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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What can you tell me about wormwood? I came across wormwood-infused wines when I was in Europe. It gave the wines a bit of an herbaceous, bitter note.

—Dan H., Lake County, Calif.

Dear Dan,

Wormwood is the name of a bushy herb that’s most famously known as one of the ingredients in absinthe. It has a long history of being used as a type of medicinal and a bitter—the ancient Egyptians used it, and Shakespeare mentions it in Romeo and Juliet.

Because of its supposed health benefits (and the mind-altering side effects), wormwood was used in spirits, wines, bitters, vermouth, tea and even as a substitute for hops in 18th-century England. Nineteenth-century French troops drank absinthe to combat malaria. Wormwood oil is also tagged as an aid for digestive disorders, insect bites, pain reliever and insecticide.

Besides being decidedly bitter, wormwood has a minty, anise-like scent. I’ve heard it described as reminiscent of tarragon, fennel or camphor. Absinthe was a very popular beverage in France, and it helped that wormwood oil contains the chemical thujone, which excites the central nervous system, leading to hallucinations and unfortunately also seizures. That led to bans on Absinthe with certain levels of thujone. These days you can find Absinthe much easier, but with safe levels of thujone.

As far as wormwood wines, I found some references to ancient Roman spiced wines that include adding honey and spices including wormwood. Yes, there are some winemakers infusing wine with wormwood, and I’m not surprised that they came across as herbal and bitter given the herb’s profile.

—Dr. Vinny

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