bottles of the stuff contained around 70 percent ABV — about twice the average amount of alcohol in gin, vodka and whiskey.
- Many types of wormwood exist.
“There are more than 200 plants in the genus Artemisia [a.k.a. “wormwood”], including southern wormwood, petite wormwood (which is used in coloring absinthe) and grande wormwood,” says Brian Robinson of the Wormwood Society. The best known species of wormwood is Artemisia absinthium, or grande wormwood, the only type that you can use in the distillation process for something to be considered authentic absinthe. “Most wormwoods are segregated by the regions in which they are grown, and they all have different flavors and aromas,” says Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros. distillery in Colorado. At the distillery, Leopold sticks with tradition and uses grande wormwood, sourced in-state. Wormwood can grow almost anywhere in the world, though the most popular regions include Pontarlier, near the Swiss-French border, and southern Virginia in the U.S. “It’s safe to say that there is at least one species of wormwood growing in every climate in the world,” says Robinson.
- Drinks besides absinthe utilize wormwood.
In the Alps, various native species of wormwood collectively called génépi are used to brew liqueurs also called génépi (or genepy). This yellow-green spirit showcases the true flavor of wormwood: bitter and herbaceous. You can also find recipes that call for wormwood in Amaro, the French apéritif quina, and even some schnapps like the Swedish-made Jeppson’s Malört. Vermouth can also have wormwood in it, as can beer and even some wine (more on those beverages later).
- Wormwood got its reputation from a smear campaign.
Though wormwood has been utilized for eons, somewhere along the line it went from a medicinal and flavoring agent to an enemy of the drink and culinary world. “Wormwood garnered most of its bad reputation when the French wine industry staged a smear campaign in the 1800s against the liquor absinthe, which had stolen many of the wine industry’s consumer base after the phylloxera plague hit,” says Robinson, referring to a vine blight that caused a major dip in French wine production. “When the wine industry recovered, many of its consumers had switched to drinking absinthe, which led them to launch the propaganda campaign.”
- Vermouth was inspired by wormwood.
More than 2,000 years ago, wormwood wine was a drink of choice. Eventually this beverage evolved into modern vermouth. “A cool fact is that by law, all European vermouth contains wormwood,” says Leopold. “The German word for wormwood is ‘wermut,’ and this word is what led to the modern word ‘vermouth.'” Since wormwood was seen as an ingredient to help soothe digestive issues, it was a shoo-in for an after- dinner drink. Today, a few vermouths are still made with wormwood, such as Piedmont’s Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso, based on a classic di Torino recipe from the late 19th century. This particular type of contains both grande and petite wormwood, along with more than 25 pharmaceutical-grade herbs, roots and spices.
- Wormwood was used in beer production.
Because wormwood is a bittering agent, it worked well as a hop substitute for beer. Back in the Middle Ages, “purl,” or wormwood ale, was a variation on beer that incorporated wormwood instead of hops for the bitter bite. Shakespeare even wrote about purl in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Charles Dickens has many references to the drink in his writings. To make it, brewers used the top of the plant, which commonly grew along the coastal salt marshes in England. By the 19th century, this technique died out as more people turned to English bitter ale and utilized hops to add that sharp edge.
- You can grow wormwood at home.
Though it may seem wormwood is best picked wild while chanting thanks to some horned god, it’s actually very easy to grow. “You can absolutely cultivate wormwood,” says Robinson. “There are quite a few gardeners who specialize in cultivating grande and petite wormwood for the production of absinthe.” Hence, there is no reason to hesitate sowing your own wormwood plants. Many types are found at garden centers and, like most things, you can order your greens online as well. The best way to find this perennial plant is to look for it by its Latin name, Artemisia absinthium. It’s pretty easy to grow, too, and just needs a lot of sun, pruning and dry, well-drained soil.
- You can eat your wormwood.
“Wormwood has been used for flavoring many products, such as pastries and cakes, in the form of mugwort and other savory goods in the form of sage,” says Robinson. What’s the difference between wormwood, sage and mugwort? Mugwort refers to all aromatic plants found in the genus Artemisia, of which wormwood is one. Artemisia has between 200 and 400 species in the group, all belonging to the daisy family Asteraceae. Sage also falls into this category, and interestingly enough, it contains more toxins than wormwood, yet no one thinks twice about using it in say, a brown butter sauce. “You won’t find much instance of wormwood being used in food due to its extreme level of bitterness,” says Robinson. “But other species such as sage, tarragon and mugwort are very common cooking ingredients.” He adds that Asian cultures use mugwort a lot in pastries, and Robinson himself has a fondness for mugwort cake.