Month: July 2012

Absinthe Crash Course: Part 3, Myths.

You’re a few steps into absinthe culture and now you really have some questions. What about all that stuff in the movies? How about that one time when you went to Europe and had a completely different tasting product that was prepared with fire? Well, now is the time to really burst those bubbles.

Part 3: Myths.

The reason that absinthe isn’t what you expected is because of all the myths. Out of all the spirits in the world absinthe is probably the MOST misaligned of all. The history of such misinformation is complex, but the short version is that the Temperance Movement started the myths and eventually got absinthe banned. Throughout the years absinthe was banned, pop-culture latched on and reinforced or even created new myths. Then people who knew nothing about absinthe embraced the “green fairy-tales” as marketing tactics during the 1990s Absinthe Revival. So without further ado here’s the reality.

Hallucinations and Madness

It is unbelievable how much I still hear this. I’m going to get all science and data on you down below, but suffice to say there is no hallucinogenic quality to absinthe or any botanical used in absinthe. This myth wasn’t even that prevalent during the initial Temperance Movement’s misinformation campaign, so it is almost entirely a product of pop-culture.

What the Temperance Movement did do was claim that absinthe made people go insane. This was done by studying people who were detoxing from alcoholism, and blaming absinthe instead of alcohol. At the time absinthe was the cheapest and highest proof liquor you could get thanks to cheap brands cashing in on the fad. This led to most alcoholics who needed medical attention also being the biggest consumers of absinthe. The link was correlated and symptoms now known as alcohol detoxification effects, were called absinthism.

I have personally tried lots of various faux absinthe, thujone loaded absinthe, and even too much raw wormwood looking for something that could potentially attribute to these myths. It’s not there. Probably because thujone doesn’t do what everyone thinks it does.

Thujone, Tigers, and Bears, oh my!

Speaking of thujone, you may have heard of this chemical from some other absinthe website or two out there. Here’s the deal, remember that Temperance Movement misinformation that I told you about? Well, they had to point the finger somewhere. Since anise and fennel were used widely as culinary herbs they couldn’t point there. They were left pointing at wormwood, and especially the active ingredient, thujone. Thus thujone became the scapegoat and is now used as marketing for those who need myths to inflate their shoddy products.

Wives tales will tell you that thujone is some sort of psychoactive agent. Yes, but not in the way that you would think. Thujone, as it turns out, is a convulsant. This means that if you get enough thujone in your system, you start to shake, lots. Thankfully you needs loads of it to hit what is known as the Lowest Discernible Effect Level (LDE) which is 10mg per kilogram of bodyweight. Even at the highest tested pre-ban concentration (which was merely 48.3ppm), you would die from alcohol poisoning before feeling any effect.

Some people may also claim that thujone is related to THC. That was an idea some guy had in the 70’s and he published it. Since then, it has been proven that thujone is not related to THC.

Thujone also occurs in other plants at higher ratios. For example sage and sage oil are listed as safe despite sometimes being more than 50% thujone. Many herbs naturally contain thujone such as mints, tarragon, and rosemary. You’ve never heard of any “absinthe effects” from eating these foods because thujone never had any of those effects. The bottom line is that thujone content is irrelevant.

USA Absinthe isn’t Real

A great many people still think that absinthe in America isn’t real. This myth is perpetuated by European marketers who want your money and fauxsinthe brands who try to deceive the public to make their brands look less shoddy in comparison. The truth of course, that American absinthe is just as real as any other. Many brands on the market in America fit the historical requirements for authentic absinthe, especially many absinthes made in America.

The people who support the idea that American absinthe is fake often point out that by law America requires thujone content to be under 10ppm, which for whatever reason is considered “thujone free” by American regulations. Not only is thujone irrelevant as proven above, but even if thujone was relevant this wouldn’t be an issue as pre-ban absinthe tests have proven.

These studies of pre-ban absinthe found that around 40% of the pre-ban tested would meet the 10ppm rule if submitted for approval today. That’s right, 40% of pre-ban would be legal in America today. What’s more: many of the test samples over 10ppm were from the same brands and recipes that tested under 10ppm, but from different vintages. This may have varied because no one had the technical means, nor care, to test for levels of thujone during the time period that pre-ban absinthe was made. The 60% that would not pass didn’t have significantly larger amounts of thujone. The average of all the test samples was 25.4ppm and the highest was 48.3ppm. Although the numbers look larger, remember that ppm stands for parts per million.

Some people may say that thujone would’ve broken down in long term storage. But it is surprisingly stable so this is proven to not be the case.

Once again, yes, real absinthe is available in America and has been since 2007.

Fire!

Throughout this Crash Course, I’ve more than hinted at the use of fire being wrong. Let me lay it on the line for you, plain and simple.

Never use fire.

Fire is not used to prepare absinthe in any way. Not to “caramelize the sugar” or whatever lame excuse people have for doing so. Fire was never mentioned in print or seen in advertising posters from the pre-ban era of absinthe. It’s just not what you do. Essentially, it is a good way to ruin a tasty absinthe and the most secure way to get blacklisted as a bar by an absintheur. There’s a speakeasy style bar in my town that pretends really hard to be swanky. I don’t go there because they use fire on absinthe. I do everything I can to tell people to avoid the place because if they screw up absinthe this bad, what else are they messing up?

The entire fire ritual started with fake absinthe at European tourist traps and was used solely to get attention. In the words of the silly people who started it themselves:

Back in Prague and in celebratory mood, John and George found themselves sat in the lounge at the back of Café FX, above Wenceslas Square, when they witnessed their first ever absinth burning where a sugar cube dosed in absinthe is ignited so the sugar used to sweeten the drink is caramelised. They immediately knew that this dramatic serving method was the way to launch absinth in the UK. Although this ‘modern’ method of serving absinth was wholly unauthentic, it was this ritual that was to capture the public’s interest in their product. The introduction of the ‘Sugar and Burn’ ritual is something which will haunt George for decades to come as well meaning absinthe aficionados see absinth burning as sacrilege.

Preparing absinthe with fire, for any reason, is akin to spitting in the face of the green fairy.

If you do this, you are dead to me.

Home Kits

I cringe when someone tells me they don’t like absinthe because they had some that a friend made and it tasted horrible. Back in 2005, I did too, and I thought absinthe was disgusting! Turns out everyone is just getting scammed.

The reason you can’t just buy a kit online and make your own absinthe by soaking herbs in vodka is because distillation is necessary. Distillation chemically separates compounds and leaves a lot of the nasty flavors behind. Try comparing the flavor of raw wormwood to any absinthe with a strong wormwood profile and you can immediately taste the difference.

In the United States distilling alcohol without a license is illegal. Legally, you cannot distill at home. Sure, there are moonshiners that make their own distilled absinthe, but they run the same risk as other moonshiners, fines, exploding stills, methanol poisoning, and jail.

No amount of “special filtering” or maceration method or any other nonsense can achieve what distillation does. Avoid the scams and stay away from those kits.

These five myths are the biggest ones out there. There are more, but the answers to these can often dispel many of the other myths that pop up from time to time. A little bit of knowledge can help you out in the long run. Absinthe is poorly understood and currently only one nation in the world even defines it: Switzerland. Thus, it is up to the consumers-you and I-to lead the change in the market for better and more authentic absinthe.

The Absinthe Crash Course:
Part 1: Your First Glass.
Part 2: Styles.
Part 3: Myths.
Part 4: Further Education.

Absinthe Crash Course: Part 2, Styles.

So you’ve had your first glass, tasted real absinthe, and now you want more. Well, you could just stick to the same ol’ bottle, which is a safe bet if you like it. Or you could go exploring. I like exploring, so here’s a rough field guide to absinthe variations.

Part 2: Styles.

Once again I’m going to bring in history as my litmus test for absinthe here. Sure, you can find all kinds of colors, and styles, and grades, and whatever marketing gimmick of the day catches your eye. Most of that is made up and is about as relevant as one flavored vodka to the next. Here’s what historically went down.

The two historically authentic styles of absinthe are verte and blanche, meaning green and white respectively. There’s debate about which style came first, or which was marketed first, but that is superfluous. In the heyday of absinthe, green and white were both on the market.

Vertes

Verte absinthe was and still is the most common. This absinthe is made with a basic set of herbs soaked (macerated) in neutral spirits which are then distilled. After the clear liquid comes out of the still it is steeped with coloring herbs, which add another layer of flavors and the chlorophyll in the plants dyes the mixture a natural green. If this color is left to age in sunlight, heat, or oxygen it will often turn yellow or brown. This is called “feuille-morte” or dead leaf. Dead leaf is not necessarily a defect but many people prefer the green color. Dark bottles to block the UV light are often used to preserve the color of vertes.

Historically there are regional variations for verte absinthes. Most of these have to do with the producers of one region using one or two extra herbs, or substituting another. Sometimes the ratios were changed but overall they were more similar than different. A good resource for those interested in these regional variations is the Duplais Distilling Manual of 1871. These are just rough guidelines as to the ingredients, not necessarily the flavor. I’ve tasted two Pontarlier-style vertes side by side and noticed drastic differences in flavor. Each brand will always be unique in its own way.

Not covered in the Duplais manual are the Spanish Absentas, with their typically more citrus notes, the subtle Swiss Vertes, and of course, modern interpretations of absinthe.

I’m not one for too much tradition. It is very important that we recognize and learn about the past, but we should never be stuck there. To this end, many distillers take these recipes and offer a spin on them, either by changing the ratios or adding different and unique herbs. The biggest thing to look for in a verte is complexity and robustness.

Blanches

I’ll be honest, I’m more of a verte drinker, but there are some blanches that are out-of-this-world tasty. A good blanche is indeed a treat. In the distilling manual linked to above, there is a recipe for a blanche and you will notice that there are a lot more herbs present in the distillation.

The reason for this is that without the additional flavors from the coloration herbs, blanches wouldn’t have that complex of a flavor. Indeed, even today many blanches are known for being simpler in taste. This is not always the case, as many good blanche absinthes will round out the basic set of herbs with more flavors and create a wonderfully complex drink.

There is also a subset of Blanches known as “la bleue” absinthe. These absinthes come out of the Swiss tradition of distilling absinthe – even when it was illegal to do so. Originally the term “la bleue” was used as slang much like the American term “moonshine”. Today it represents recipes that were made during absinthe prohibition. The Swiss chose blanche-style absinthes to easily conceal the true contents of the bottles.

Another subset is what I call the “green blanche”. These are blanche absinthes dyed green with artificial colors because people expect absinthe to be green. I suggest staying away from such trickery. After all, red dye doesn’t make a white wine into a red wine.

Rouge

Red absinthe. If you want to start a fight at an absinthe convention just say the word “rouge”. Historically, there is a wonderful poster advertising Rosinette Absinthe. That’s it. There are no surviving bottles or recipes. We know nothing more than the poster. Hell, it could’ve been a mock-up for something that never made it to market. I for one am intrigued by this mystery and as soon as I get somewhere with figuring out this conundrum, I’ll blog about it.

Somewhere along the lines there was a theory that a rouge absinthe became red through the use of hibiscus in the coloration step. There’s ZERO proof of this available to anyone. I’ve heard of a super-secret hidden recipe. But without the ability to verify such a claim, that recipe gets filed under the “rumor” section.

Nowadays, many people make a blanche absinthe and use hibiscus for red coloring. Anyone familiar with hibiscus tea knows the floral tartness of the flower and it comes across heavily in many of these rouge absinthes. That isn’t to say they are not good, but be prepared for a shockingly tart taste when compared to a verte or blanche.

Also, like the green blanches that I mentioned above, there are many rouges out there that are simply blanches artificially dyed red.

In any case, caveat emptor.

Other

Sometimes you will see a word on absinthe labels. This is a word meaning fake bullshit. This word is “Bohemian”.

It is honestly a sad story when you get down to the bottom of it, and it is hard not to have some sympathy for the devil. Bohemian refers to Bohemia which is a region of the Czech Republic. To understand how absinthe became associated with this place, you first need to understand a bit of Czech history.

The Nazis, followed by the Soviets wiped out Czech culture and history. I mean, wiped it right the hell out. Historical records burned, people executed, underground clubs sought out and destroyed. There is a fascinating story of an underground tea club that hid in fear of death for exploring TEA! (Mutineer #18) We are talking oppression for decades.

In 1989 the Czech people somewhat peacefully fought their way to freedom. They were left with almost nothing. To this end was an attempt to create, market, and brand a culture that no one remembered as it was wiped out by complete assholes. Oddly enough they started a fight with Germany over the invention of the Hamburger. This was political backlash. Then they took beer recipes that had survived the Soviet Era. Now they were known for booze. What else could they capitalize on?

The under-regulated country was becoming known for drug tourism so a few enterprising people, now known as the Czech Absinthe Mafia, decided to market a unique drug, absinthe. They had no clue what it was but according to pop culture, it had wormwood and it would make you hallucinate. So they set about to fleece tourists with industrial alcohol soaked with wormwood and often dyed greener than comic book radiation. Then, this “Mafia” needed a way to attract attention to the drink. They noticed that flaming shots were popular with their target market so they invented a flaming ritual for absinthe to attract attention to the drink. Since the drug/hallucination bit was always false, some producers added things like marijuana to get a drug effect as there isn’t any with real absinthe. This caught on over many holidays for ‘daring’ college kids on break and so a trend was born.

There you go: fake (bohemian) absinth(e). The problem was that the la bleue distillers did know what real absinthe was, they just couldn’t exactly let everyone else know, because what they were doing was illegal. Some historians were in the same boat having pre-ban in their possession. Not to mention, a boring story about absinthe truths would’ve never suited the movie industry’s penchant for exaggeration, jokes, and fantasy.

To the credit of the Czech Absinthe Mafia, they sparked interest in a drink that had otherwise gone so far underground it would’ve never resurfaced. The newfound freedoms of Prague became notorious among college kids from wealthier nations and they returned home with stories of this absinthe stuff in the 1990s. There was no way these kids could’ve known that it was fake. The internet’s gift of quick information wasn’t in everyone’s home yet. You would’ve needed to delve deep as hell in obscure history books to find out the scam. So it continued, and twenty years later Bohemian absinthe has become a tradition in Eastern Europe, even though it is completely fake.

The Czech scam artists sparked an interest that lit the fires under some of the people who could delve deep. These people were scientists who had the chemistry knowledge to reverse engineer pre-ban samples, lawyers to overturn Swiss laws and legalize clandestine distilleries, and historians worldwide. Bohemian absinth has a place in absinthe history for, at the very least, drawing the world’s attention to absinthe again.

But that doesn’t make it any less fake.

The Absinthe Crash Course:
Part 1: Your First Glass.
Part 2: Styles.
Part 3: Myths.
Part 4: Further Education.

Absinthe Crash Course: Part 1, Your first glass.

I keep writing articles and halfway through I reference some piece of knowledge I have about absinthe that not everyone would immediately know. For example, I was writing a post about the near-mythical red or rouge absinthe. For this I would need to first write about green “vertes” and white “blanches” to give some background info, as not every reader of my blog may be aware of such material.

Since I do wish for this blog to be a standalone resource I feel the need to write a crash course in absinthe. Nothing fancy or any deep secretive knowledge will be presented in this course, just the basics. All I will cover is what you need to know so that when you talk about absinthe, an absintheur won’t facepalm in front of you.

I reason that the best way to introduce someone to absinthe, is to walk them through a glass. I’ll explain as we take each step, what is optional, what not to do, and why.

Step 1: Find a real absinthe.

I’m writing this guide for newbies (mostly) and as such I have another obstacle to clear. What on earth is absinthe and how do I know I’ve had the real stuff? To assess whether or not an absinthe is real, we look to what people were drinking before it was banned. This absinthe is often referred to as “pre-ban” and some of it was stored or forgotten about to this day. This means that if you have the money and/or connections that you can actually still taste some of this stuff. Not all of it is stellar, but the good stuff only got better after a century or so of resting in a bottle. But this is a digression, the point is that we use historical absinthe as a set of guidelines.

As I have described before, pre-ban absinthe shared certain characteristics:

  1. It was distilled. I will address this with more detail in part three, but for now beware the do-it-yourself kits sold online, they are a scam.
  2. It contained Grande Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium which gives absinthe it’s name), Anise, and Fennel. Producers are not required to list ingredients on alcohol so it can be hard at first to assess this characteristic.
  3. It was bottled at a high proof to preserve the botanical content. You are looking for an ABV of 50 to 80 degrees (100-160 proof).
  4. No added sugar. This would change it from a liquor to a liqueur. In America liqueurs must be labeled as such so this is an easy one to spot.

Like I said though, not all pre-ban was stellar. The good stuff shared a few other qualities:

  1. If it was colored, the color was achieved through the use of coloration herbs leaving a natural green. No dyes were used in the good stuff. Fortunately, any artificial dyes used today have to be declared on the label in the United States.
  2. There was no additive to replace the “louche” or clouding effect that anise gives to a distilled drink when it is cut with water. I have not seen this in any modern absinthe but it bears repeating just in case someone tries to slip one under the radar.
  3. Actual herbs were used in the production of good absinthe. No essential oil mixes or flavorings. Unfortunately for Americans this doesn’t have to be mentioned on the label.

In America today, there is NO standard definition for what can and cannot be labeled as absinthe. Unlike the regulations for what is and isn’t bourbon, tequila, and so forth. Just about anything can be labeled absinthe. So there’s a lot of random alcohol that’s labeled absinthe and sold at a premium to take advantage of this. To help you get real absinthe, use those seven points listed above as your shopping guidelines. As you can see, some of them are easy to spot before you buy a bottle, and others are not.

There are other traps to avoid as well. Herbs can be a bit expensive, so if you see a 750ml bottle at the store running a mere $20, then that is a good indicator that it is cheap crap. Likewise, many shady marketers are taking advantage of the perceived rarity and selling faux absinthe for hundreds of dollars per bottle. If this is your first bottle, don’t spend less than $50 or more than $100 without doing some research on the specific brand first.

Another trap is the advertising of thujone or psychedelic/legendary effects. Thujone was the chemical that became the scapegoat while various movements were attempting to ban absinthe. To this accord a lot of the myth of absinthe was attributed to thujone. History and modern scientific analysis do not bear these myths out. Advertising thujone, “psychoactive”, or other gimmicks is like advertising the amount magnesium in table salt, pointless.

But now you may be at the store and they don’t have anything that fits the criteria. That’s normal, after a few minutes of study, you will probably know more about absinthe than the buyer, owner, etc. at the local liquor stores and bars. Also, every state is different and some may only have one or two brands of actual absinthe available to retailers.This is not to say that local stores will always bomb the absinthe test. Depending on where you live, they might stock a brand or two worth picking up. As always, stick to your standards and watch out for marketing gimmicks.

To solve the “no real absinthe at the store” problem, I highly recommend checking out the Approved Absinthe Vendors List at The Wormwood Society. I still order most of my absinthe online as most stores in my neck of the woods hardly know anything about absinthe. Some of the online vendors have a few dyed absinthes and a handful of very strange tasting non-traditional absinthes but for the most part you are in good hands with them.

Now you might wonder “What is this white or ‘blanche’ absinthe?” Don’t worry, it is real absinthe and depending on the brand it might be really good. Traditionally absinthe was either green from herbal coloring or not colored at all and bottled clear from the distillation. This clear version was often called white or “blanche”. Reds are speculative historically, so for your first glass stick to natural green or white. No purples or blacks or any other nonsense. I will cover more of the various types of absinthe in part two of this crash course.

Step 2: Prepare a glass.

Okay so you’ve hunted down a real absinthe. Good job, it’s not easy in some parts of the world. Now on to the good part, making your first glass. I’ve already written about how to prepare a glass of absinthe in a previous post. So I’ll do a quick repeat with a few pointers here.

First find a clear glass, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and pour a shot (1.5 ounces) into the glass. Absinthe is essentially bottled as an extract, which is why you are pouring so little. The high alcohol content is intended to preserve all the herbs used in making absinthe. If you drink absinthe straight, then many of those herbal flavors will still be trapped in ethanol. This is exactly why preparing absinthe is necessary; you need to do something to release the flavors of the herbs. Never, ever use fire. The reason being, that fire will burn away the encapsulated flavors, leaving an unpleasant taste.

Instead, fill a container with ice water. Nothing fancy is necessary. It could be a carafe or even another glass. Let the ice water sit and chill so that the water is cold before you use it.

As you are waiting for the water to chill you may want to add the optional sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, put a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon or fork, and rest it across the rim of the glass. This is for your taste preference and you could use other sweeteners if you prefer. If you taste herbal stuff as bitter then you might want to do this. Just remember: sweetening is a personal choice and always optional.

Once the water is cool slowly pour it into the absinthe. If you use sugar then pour over the sugar cube to dissolve it. The aim is to pour slowly so that the absinthe has time to breathe. A thin stream will suffice, or you can drip it in with drops, just as long as you don’t dump the water in there. At a certain point the absinthe will begin to turn cloudy. This is known as “louching” and is something all absinthes should do when water is added to them.

Once the absinthe is fully clouded (“louched”) with no clear liquid in the glass, stop. Take a sip. It will most likely be way too hot at this point but it won’t be a disaster on your tastebuds. The ratio here for absinthe to water is probably one to one (often noted as 1:1). I highly suggest that you add more water. Most absintheurs prefer something within the range of three to five parts water to one part absinthe (3:1, 5:1). If you are using a shot glass for measure that’s three to five shots of water for each shot of absinthe. The point of having you stop early to taste, is that it is easier to add more water than it is to add a fractional amount of absinthe.

A general rule is that the higher proof an absinthe is, the more water you should add. If you want to get very specific, many people find that reducing the mixture to around 12-15% ABV reaches the sweet spot. To help with the math see this handy webpage. I personally don’t get this specific when just casually drinking. In my opinion, absinthe is for relaxing and not controlling like a science experiment.

Step 3: Drink.

In all likelihood, you just worked your ass off for this glass. You went hunting for real absinthe only to find liquor stores with no clue. Then you waited for real stuff to be shipped to you. Finally you were able to fret over how much to pour and how much water to add. Possibly you debated if your tastebuds required sugar or not.

So relax.

You could just chug a glass, but why? Smell it, sip it, lay back and enjoy the moment.

You will most likely have a lot of absinthe left in your bottle when you are done drinking. So when you put the bottle away here are a few tips on proper storage:

  1. Keep it at room temperature. Cold temperatures may cause the anethole (from anise) to solidify and you will have solid white specks or globs in your absinthe. Some people have gotten solids like this to dissolve but most cannot. Hot temperatures will cause the absinthe to age quicker.
  2. Speaking of aging: oxygen causes aging so close that top. UV light will age absinthe as well, so put the bottle out of direct sunlight. Liquor cabinets work well.
  3. Store your bottles upright. This is not wine, so do not lay a bottle sideways. The high proof of absinthe can and eventually will eat through the cork and leech a nasty “corked” flavor into the absinthe, not to mention spill all over if left for too long.
  4. No plastic. Again, the high concentration of alcohol will cause plastic to leech flavor into the absinthe. If you have an absinthe with a screw cap instead of a cork, store it upright due to this as well.

Afterword: I didn’t trip ballz man!

No, you most certainly did not hallucinate. If you thought absinthe did anything like this then you have been sold a myth. The idea that absinthe is a drug or made a person go crazy was a lie conjured up by the temperance movement in order to get the new favorite drink of France banned. Their efforts went nowhere until a financial bump from the competing French wine industry launched their campaign into success. Despite the hypocrisy, it worked.

With absinthe being banned, all sorts of nonsense popped up concerning these accusations. Pop-culture latched on to the myths as “hip” tourists got fleeced out of money at European tourist traps that lit fake absinthe on fire to attract attention to the drink. The internet followed with scam sites selling online kits. This was a very profitable venture, and unfortunately still is.

Thankfully, experiments that actually tested pre-ban absinthe were conducted for the first time in history in the early 2000s. These proved that the urban myths were just that, myths. There’s nothing in absinthe that would make you hallucinate, or go crazy, or anything else. Neither then, now, or at any point in history.

The Absinthe Crash Course:
Part 1: Your First Glass.
Part 2: Styles.
Part 3: Myths.
Part 4: Further Education.

Absinthe Politics Part Deux

I guess sooner or later every blogger makes a post that falls into the love it or hate it category. My last post, Absinthe Politics = Business As Usual was one of those.

I have e-mails and private messages full of both support and of course people calling me a liar and telling me that I got it all wrong. In all of this mess I definitely angered a person inside the industry whom I respect a great deal.

But I’m not here to say I’m sorry. The last post got me started down a path of sorting through what I could get my hands on, as far as actually getting to the gritty bottom of these geographical protection/defining absinthe in the EU attempts. What I found surprised even me.

One of the loudest criticisms of my last post was that the writer of the Spirits Business article that I linked to, was incorrect in stating that there was any geographical protection being sought. This is only half true. There is indeed geographical protection (indexing) regarding absinthe being mentioned. It’s just that none of it is from the French attempt at absinthe definition, yet. I stuck my nose in politics and got it bloodied a bit. No big harm though.

This information was gathered by looking through the minutes of the EU Spirits Committee. As meeting minutes, they are woefully lacking in specific information. Also of note, is that the terms ‘absinth’ and ‘absinthe’ seem to be interchangeable. What follows is what I could obtain from analyzing the available minutes back to Meeting 99 in 03/03/2010.

Geographical Protection:
Meeting 100:  Page 2 addresses geographical indexing for ‘absinth’ being sought by Switzerland. This is back in 2010 so it is possible that this is the Swiss IGP that people often refer to.

Meeting 101: Czechs attempt to counter-punch on Page 2 with their own geographical indexing move. The punch is dismissed as the term is in use in other countries, specifically Switzerland. A silver lining to the Swiss IGP?

French Definition of Absinthe:
Meeting 103: Mentions that France is working on a definition for absinthe (page 3) to be included in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008, which defines spirits for the EU.

Meeting 104: Page 3 declares that France has a definition for absinth that they will present at the next meeting.

Meeting 106: One meeting late and the discussion begins on Page 2. The end result is disagreement over minimum requirements of thuyone (thujone) and anethole.

Meeting 107: Page 2, more thujone disagreement.

Meeting 110: Page 2 again, committee will analyze data on thujone since this issue has reached a stalemate.

Meeting 111: Page 2 states that the minimum anethole level is dropped to 5ppm or may be completely deleted, talks are still in session.

As you can see the battle is pretty much still going on over there. It looks like there are people who mean well and people attempting to game the system both working on what this definition should mean.

Word of mouth sources inside the industry, both in America and Europe, tell me that the intention of the new definition is to take fake absinthe off the market. While all and good, they must make sure that big interests do not pervert this effort and ensure crapsinthe or fauxsinthe survival, or use it to harm true absinthe produced worldwide. The intention is good, now the execution must be honest to the intention. These sources also claim that no geographical indexing is currently being sought, at least not on any official level.

In more direct news I have been working on an “Absinthe Crash Course” that I was originally going to post a few days ago before being side-tracked by this issue. Look for the first of four parts in a few days.

Absinthe Politics = Business As Usual.

I’m an American. So I don’t mean to be rude when sticking my nose in European politics but this effects me and many other absinthe drinkers.

Recently there have been two movements to provide an Appellation of Control over the label “absinthe” over in Europe. What this means is that the word “absinthe” on a product would require it to be from a specific geographical area. Just as how Cognac has to come from the Cognac region of France, and the name Tequila is limited to a few places in Mexico, even if every other requirement of production is met.

The first one is from the Swiss and this has been around forever. It’s part of their “long-politics” or something like that. It states that to be “absinthe” it has to be made in the Val-de-Tavers regions of Switzerland.

The second one is a joint effort between France and Switzerland producers. It seeks to lock the term “absinthe” to stuff that is made in just those two countries. Effectively nullifying the as of yet to pass “Val-de-Tavers only” one. Nope, see Part 2 for a detailed correction of this. The following is still relevant to the Swiss IGP and possible future attempts at geographical protection.

There’s just a few really BIG problems with making absinthe a geographically protected product.

To begin with, the producers involved claim that this is to protect the market against fake and historically inaccurate absinthe, which I am perfectly fine with. The only problem is that the very same producers are making fake absinthe themselves. Pernod makes an oil mix Blanche that they squeeze artificial dye into and call a Verte (read more about modern Pernod hardly being absinthe here). That is like putting red dye into a white wine, and then selling it as Merlot. La Fee does exactly the same with their main line, along with producing an absolutely fake-as-all-hell “Bohemian” absinthe. They very people pushing for historically accurate absinthe are some of the biggest offenders against it!

The biggest problem isn’t the hypocrisy of these and other people (Francois Guy) pushing for this AOC. It’s that historically, France and Switzerland were not the only producers of absinthe before the bans occurred. I know of at least two American made brands produced before absinthe was banned. These are Butterfly, Mohawk.. Other countries had historical absinthe as well.

Most notable is Spain. When the French ban on absinthe occurred, Pernod Fils (hardly the same Pernod it is now) moved their absinthe production to Tarragona Spain. Spain never banned absinthe and the Tarragona Pernod Fils location actually produced absinthe into the 1960’s. You can still get bottles of the stuff! Now the company that Pernod Fils turned into seems to forget everything they should know about absinthe, once again, and is calling into question whether or not the Tarragona tradition was absinthe.

To sum it up in short: there is no historical precedent for making absinthe specific to a geographical region. This is just a very transparent business move masked as politics.

Currently however there are people producing real absinthe not in France or Switzerland. For instance Pacifique from America is made to the exact 1855 Duplais Montpelier absinthe recipe. Many other absinthes around the world stick to tradition much, much closer than any attempt Pernod, La Fee, or the other backers of the AOC ever have.

There’s also some bullshit about a minimum thujone requirement, but as we have known for years now, thujone in pre-ban ranged from 0ppm (none) to 55ppm with about 40% of the stuff being under the United States limit of 10ppm (source). Not to mention, thujone is actually irrelevant to absinthe anyways (stay tuned for long posts with lots of science on that). So the people pushing for that minimum are just obviously full of shit.

If you live in Europe, especially in member states that produce real absinthe who would be blocked from using that word by this move, please voice your concerns to the EU assembly.

If you are in America then you know the power money has. Might I suggest using your dollars to speak and boycott absinthe made by the backers of this psuedo-protection farce. You’ll probably end up drinking better and more historically accurate absinthe this way as well.

Keep in mind that there’s plenty of fake absinthe coming from France, as well as other parts of the world, so this is not a move to protect absinthe. This is about several producers trying to get a nationalistic leg up on anyone else.

DISCLAIMER: Wow I really stirred the pot with this one.

  • According to sources within the industry, the Spirit’s Business article confused people talking about geographical protection as actually having that protection on the agenda. See Part 2 for an analysis of this.
  • NEVER do I say that I do not want absinthe defined. I actually do wish for a definition, a historically accurate one.
  • The Thujone requirement has been dropped to 5ppm minimum (from 20ppm) and is apparently just Francois Guy’s personal gripe. This is from a word of mouth source.
  • There are other members of the French Federation of Spirits beside Pernod and La Fee (obviously). If anyone can find a membership roll please let me know. Also, I’m sure some of them are great people with differences of opinion about this.
  • What concerns many absinthe producers weighing in on this, is the adoption of allowing added sugar and artificial coloring as okay for absinthe. Such things are not okay, but large business interests are trying to make it otherwise. Word of mouth source.
  • Herbsaint was never absinthe. The Herbsaint/Legendre Absinthe was a short lived label that existed as Herbsaint was intended to be an absinthe substitute so the old labels reflect it. The powers that be told Legendre that selling something with the label absinthe was illegal, which actually it wasn’t but that was the popular idea at the time. Herbsaint and absinthe have a very strange intertwined history that is very fascinating and worth sinking your teeth into if you like historical intrigue and trivia. VERIFIED