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6.15.2007

Absinthe: Legal again?

SO THE ABSINTHE COMMUNITY is all a-twitter, and, perhaps, with good cause. The anise-flavored spirit has been banned in the United States since 1912, primarily because of overstated concerns about the psychoactive quality of one of its ingredients, thujone, a ketone of wormwood, which is present in true absinthe in small amounts. It didn't help the drink's cause that absinthe was the preferred liquor of Victorian artists and other layabouts, or that there were a few notable cases of people going on murderous rampages after drinking the green spirit. There was, for example, Jean Lanfray, who in 1905 murdered his pregnant wife and two children. Absinthe was blamed, and was banned; never mind the fact that Lanfray, along with a sandwich and two glasses of absinthe, had also drunk five liters of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, and two crème de menthes.

Old Absinthe BarIn the time since the ban, absinthe's reputation has grown, and the drink enjoyed a massive revival in Europe in the Nineties, with European distillers discovering a variety of loopholes in the law that allowed them to put absinthe back on the market. These have not been hard to get in America, although they have not been legal, precisely. There is no law against owning or drinking absinthe in the United States, but it is illegal to manufacture, sell, or import absinthe (a notable exception is Absente, a drink that greatly resembles absinthe, but is made with wormwood's thujone-free relative, southernwood; Absente, however, is not well-liked by hardcore absinthe fans).

Did we say it is illegal to manufacture, or buy, or import absinthe? We meant, it was illegal. Because there is a new absinthe being marketed, made in the United States, called Lucid, and, unlike Absente, it contains thujone. As it turns out, the US laws had a little loophole of their own: Drinks were only illegal of they contained greater than 10mg of thujone per liter. And, as it turns out, most pre-ban absinthe had less than that. Lucid is based on pre-ban recipes -- it was designed by chemist Ted Breaux, a New Orleans-born fellow with a talent for reverse engineering absinthe recipes from old bottles of the stuff.

Fans of European absinthes might take issue with the resulting drink, as, according to a New York Times article, Breaux has reduced the drink's strong anise flavor to suit the American palette. To purists, this is a bit like reducing the flavor of juniper in gin -- anise is one of Absinthe's defining flavors. We shall, however, reserve judgment until we actually sample the stuff, and, in some ways, what Lucid tastes like is rather beside the point. It has been approved for manufacture and sale by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and this opens the doors for the manufacture, sale, and, presumably, importing of other absinthes that are likewise made with less than 10mg of thujone per liter. According to what we have read, this is consistent with the European Union's rulings on thujone, and therefore there is a wealth of European absinthes that may now be eligible for legal import to the United States.

It shall be interesting to see how this all plays out. We at the Bottle Gang are fans of absinthe, particularly a refreshing cocktail invented in New Orleans called the absinthe frappe, which was a so popular in the United States back in 1904 that Victor Herbert wrote a hit song named after the drink. But because absinthe's illegality made the liquor prohibitively expensive, we've tended to make our frappes with pastis, such as Herbsaint, which was, after all, originally an absinthe, or at least pretended to be. Our sense is that absinthe's legend is grander than the drink itself, and increased availability should do much to return absinthe to its proper place in the world of cocktails -- that of being a fine, and common, ingredient in a really well-made mixed drinks, such as the Sazerac, rather than being some semi-mystical, hallucinogenic drink of artists and madmen. (SPARBER)

31 comments:

Paul said...

My bottle of Lucid should arrive today; I'm eager to see how it compares with some of the other bonafides out there, but from reports I've seen from folks who've tried way more absinthes than I have, Lucid looks pretty good.

And to quibble with one small point in the piece -- despite what Legendre & Co. put on the first label in 1934, Herbsaint was never an absinthe. Like Hercules, Ojen and Greenopal, Herbsaint was designed to be an absinthe substitute. To try to dominate what was then a crowded field in New Orleans, Legendre labeled the first bottles "Legendre Herbsaint Absinthe," but they were quickly slapped down by federal regulators, and had to take the word "absinthe" off the packaging. Even then, the signals they sent were pretty clear -- "Herbsaint" was common parlance for "wormwood," the original labels had an image of the Old Absinthe House, and today's label still features the curly design of wormwood plants. Despite the sly wink, Herbsaint was never actually an absinthe. (There are those who say Legendre was an absinthe producer before the ban, but I don't find that argument convincing -- there was about a 20-year span between the absinthe ban and the introduction of Herbsaint, and Legendre was still reasonably young when this product hit the market).

Max Sparber said...

Thanks for the clarification!

Scott said...

I also am expecting a bottle of Lucid today and have a bottle of Alandia Epoch coming from Germany. I can hardley wait to try both. Here's to the Green Fairy!

Ramblings said...

Where can I get this? I live in Boston.

Max Sparber said...

The Lucid site lists several places in New York where it can be purchased, if you're up for a train ride. Otherwise, it will be going into broader distribution over the course of the year, if I remember right.

Anonymous said...

Long ago I went to the spice shop and bought a fistfull of wormwood and made my own absinthe with Vodka and other spices. Let it steep for weeks. Didn't notice anything different. Now if it had a dollop of Opium, it probably would have been ALOT better.

Cronuss said...

I live near Boston myself.

Here is a place to order it online with free overnight shipping.

Looks like I will get to try mine on Monday, then...

http://www.drinkupny.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=S0390&CartID=1

Anonymous said...

I did drink Absinthe when I was in the Marines stationed in Iwakuni, Japan in 1974. Of course it was declared "off-limits" to all personel. Is there any place to purchase this near San Diego? Tijuana, Mexico?

Anonymous said...

This one time I drank absinthe and I got so blazed I fell into a river. I AM NOW A CROCOSAPIEN. `·,..,:< `·,..,:< rar crocodiles

Frank said...

Yeah that's what I want - a food/drink created by a chemist who "reverse-engineered" his concoction from an existing liquor.

'Cos we know all the best tasting things are developed by chemists.

And the name? Come on - how much did he pay his marketing firm?

Sorry. I put BS in the corn field, not in my rocks glass.

Anonymous said...

I've never had any problem with bringing absinthe into the states. Every trip to Europe I bring back a few bottles. One for my self and the others as "gifts". I just got back from Paris a week ago where I bought 2 bottles in the duty free shop in paris and one more bottle for good measure in the duty free shop on my lay-over in london. I've been doing this for years, I've never had a customs agent even pause to examine the bottles. These days it's safer to buy them in the duty free shops as they seal them in a bag you are not suposed to open untill you reach your destination. The legalazation of this spirit will take away it's appeal. So- it's on to Cuban Rum for me! This stuff is amazing!

Oschisms said...

"There was, for example, Jean Lanfray, who in 1905 murdered his pregnant wife and two children. Absinthe was blamed, and was banned; never mind the fact that Lanfray, along with a sandwich and two glasses of absinthe, had also drunk five liters of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, and two crème de menthes."

It's a shame they didn't ban creme de menthe.

David said...

For the record, it is fully legal to import absinthe for personal use, up to 2.5 L at a time. I have made a number of orders from eabsinthe.com and have enjoyed most of it. Stay clear of Huguet and Hills as they are less then pleasent... but La Fee' is quite good. It only takes about 5 days for it to get from England to here in OR, though shipping is $40+. It's nice to hear that he is now able to sell in the US, word is he has made a few really nice offerings over seas.

Duncan Bayne said...

It has been approved for manufacture and sale by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

That's really sad ... sounds more like something from Soviet Russia than the U.S.A.

Since when did the Constitution enumerate "regulating the production of alcoholic beverages" amongst the powers of the Government?

Abe Robinsinthe said...

Absinthe.bz claims to have more then 10x thujone as what Lucid advertises. .bz also claims this amount higher amount is necessary for legendary Absinthe effect. What do folks know about .bz's products? BTW, the legal hubballa is clear as absinthe to me.

Jay said...

The original labeling of "Legendre Absinthe" only lasted for approx. three months before the govt. required the label change, to what Legendre would call Herbsaint.

While Legendre's Drug store had the largest permit to dispense prescription alcohol in the South during prohibition, it's doubtful that any "prescriptions" sent to "prominent politicians" staying at The Roosevelt Hotel contained any Grande Wormwood, in Legendre's herbal/alcohol remedies.....So, No it wasn't absinthe during prohibition.

J.Marion Legendre (Herbsaint)along with Fred Wulff, (Milky Way) and J. Yochim, (Nouvelle Orleans) tried unsuccessfully to get a govt. appellation passed calling their products "New Orleans Absinthe".

Although not a true absinthe, the early Herbsaint (1930s - 1970s) had a flavor profile that is far closer to a vintage absinthe, than do some modern absinthes.

Rick said...

I've been importing absinthe from Liquor's de france for a few years now and have never had a problem getting it here. I suggest Un Emile 68 or Clandestine. Both are very tasty and the effect is amazing. Stay away from the "do it yourself" absinthe kits as high levels of Thujone can cause kidney failures. Besides, high levels of thujone don't make the effect any better than the 10 percent dosage found in most absinthes. That is what I have experenced.

Anonymous said...

I actually bought some absinthe this last weekend, the bottle was 50 bones and it said it was from somewhere in Europe, I dont really remember, But when I poured a glass of it I mixed it with soda water and the shit was white. It wasn't green like I had hoped, and heard about. It was me and a few friends and we drank the whole bottle. The drunk was a lighter drunk, almost a body high. When I got home and sobered up a bit I felt like I got trashed. Did I get ripped off or was this the real deal? The lady at the Liqour store told me it was legal again so now Im doin my research. Any info will help alot.

Anonymous said...

Hello Anonymous,

You got the real deal. Absinthe does not make you hallucinate. the effects are similar to taking a stimulant while drinking alcohol. The biggest difference is that it produces allot more euphoria than regular booze.


I wouldn't buy the stuff in the US though. Its just not very good and definitely not worth the price. Duplais and Obsello are the best I have tried and they are priced more reasonably given the quality.

Enjoy!

duplais!
obsello!

Anonymous said...

Hello Anonymous,

You got the real deal. Absinthe does not make you hallucinate. the effects are similar to taking a stimulant while drinking alcohol. The biggest difference is that it produces allot more euphoria than regular booze.


I wouldn't buy the stuff in the US though. Its just not very good and definitely not worth the price. Duplais and Obsello are the best I have tried and they are priced more reasonably given the quality.

Enjoy!

duplais!
obsello!

Anonymous said...

C'mon guys you don't have to travel to anywhere to smuggle in absinthe... go to http://www.eabsinthe.com/ and order a bottle and you'll have it in a few days, it ships FAST. My bottle was over the 10mg, it was 35mg thujone. I would avoid more than that, because more thujone makes it taste funny. It was meant to be low. But, I wanted at least 35 just to have something I wasn't supposed to have ;) You don't think customs checks all those bottles coming into the states do you? ;) But really, there is more thujone in sage than there is in absinthe... a lot more... it's really quite inert, look it up on wikipedia.

Rosie said...

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Anonymous said...

I don't know how much is the real absinth illegal to import, but I live in US and I have my parents shipping me absinth each year from Europe. Me and hubby get 1 bottle of absinth and 1 bottle of a home-made alcohol from my parents every year for Christmas. Every single time the huge package with Xmas gifts and alcohol comes, its very noticeable it was opened on the border to be inspected. Not once we had anything missing, although couple time things were delivered broken (the bottles never broke tho, fortunately). So, I assume that absinth is not illegal to import for personal use, but it is definitely illegal to sell it and make a business out of it.

Anonymous said...

Glad they made it legal again in the US. I've been waiting to try some for the longest time!

Anonymous said...

Well its time to get it in, I still havent seen a bottle, know where i can get one?

Anonymous said...

Love absinthe

Anonymous said...

I prefer Le Tourment Vert. Maybe try to check it out along with Lucid

Anonymous said...

if your goin to get 1 you want to get Le Tourment Vert. top off the line stuff.

Anonymous said...

I tried two different sites to order online (I found them at www.getabsintheonline.com) and both were pretty good... Hassle free and fast shipping.

Koimu said...

This sounds radically awesome! I have always wanted to try this stuff, but could never find any in stores. Planning to get some online. My luck would be better next time - chiao!

Anonymous said...

I've try to buy one at http://www.rueverte.com/ , and it was a cool experience, fast shipping, and a great taste.