Stalks of grayish green herbs hang from the ceiling, as they have since they were picked the previous year and set to dry. One by one, the man pulls down each stalk and delicately strips the dry leaves and flowers into a bowl. When the bowl is full he pours it into the copper alembic. Next, he places handfuls of anis, coriander, hyssop and other herbs into the pot. He pours clean spirit and a little water into the alembic. Satisfied that everything is as it should be, he gives the mixture a quick stir with a small paddle and places the onion-shaped top on the still, sealing it in place with a touch of mortar flour paste. He then lights the fire under the alembic and waits …

So it has been since ancient times … almost as long as people have practiced the art of distilling, wormwoods have been used to make various distilled elixirs. In fact, the use of wormwoods with alcohol long pre-dates distillation. Their use can be traced as far back as 1550 BC, where they are discussed in an ancient Egyptian document known as the Ebers Papyrus. This document, one of the oldest medical texts known to exist, contains detailed instructions on how to prepare medicinal concoctions using wormwood along with other herbs, spices and botanicals, soaked in wine, a process in many ways identical to that used to make many vermouths today.

For centuries alchemists, apothecaries, healers, holy men and even executioners have used various members of the wormwood family, a sub-set of the genus Artemisia, to make a variety of different but related elixirs, the forbearers of some of the most famous and infamous liquors and liqueurs of all time.

These include many different spirits that we know today.

Genepi (or Genepy) are liqueurs typically made using “lesser” wormwoods (such as petite/roman wormwood, sea wormwood, black wormwood or rock wormwood), either alone or in combination with other spices and botanicals. These liqueurs are produced throughout the alpine areas of Europe and are referred to by a variety of names. They are commonly referred to as genepi in the Alps and Pyrenees mountains. The word genepi is often also used to refer to various wormwood plants as well, especially in France and the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland.

Chartreuse (the famous family of liqueurs made by the Carthusian Monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the Chartreuse Mountains of France) are genepi with the addition of other herbs, spices and botanicals. Today, the Chartreuse liqueurs are produced in Voiron using herbal mixtures prepared by two monks at Grande Chartreuse. The same distillery also produces other liqueurs including genepi. According to the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the exact recipes for all forms of Chartreuse are only known at any given time by the two monks who prepare the herbal mixture.

Izzara is a famous brand of liqueur produced on the French side of Pyrenees, also known as the Northern Basque Country. Like the Chartreuse liqueurs, Izzara’s liqueurs are modified genepi. Also like the Chartreuse liqueurs there are multiple versions, the most common of which are green and yellow Izzara.

Bäsk Brännvin (also known as Malört) is a Swedish liqueur that is essentially a genepi in that it is made with wormwoods and other herbs, spices and botanicals, typically using the same types of production methods used by other genepi producers in other parts of Europe and the United States.

Arguably the most famous brand of Malört, at least in the United States, is Jeppson’s Malört. This product was distilled for years in Chicago, using an old Swedish recipe, and is a staple in Chicago bars. It is currently produced in Florida.

Famous and infamous, maligned and misunderstood, absinthe is liquor (not liqueur) made from a mixture of Grand Wormwood, Artimisia absinthium, with other herbs added. To be a “true” absinthe, it must contain at minimum grand wormwood, sweet fennel and green anis, though most contain many other herbs, spices and botanicals as well.

Legend has it that Absinthe was created in the Val de Travers in the Swiss Canton of Neuchâtel, a valley bordered on the west by the Jura Mountains, along the French border. The Valley of the Green Fairy, has had a tradition of producing Absinthe and other similar elixirs for centuries. Grand Wormwood and other related herbs grow wild throughout the Jura Mountains and have been used for medicinal purposes literally as long as humans have inhabited the area.

The story goes, a nun by the name of Sister Henriod created and later sold the recipe for this mysterious healing elixir to Doctor Pierre Ordinair. The good doctor, after making a living by traveling on his horse around Europe selling the elixir, ultimately sold the formula to a pair of French businessmen, Major Dubied and Monsieur Pernod. Pernod would go on to found a large distillery in Pontarlier, France, only a dozen miles or so from the Val de Travers. His company, Pernod Fils, went on to commercialize absinthe. Absinthe’s popularity would grow rapidly in France and elsewhere throughout the 1800s, to a point where, for a variety of reasons that were largely political, absinthe was ultimately vilified and outlawed in Switzerland (1912), France (1915) and the United States (1915).

The European bans on absinthe would be overturned in Europe in 2005 based upon scientific evidence showing that the basis for banning the product was unfounded.

In the United States, two separate groups would, within a 24 hour period in 2007, petition the U.S. government not to change the laws, but simply to honor the law as written. This law, the Safe Food Act, codified in 1921, stated that any product with less than 10 parts per million of “Thujone” (a chemical found in some members of the wormwood family, most notabley Grand Wormwood, that was the basis for the ban) was “Thujone-free.” Testing of historic “pre-ban” absinthes and of new absinthes produced in Europe showed that the majority of absinthe had always been “Thujone free” under the U.S. law as written. So on December 20th, 2007 the U.S. government allowed absinthe to be produced and imported as long as it was proven to be “Thujone free.”

Types of Wormwood
Of the hundreds of different herbs that constitute the Artemisia genus, only a few have traditionally been used in the production of wines and spirits. The remainder of Artemisia plants are typically either foul tasting, contain chemicals that are unhealthy, or both … though it is likely that there are some members of this group that simply have never been experimented with by distillers.

The most common wormwoods used in the production of wines and spirits are:

Grand Wormwood – Artemesia Absinthium
The most well known of the Artemesias, at least from a distiller’s perspective, grand wormwood is the herb that gives Absinthe its name. It is typically the largest and most bitter of the Artemesias commonly used in beverage production. It is used in absinthe and some vermouths.

Petite (Roman) Wormwood – Artemesia Pontica
Similar in appearance to grand wormwood, but smaller, with finer leaves and a typically sweeter taste, Artemesia pontica is typically used along with Absinthium in absinthe production. It is also frequently used in various other wormwood liquors (genepi, etc.) and in vermouths, amers/amaros and non-potable cocktail bitters.

Sea Wormwood – Artemesia Meritima
Artemesia meritima, also known as sea wormwood, marsh wormwood and old woman, is a long-used medicinal herb. It is found in genepi, vermouths, amers/amaros and non-potable cocktail bitters. It resembles southern wormwood but is not as fragrant.

Southern Wormwood – Artemisia Abrotanum
Artemesia abrotanum, also known as southern wormwood, southern wood, lad’s love and old man. It is an extremely fragrant herb that resembles sea wormwood but with a pleasant fragrance. It is used in a variety of alcoholic beverages, its flowers and leaves are used to make tea and it is used as a culinary herb throughout Europe and Asia. A yellow dye can be made from the plant as well (suitable for coloring both cloth and spirits).

Rock Wormwood – Artemesia Rupestris
Also known as white genepi, it grows in northern alpine environments in Asia, Europe and North America. It is used in genepi and is one of the more common types of wormwood used in Malört (at least those produced in Sweden).

Common Wormwood – Artemesia Vulgaris
Common wormwood is the herb most often referred to as mugwort, though several other types of wormwood are also called mugwort by some. Other names include felon herb, chrysanthemum weed, wild wormwood, old Uncle Henry, sailor’s tobacco, naughty man, old man or St. John’s plant (not to be confused with St John’s wort). Common wormwood is used as a medicinal and culinary herb, and in the production of many different types of liquors, liqueurs, vermouths, etc.

Black Genepi – Artemesia Genipi
Sometimes called black wormwood or spiked wormwood, this plant is often found in alpine areas with recent glacial activity, as it is one of the plants that first takes hold as glaciers retreat. It is used in the production of genepi and likely other liqueurs, especially in small mountain villages in the Alps and similar regions. It is not widely commercially cultivated (if at all) and as such only smaller producers would typically use it. Since many old recipes call for it, commercial herb sellers will sometimes market other members of the wormwood family, such as common wormwood or rock wormwood, under this name.

Yellow Genepi – Artemisia Umbelliformis
Sometimes also referred to as white genepi (see above) or genepi blanco and often used interchangeably with Artemisia rupestris. It is typically harvested wild and is used as a condiment and culinary herb. It is also used in the production of genepi and other related liqueurs and spirits.

FDA Status of Wormwood / TTB Formulation Issues

All wormwoods are lumped into one classification (Artemisia) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Further, they are considered as food additives under CFR Title 21- Part 172 — Food Additives Permitted For Direct Addition to Food for Human Consumption, Subpart, Section 172.510 — Natural Flavoring Substances and Natural Substances Used in Conjunction with Flavors.

Within this section of federal law it states that finished food substances (including alcohol beverages) must be “Thujone free.”

What this means to alcohol beverage producers is that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) will require any producer submitting a formula containing any type of Artemisia, to submit a sample to the National Laboratory for testing prior to formula approval. Since many members of the family do not contain Thujone, this is simply a formality for some products … but one that must be completed.

When formulas containing wormwoods are submitted to TTB, it is also prudent to list both the English and scientific/Latin name for the herb and reference the specific part of the federal code that covers its use (i.e. CFR 21 – Part 172) on the formula application.

Production Techniques

There are a number of ways in which wormwoods have been used to produce alcohol beverages, all of which are still used by producers today. Most producers will use a combination of two or more of these methods in their production.

Maceration — The oldest and most simple technique is maceration. This is the practice of soaking the herbs in a liquid, typically either wine or alcohol. The liquid acts as a solvent to extract the essential oils and essences from the plant material. This is the same process that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, etc. used with wine and beer to produce wormwood elixirs. Similarly, there are still numerous small producers that will macerate wormwood in alcohol (vodka, NGS, etc.) to create their own spirits today.

Digestion — The second method, sometimes called a hot infusion (or digestion in the older texts) is the practice of macerating the herbs in a liquid exposed to heat briefly and then left to macerate for a period of time.

Distillation — As it applies to these types of spirits, distillation is the practice of placing the herbal material into a still with either water, or a mix of alcohol and water, and using the still to extract the essential oils and essences. It is typically a much more efficient and effective method of extraction than maceration.

Distillation is used in a variety of way ways. The first is to distill a single herb with water (aka steam distillation) or alcohol to produce concentrated essential oils, essences and hydrosols. These can then be added to clean spirit to create the final product (this is often called compounding or oil blending).

The second, and arguably the more effective technique  for a premium product is to distill one or more herbs to create a liquor without concentrating the essential oils. This is done by placing either a single herb (or botanical), or a combination of herbs and botanicals, into the still with clean spirit and water, then distilling it so that the essential oils and essences are extracted into the final spirit.

A third method, more typically used for gin, is to place herbs and botanicals into a botanical basket either suspended in the still or more typically mounted in a chamber along the vapor line from the still to the condenser. Clean spirit is then placed in the still and redistilled, forcing alcohol vapor through the contents of the basket, extracting some of the essential oils and essences.

Compounding — As we previously touched on, this is the practice of taking pre-made essential oils, essences and hydrosols, and blending them with clean spirit to produce a final product. This practice has been around for centuries and is used by both large and small producers to produce a wide variety of different spirits. One risk with this type of production is that the end product can often be both an astringent “alcohol” note and a gritty taste.

Examples of Historical Recipes

To illustrate how these types of spirits are put together, we’ve included two historical recipes. Both were used by distillers between 120 and 220 years ago. Variations of both are still being used today.

The first example is an old genepi recipe from around 1800 that is probably similar to that of modern Green Chartreuse. This recipe describes how an apothecary produced a complex genepi during the late 1700s. Note that the recipe calls for an in-still maceration over clean spirit, followed by distillation. The author then states that it can be dulcified (to make it a liqueur) or not (making it a liquor) as the distiller desires.

Genepi des Alps

Take of the common and sea wormwood, dried, of each ten pounds; of sage, mint, and balm, dried, of each twenty handfuls; of the roots of galangal, ginger, calamus aromaticusm and elecampane, of the seeds of sweet fennel and coriander, of each three ounces; of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmegs, the lesser cardamoms and cubebs, of each two ounces. Cut and bruise the ingredients as they require. Digest them twenty-four hours, in eleven gallons of proof spirit, and two gallons of water, and draw off ten gallons, or till the faints begin to rise, with a pretty brisk fire. It may be dulcified with sugar, or not, at pleasure.

The second is a classic absinthe recipe showing how a typical absinthe produced in Pontarlier was put together. This recipe was published in one of the most celebrated books on distilling produced during the latter half of the 1800s.

The procedure calls for an initial maceration followed by a distillation. This is followed by a second maceration with heat to extract the color (along with aroma and additional flavor). This is also the same type of procedure used to produce premium absinthes today.

It should also be noted that how the distiller processes the herbs will have great effect on the final product. This recipe lists only one of many, many ways in which herbs may be processed.

Absinthe of Pontarlier (Absinthe de Pontarlier)

Greater absinthe, dry and clean 250 grm.
Green anis 500 grm.
Fennel 500 grm.
Alcohol 85° 9 l. 500 c.c.

Macerate the plants in alcohol for 12 hours, and add 4 l. 500 c.c. of water before distilling. Draw off 9 l. 500 c.c. of perfumed spirits. Continue operation until all phlegm is drawn off, which is set aside for another operation.

The green color of the liquor is imparted by the following:

Small absinthe, dry and clean 100 grm.
Hyssop, dry tops and flowers 100 grm.
Balm mint (lemon balm) 50 grm.
Perfumed spirit of previous operation 400 c.c.

The small absinthe is cut fine; the hyssop and the balm are powdered in a mortar, and the whole is digested by gentle heat with the spirit in a water bath. The heating operation terminated, the cooled liquid is passed through a haircloth sieve. To the colored liquor ad 5 l. 500 c.c. of perfumed spirit, and reduce the strength to 74° by adding 500 c.c. of water, so as to obtain 10 l.   

Source: The Manufacture of Liquors and Preserves – De Brevans – 1893 Edition