Absinthe is the poster-child of scapegoats. It is affectionately known as la fée verte (the green fairy) for the mesmerizing effect of the louche, or swirling cloud, created when mixing the usually greenish-colored absinthe with cold water, and not for any legendary and completely unsubstantiated mind-altering properties.
The nearly worldwide ban on absinthe began as a result of a Swiss laborer’s drunken murder-spree. One morning, Jean Lanfray washed down his breakfast with a couple of glasses of absinthe. Later that day, he indulged in coffee with brandy, crème de menthe, seven glasses of strong wine, more coffee with brandy and another liter of wine. Then he murdered his pregnant wife and two children.
Absinthe was a popular drink in those days, and even a little notorious thanks to the publicity given it by writers and artists of la Belle Époque. But the temperance-happy prosecutors successfully convinced the jury that had Lanfray bypassed those two breakfast glasses of absinthe, he would not have murdered his family.
The trial began and ended on February 23, 1906. Lanfray was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the verdict resulted in a 95-year exile for absinthe. Soon after the trial, absinthe was declared illegal in Switzerland, its country of origin. France and most other European countries followed suit. It has taken all this time for the anise-flavored beverage to clear its name.
In 1977, the FDA published a document of guidelines for food and beverage additives, subsequently revised several times, in which a list of items was identified along with legal parameters and prohibitions. Among the list of substances, Artemisia Absinthium (commonly known as wormwood) was to be allowed in "finished food thujone free." Wormwood is the distinguishing ingredient in absinthe that sets it apart from pastis and other similar licorice-flavored liquors. The key phrase in the FDA’s guideline is "thujone free." You’ve probably seen some packaged food, like potato chips, for instance, with a prominent inscription that it contains 0% transfat only to discover in the ingredients printed on the back of the package (in very small letters) that it contains some kind of hydrogenated oil. That’s because 0% is the rounded number and really means there’s so little of that junk in your food that you should ignore the transfat and chow down. The FDA, on occasion, will consider it permissible for a trace amount to be the same as nothing at all. Similarly, when your government says "thujone free" what they are really saying is "less than 10 parts per million." So in this new math <10ppm = 0.
Afraid of thujone? Thujone is related to menthol and because of that minty property wormwood has had a long history as a medicinal herb. Thujone is also found, in traces, in the herbs sage and cinnamon and in your Vick’s Vap-O-Rub. We seem to have survived those well enough.
As it happens, quite a few pre-Prohibition bottles of absinthe survived and still circulate among the connoisseurs and cognoscenti. When some of those antiques were examined with modern scientific methods, none of them had anything as high as 10ppm of thujone. With that piece of information, one would assume that the doors would burst wide open and all reputable distillers would be welcome. But the keys to that door are held by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), an arm of the U.S. Treasury.
Aside from the thujone decree of the FDA, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a law in the U.S. that forbids the sale or possession of absinthe. The original ban was declared by the Department of Agriculture – not a law-making body – in 1912 in the wake of the European absinthe-panic. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising distiller took up the cause.
The heroes of this story are the owners of Blackmint Distillery who successfully petitioned the Swiss government in 2003 to lift its constitutional prohibition of absinthe. Blackmint is the owner of Absinthe Kübler which was originally produced in Val-de-Travers in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in the 1860s. Production has been revived, run by members of the Kübler family using the original recipe. After successfully persuading the Swiss government to permit the manufacture and sale of absinthe, they requested permission to export their product to the U.S. Blackmint provided the TTB with samples so that the agency could analyze it and confirm that their absinthe was compliant with the FDA regulations. This step was very easy. Kübler Absinthe is made according to its original formula – as is true for most other pre-Prohibition absinthes – and contains less than the allowed limit of thujone. Case closed? Not nearly.
The TTB had a serious problem, not with the liquid, but with the name – or more precisely, the image that the name conjured up. To paraphrase Tony Soprano’s lecture to his children, out there it may have been 2003, but inside the walls of the TTB it was 1906. The word "absinthe" gave these functionaries visions of bacchanalias, drug-induced stupors and demonic hallucinations. In their own words: "The word ‘Absynthe’ can be written absinthe, absente, absinth, etc. It is still described as an illicit drug term and is prohibited from the distilled spirits products. Absynthe is illegal for consumption in the United States." They admitted they had no problem with the liquid inside the bottle. Did they think someone was going to get high by eating the label?
So the TTB told Blackmint they could sell Absinthe Kübler without any modification except they couldn’t use the word "absinthe." This caused a stand-off that would last nearly four years – the Kübler family unwilling to call their absinthe by any other name and the TTB unwilling to call a spade a spade.
In desperation, the Kübler team asked the Swiss embassy for assistance. After some negotiation, the TTB relented somewhat and said that, on the label, the word "absinthe" could not be printed larger than the brand name. Their ruling this time included the statement: "Any artwork or graphics on the label, advertising, and point of sale materials using the term ‘absinthe’ may not project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects. 27 CFR 5.42(a) and 5.65(a)."
The key ingredient, a little diplomatic grease (no FDA guidelines on that additive), broke down the last barrier.
How evil is absinthe and how bad is it for you? In large doses, thujone can cause convulsions and death, but at a maximum of 10ppm in absinthe (which is usually in excess of 100 proof), alcohol poisoning will kill you before the thujone kicks in. For that matter, nutmeg is a hallucinogen in mega-doses, but we still wouldn’t think of leaving it out of our eggnog; and no one is going to be able to drink enough eggnog to get a nutmeg high. Like many of nature’s beneficial herbs, small doses are benign where large doses of the same herb can be damaging. In small doses thujone is absolutely harmless and might even be good for you – it was once used as a medicine in your great-great-great grandfather’s day.
Absinthe is made of several herbs, the most prominent of which are wormwood, fennel and anise – hence the predominant licorice-type flavor. The traditional method of preparing it is 4 or 5 ounces of cold water to one shot (1.5 oz) absinthe, with the water poured slowly over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon held over the glass. The slow addition of water allows the louche to proceed leisurely, swirling like a dancing green fairy. The color of absinthe can range from clear to green depending on which herbs are added and to what proportion. As to the flavor, one would have to say it’s particularly French. Depending on the mixture and proportion of herbs, the anise and fennel may dominate or the bitter-menthol flavor of wormwood might become somewhat prominent. Pastis, anise and other licorice-flavored drinks continue to be much more popular in France and French-speaking countries than anywhere else. As for American tastes, I’m not sure the premium vodka crowd will warm up to the taste of absinthe. Very likely absinthe will have a quiet, uneventful life here in the U.S., and that’s more than all right with me. Martini bars need not feel threatened.
Drink responsibly. And if you plan to hack up your family like Jean Lanfray did, for goodness sake, start the day with Kool-Aid and leave my absinthe alone.
When not dining in exotic locales, Michael Macheret forages closer to home in the South Bay regions near Los Angeles