The latest final word from the absinthe front

Pablo Picasso's
"The Absinthe Drinker," 1901

The headline: "Absinthe’s mind-altering mystery solved"

The reality: Probably not.

The latest disclosure by someone trying to "solve" the legend-studded history of the controversial liqueur that only recently became legal again in the U.S. lays its high impact on the minds of poets, paupers, princes and painters to its very high alcohol content: 70 percent alcohol by volume, or 140 proof, to be precise. Certainly well in excess of the average bottle of spirits which rings in at 80 proof.

The story on the Imaginova Network's Live Science site says, "The modern scientific consensus is that absinthe's reputation could simply be traced back to alcoholism, or perhaps toxic compounds that leaked in during faulty distillation. Still, others have pointed at a chemical named thujone in wormwood, one of the herbs used to prepare absinthe and the one that gives the drink its green color. Thujone was blamed for 'absinthe madness' and 'absinthism,' a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial tics, numbness and dementia.

"Prior studies suggested that absinthe had only trace levels of thujone. But critics claimed that absinthe made before it got banned in France in 1915 had much higher levels of thujone than modern absinthe produced since 1988, when the European Union lifted the ban on making absinthe."

It goes on to say that Dirk Lachenmeier, a chemist with the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany, and several colleagues analyzed 13 samples of absinthe from old, sealed bottles in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.S. dating to the early 1900s before the ban. They found "relatively small concentrations of thujone in that absinthe, about the same as those in modern varieties."

While interesting, and further fuel to keep the absinthe debate going, the German findings are a long way from proving any final word on the impact and lore of absinthe.

As I have written several times in recent years, the herb-infused alcohol that began as a medicine had been blamed for bad judgment, poor health, even outright madness. Nevertheless, it was the drink beloved of 19th century Parisian cafe society, enjoyed by such writers and artists as Baudelaire, Lautrec, Picasso, Degas and Manet. In fact, in those times the cocktail hour was referred to as l’heure verte — the Green Hour — in honor of absinthe.

There are those who theorize that the anti-absinthe forces were funded by the wine industry, which was losing ground in the marketplace to la Fee Verte, the “Green Fairy,” as the drink was known. Any link, no matter how tenuous, between evildoers and absinthe was loudly proclaimed until enough of the public grew fearful of its continued availability to demand a ban.

Absinthe began its comeback several years ago in England, where entrepreneurs discovered no legal ban remained in effect prohibiting sale or consumption of absinthe. Its availability has spread to neighboring countries and even to the U.S., although consumption here was limited by the federal government’s guidelines against the original-strength version.

Absinthe is made by steeping dried herbs in ethyl alcohol, then distilling the liquor. The main herbs are nothing unusual — anise and star anise, peppermint, wormwood, fennel, perhaps a few others, depending upon which recipe one prefers.

Wormwood is the catalyst for a chemical change during the process that, combined with the very high alcohol content (usually in excess of 150 proof, or 75% abv), gives the drink its potency through release of the chemical thujone. Wormwood itself is not inherently bad. It has been used as a medicine for stomach ailments and as an herbal dietary supplement. Its medicinal uses crop up regularly in the Bible. The problem comes with the concentration ingested.

When the first domestic legal absinthe in a century went on sale in the U.S. last December, it kicked off a demand for the controversial liquor all across the country.

It was quite a scene in Alameda, CA, where St. George Spirits, an artisinal distiller operating out of a former naval warehouse in San Francisco Bay, was given the OK to sell its version of absinthe by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. When it did so, on Dec. 11, customers lined up for a wait of two or more hours to get into the facility to sample the 120-proof spirit and purchase it at $75 a bottle or $300 a case.

Master distiller Lance Winters, 42, created the absinthe -- something he's been tinkering with for years -- for boss Jorg Rupf, a renowned maker of fruit brandies and Hangar One vodka in his St. George facility.

Winters' recipe includes a grape-based brandy blended with such herbs as wormwood, tarragon, basil, mint, anise and fennel.

St. George does not have the field to itself. Three foreign manufacturers have begun exporting absinthe to the U.S. -- Kubler (Switzerland), Absinto Camargo (Brazil) and Lucid (France). Plus, it is likely other domestic distillers will join the wave to restore absinthe to consumer consciousness.

One of absinthe's most ardent admirers, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was ambivalent on the subject of its role as devil or angel. As he wrote on two different occasions:

“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”


“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

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Anonymous said...

Interestingly written article, though it misses the mark when it comes to being factual. St. George's absinthe was the first domestic absinthe available; the distinction of being the first absinthe available in the US goes to Lucid, which arrived on shelves in May of last year (more than six months before St. George's), followed quickly by Kubler.

These two brands had already begun to build up a fair amount of interest among people in the cocktail and spirits world before St. George's release was even announced.

William M. Dowd said...

Dear "Anonymous" (I hate it when readers refuse to ID themselves):

Right you are. The word "domestic" definitely should have been part of the story. And now it is, because I inserted it after your comment.

For anyone interested in Lucid, just go here to reach its Web site.