Sunday, January 14, 2007

Forbidden Fruit

An interesting entry on Mr. Tweedy's blog says that he's ordered some absinthe. Anyone who's seen Moulin Rouge! will have heard of it. It's a liquor made with grand wormwood and a collection of other herbs - highly alcoholic - and generally has a bitter, anise flavor. I've never had any myself, but I understand it's mixed with water and sugar, like Ouzo.

Anyway, it has a checkered history. Due to some apparently bad research done in the late 19th century, people became convinced that it was hallucinogenic. It was eventually banned almost worldwide starting in 1915. I say almost worldwide. What really happened is that France (where it was most popular) and Switzerland (where it was invented) banned it, and then some other countries (notably the Netherlands) followed suit. Many countries never got around to banning it, but people just sort of assumed they had and it fell out of fashion. Sometime in the 90s someone figured out that it was technically still legal in the UK and so started manufacturing it again. Because of association with bohemian culture, I guess it enjoyed a revival, and now you hear a lot about it.

Mr. Tweedy is convinced that it's illegal in the US. Interestingly - no one's really sure. Customs prohibits it and seizes it when it comes in to the country. The FDA, however, allows it and only requires that the thujone be removed from the final product (which is weird, because other things that contain thujone are allowed - apparently they only don't like it if it comes from wormwood). This was probably enacted as a stealth ban on absinthe, but in fact thujone is not present in absinthe in great quantites. The originally "research" behind the bans was mostly concerned about the hallucinogenic properties of thujone - but it turns out that (a) it isn't really hallucinogenic and (b) there isn't very much of it in absinthe anyway. (Most of the studies, as you might imagine, involved injecting non-human animals with ridiculously huge quantities and concluding from the massive toxic shock that resulted that humans couldn't handle it - never mind that they were on a daily basis with no ill effects in the real world. Some things never change. This is the same kind of rigorous devotion to science that brought us the ban on red M & Ms. See - the red dye in M & Ms is definitely carcinogenic, but only if you drink about a swimming pool's worth a day. Even my dad can't get cancer from it.) In any case, the situation in the US appears to be that you can have absinthe legally if it contains no thujone, although Customs may give you trouble at the border. As far as I know, the DEA (the one that really counts) doesn't have anything to say about it one way or another.

So how do I know so much about this? Actually, I decided to buy some absinthe myself in the summer of 2004. I kept seeing it advertised on some of the Libertarian sites I was reading (no guesses as to why Libertarians are romantic about absinthe! Any "drug" that may or may not be illegal is something any dyed-in-the-wool government hater MUST consume - which is, I admit, why I wanted it too), which got me wondering about its legality. So I looked into it and discovered that what they were advertising back in 2004 wasn't actually proper absinthe but something similar called absente. It's made from southern wormwood rather than grand wormwood and is perfectly legal in the US. (This kind of "absinthe" is featured heavily in the novels and short stories of Poppy Z. Brite. In fact, the only book I've read by "her" ("she" doesn't mind being called "she" but considers herself a (homosexual, I think) male, though there are no plans have any kind of sex change operation) was called Wormwood - an interesting collection of short stories.) Not wishing to be a victim of false advertising, I asked around and found that you can buy bootlegged absinthe in Nashville (one town over, for those of you not from 'round here), but my contact didn't come through - and I wasn't that motivated anyway. So I shelved plans and didn't really think about it again until reading this entry on Tweedy's website.

I thought about posting a comment warning him about the switcheroo (absente for absinthe), but for some reason his blog doesn't accept my comments. So just to kill time, I looked into the website he linked.

Well, as it turns out, it is real absinthe now! Here's what changed: greatly expanded in 2005 - probably in part because the ban in Switzerland (which was written into the constitution until 2000) was finally completely lifted then. I guess the online company I was looking at in 2004 was someone else. Anyway - apparently eAbsinthe was the first online absinthe retailer (started in 1998) but kept a fairly small operation and low profile for some time. Their primary product is La Fee, which is the real deal. It's not exactly the same as, but is closely based on, the same recipes that were popular in Paris in the early 20th century. (I understand, though, that Czech absinthe, which is somewhat different, is starting to eclipse it in popularity.)

So OK, I may purchase and try some of this. I'm still off alcohol till 13 February (which was finally somewhat painful last night - I went to a birthday gathering at the Irish Lion and had to stick with coffee!), so it will have to wait - but it could be interesting. I don't like Ouzo, though, and I guess this probably tastes similar. So I'll end up not liking it, I'm sure. But it doesn't hurt to try!


At 10:38 PM, Blogger Alan said...

If you want the real deal, you could try something like La Clandestine. Genuine distilled absinthe from the birthplace of absinthe in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. No artificial coloring, 100% made by hand.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

Thanks for the ad. I notice it's included in eAbsinthe's starter sets as representative of the Val-de-Travers region (as opposed to the more French green La Fee). I guess it's worth trying both - a green and a clear - sure.

It will depend on price, though. I'm more interested in just trying it out than in becoming a connoisseur at this point. If and when I develop a taste for it (not too likely considering I'm not a big fan of Ouzo) I'll consider starting a varieties collection.

I'll watch your blog for a bit in any case.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Made by hand? 19th century absinthe was made in factories. I thought that hausgemacht absinthe was like moonshine?


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