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Absinthe: The Topic


Lord Michael Lewis
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  • 2 months later...

There is a very interesting article in the March 13, 2006 issue of New Yorker Magazine entitled "Green Gold : The return of absinthe" by Jack Turner. It unfortunately does not appear to be available on the New Yorker web site, but in encourage interested parties to check it out. It centers around absinthe revivalist Ted Breaux, and discusses the revival of interest in absinthe, the production process and some of Breaux's work in attempting to recreate historical examples of absinthe using period distilling equipment, techniques and recipes.

Since the thujone question seems to come up fairly persistently, I thought I'd include this quote:

Breaux, using gas chromatography, tested some pre-ban absinthe and found that it contained practically no thujone. . . Then he ran similar tests on the absinthe he had distilled himself; it, too, contained practically no thujone.  Evidently, whatever thujone was present in the macerate did not make the journey out of the alembic, up the swan's neck and down into the final distillate.

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Thanks for the excellent brief, slkinsey. Ted Breaux has been prominently working in this area in the US for several years and advocating quality absinthes as a flavorful and safe spirit. Let me reiterate something that's not new at all, but is the germ of persistent demonstrable mythology:

Since the thujone question seems to come up fairly persistently, I thought I'd include this quote:
Breaux, using gas chromatography, tested some pre-ban absinthe and found that it contained practically no thujone. . . Then he ran similar tests on the absinthe he had distilled himself; it, too, contained practically no thujone.

Good info. The mythology I mentioned concerns thujone itself and its mystique. Barnaby Conrad's 1989 US book Absinthe: History in a Bottle (which had a role in the modern repopularization of absinthe in the US) makes clear in an appendix that since 1963 thujone was known to be the material identified separately as salvanol, the principle of common garden sage (Salvia officinalis). I researched the history further, and learned that contrary to Conrad, this identity already was well known much earlier (1940s). Sage is an ancient cooking herb and "Generally Regarded As Safe." Many related decorative and flavoring herb plants with dusty green leaves (sages, wormwoods, mugworts) share highly overlapping chemistry in fact. (For some reason, despite long publicity of it, the sage-thujone connection doesn't always "take" among absinthe aficionados.)

Upshot: many people have been consuming thujone routinely, unconsciously, without getting it from absinthe, and evidently without ill effect. If despite this they object to thujone, rational practice would focus first on avoiding sage.

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I wonder if there is any sense that the US ban on absinthe will end any time in the foreseeable future? I think it's interesting already that, if they catch you coming into the country with a bottle of absinthe, they just take it away from you. You don't get fined or arrested or anything like that.

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Supplemental information:

Merck Index (Tenth edition), a standard reference source, lists modern toxicity data. Upshots of its detailed summaries are that natural thujone has a certain toxicity level, not simply comparable to for example alcohol's because the first lists injected dose and the second oral. But extrapolating the 50% rodent lethality dose of natural thujone to a human-sized (75kg) animal gives a rough estimate around 10 grams injected. This is thousands of times the thujone present in a serving of even hypothetical thujone-rich liquor (or, of one of those Italian-style stews with white wine and sage). In comparison, the 50% lethality dose of alcohol for the same animal is in 40-50 servings of commercial absinthe. Therefore (in this crude animal-lethality comparison anyway) there is no question of thujone approaching the toxic impact of the alcohol that comes with it in the liquor. (I don't know if this longstanding public information has appeared in recent journalism on the subject.)

I wonder if there is any sense that the US ban on absinthe will end any time in the foreseeable future?

There's been authoritative online info on that point, some years ago anyway; not my subject, but offhand memory is that it was controlled in US not as a drug but in the unsafe food-additives category; that US-FDA in principle could reverse the policy if some manufacturer would undertake (expensive) modern safety trials; that being such a niche luxury good, the economics render this improbable (ironically, unlike a drug). For whatever that recollection is worth.

Also: Matthew Baggott's 1997 compendium of absinthe history and pharmacology (mentioned much earlier upthread) is again accessible. This was a major online information and reference source on absinthe as of 2000, when I checked this subject online, before posting on amazon about Conrad's absinthe book. Baggott's collection preceded most online writing and the current US fashion for absinthe liquor (which Jack Turner's New Yorker article -- I read it Thursday -- connects to "Goth and frat-boy subcultures"). The document also should not be confused with Baggott's brief but more widely posted 1993 summary.

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Thanks to JAZ for pointing me to this thread, after I mentioned in her ongoing blog that I had a bottle of absinthe coming in to my liquor store. In actual fact, it turns out to be Absente, which has been discussed extensively above. Here's the question: I know it's not absinthe, I already have and love Pastis, and am not into trendy drinking. Is Absente a worthwhile bottle in and of itself, or should I give it a miss?

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That article in the New Yorker absolutely sheds light on the whole narcotic effect (none) of absinth. The only bad thing about the article is that Ted Breaux says he's going to keep production small, so $100 + shipping it is for the near future. I can't imagine in this political climate someone is going to put forward a bill to legalize production in the US anytime soon...imagine the attack adds.

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That article in the New Yorker absolutely sheds light on the whole narcotic effect (none) of absinth.  The only bad thing about the article is that Ted Breaux says he's going to keep production small, so $100 + shipping it is for the near future.  I can't imagine in this political climate someone is going to put forward a bill to legalize production in the US anytime soon...imagine the attack adds.

I don't know what you mean, "Snowy is dead." [bTW, a real name is helpful all around, if you're serious -- mine is Max Hauser -- postings on Internet fora used mainly real names for most of their history. Sorry for the long aside.] But I don't know what "the political climate" has to do with this if you really go into it. (Also I understand that it's not formally a question of new legislation but of administrative action by an existing competent body.) The immediate issues (writing as a casual observer of that part of it) are the expense of safety trials and the niche luxury status of the product -- unlike a new, non-niche medical drug that many will use, repaying deep investment for product trials. Also, absinthe as you mention fetches $100, as long as it retains in some circles a dangerous cachet and wicked overtones (for product of grotesquely varying quality, I can testify). These customers rarely buy on merit of flavor. Even today for perspective, $100 can get you some of the best wines in the world, if quality is what you seek (rather than, for instance, the hippest this week). Same with spirits. But as others have argued, without the forbidden status, without the hint of tiptoeing a line into danger, damnation, or death, would these varying products still fetch $100 the bottle?

The New Yorker in an excellent broad essay on absinthe, did however omit key technical details that are not new, and that sharply alter the message.

(Most of this is above.)

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I wasn't trying to stir up controversy Max. My comment about political climate was more of a joke. But my underlying point was that sponsoring legislation for the legalization of a product that has all of that history (real or imagined) of altering minds, inciting people to murder, whatever, would have a hard time gaining support in an era of such partisan politics and crappy nighlty news soundbites. I've seen one too many 15 minute spots on cell phones cooking my brain, killer bees from Africa, and large asteroids to have an optimistic attitute to the reception "killer" absinth might get. That's all. I do not presume to know or understand the process by which it was banned in the US, except that it is national, so I assumed federal action. I also assumed that (possibly) being a federal action it might take legislation, introduced by Washington's finest, to reverse. I'm probably wrong, but that was my assumption.

My lamentation over $100 a bottle was more of a supply issue. It's a shame that Breaux is keeping production small (just my opinion) because I feel that more of a market prescence would help reverse the negative opinion many have towards absinth and its effects. Breaux apparently makes a fine product, and, as a bartender, I wouldn't mind acquiring some for less than a kidney. I understand, and indeed applaude, his desire to make absinth an artisnal product of high quality. I just regret that I cannot spare the necessary cash to purchase some. The importation of liquor by mail is also illegal in Massachusetts, by the way, so even coughing up the cash does not guarantee delivery, but might provide a night or two in jail...

I have a fairly sarcastic sense of humor, I'm sorry if it caught you the wrong way. The admins have my blessing to delete this post if they like.

Sean Patrick Maher

Salem, Massachusetts

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I wasn't trying to stir up controversy Max.

No, and it was well taken. Just trying to clear the air. (The air around absinthe is often obscure, indiscernible. Some seem to prefer it so.)

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Yeah, the osbscurity/ mystique surrounding absinthe can be a little trying. I think a little more publicity and exposure might just help it. The fact that Breaux travells to France to use a defunct Pernod absinthe plant sounds like he is doing the right thing to us, but probably makes him look like a bootlegger in D.C.

Ahh, someday.

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  • 2 months later...
  • 2 weeks later...

So, I finally got my bottle of Absente, and I want to ask about the little spoon that comes with it. The picture on the box shows pouring the drink through a sugar cube that's resting on the spoon. But I thought I read somewhere that you're supposed to flame the sugar over the absinthe, or am I deluded? It's a pretty little spoon, but it doesn't look flame-proof.

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Abra,

The modern trick of flaming the sugar will ruin good absinthe. Have a look at these FAQs from the Wormwood Society:

Wormwood Society FAQs

Additionally, you'll want to click a link near the top of the page entitled "Proper Preparation." The method of preparation is clearly explained, complete with photographs.

And have a look at this recently updated article in Wikipedia. It's excellent:

Wikipedia on absinthe

If you find that you enjoy Absente, you'll enjoy real absinthe even more. Just do your homework before purchasing! Sites such as the The Wormwood Society and La Fée Verte have product reviews that you can trust. All absinthe is expensive, and you don't want to waste your money on inferior brands.

Have fun!

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Thanks for the links, Brooks, it looks like a charming little ritual. Too bad it's only 6:30 in the morning, or I'd have to give it a try. I guess I could pretend I'm in Paris, still up after a long night....nah. I'll wait until tonight.

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  • 1 month later...

Has anyone here tried, or know anything about, Pernod's re-released absinthe? The bottle claims it's based on an 1806 (or thereabouts, I don't have one with me) recipe, and it costs about half as much as Ted Breaux's absinthes.

I'm in Berlin for a while and am thinking of picking up a bottle, but Breaux's are all around 90 euros and I distrust the cheaper ones ... there's a store called Absinth Depot Berlin that I thought would be good but there're bottles advertising their thujone content in the window and I don't want to ask the proprietor, so, what do you sell that isn't fake? But if anyone knows of some quality but inexpensive brands, that would be great. (I have extremely limited internet access, else I'd be looking for this info myself.)

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A traveling friend brought me a bottle of Elixir aux Plantes Absinthe from London when he couldn't find any of Ted Breaux's absinthes I asked for. I've been using it in my sazaracs and monkey glands to much success. It has a much deeper herbal flavor instead of the usual overpowering anise flavor you find get in Herbsaint or other absinthe substitutes in the US. Almost like a dry green chartreuse.

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I have two bottles of absinthe, bought in the Czech Republic, where it's still legal. Bottle number one, which looks far more like the real thing (it has an appropriately natural herbal green color and real herbs floating within), is produced by L'Or Special Drinks, Pradlo U Nepomuka, and depicts a rather fraught looking Vincent Van Gogh on the label. Bottle number two, produced by Fruko Schulz, is a disturbing shade of Listerine green, but boasts a fetchingly plump, half naked turn-of-the-century cutie on its label. Bottle number two lists no ingredients that I can decipher, as I don't read Czech. Bottle number one says there is a content of thujon 10 mg/l.

I've never opened either bottle - am saving them in anticipation of a wild party, although when I look at Renoir's The Absinthe Drinker, I think that absinthe would be more likely to inspire a maudlin mood than mayhem.

I have, however, tried the real thing. I'd mentioned in another thread that years ago, Scientific American published the original recipe for absinthe, and anyone with distilling equipment and organic chemistry experience can do it themselves. I can't say whether its effect is hallucinatory, because I couldn't drink enough of it to make that call. That stuff is BITTER. Seriously. Even with the sugar cube and water. Highly alcoholic, though.

Edited by H. du Bois (log)
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The Ted Breaux Nouvelle Orleans isn't that incredibly bitter.

There really might be some art to this.

The man who brewed the SA recipe followed it to the milligram, so if the art of drinking it is in the ritual of the slotted spoon, the sugar cube, and the water, it may be that I fucked up the proportions somehow. But it also may be me - I can't even tolerate the bitterness of tonic water. I don't remember the others who drank the absinthe finding it as unpalatable as I did.

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I've not tried it, and probably wouldn't try it unless someone GAVE it to me, but while listening to a radio program syndicated out of Washington DC, they had a gentleman on the program who sold it over the internet at green fairy. org He apparently has quite a variety of styles and formulations in a wide range of prices. They apparently enjoyed his samples, but I guess if someone's giving you some free bottles of $100 hooch, you're really going to enjoy it.

also found a German company.

apparently, ordering it is legal to the U.S., if you're of a mind, you just can't buy it here.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“A favorite dish in Kansas is creamed corn on a stick.”

-Jeff Harms, actor, comedian.

>Enjoying every bite, because I don't know any better...

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Thing is, I'm not sure there's a "recipe" for absinthe any more than there's a "recipe" for vermouth. Every maker has his own proprietary blend. And of course, the quality of ingredients can vary wildly. And (I have no idea about this) it might be that distilling (or whatever you do to make absinthe) really takes some practice before you get it right.

I'm just saying that I'm not sure I'd judge this drink on the basis of a home attempt.

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And if the homemade absinthe was infused rather than distilled, please note the following tasting note from Sam Kinsey:

I think we all agreed that the Jade products were head and shoulders above the others in terms of interest and complexity, and we all agreed that the infused "absinthe" was barely drinkable.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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