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Gary Barlettano

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Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Gary Barlettano » Wed Dec 05, 2007 5:12 pm

And people ask me why I love living in the SF Bay area!

It was the drink of choice for 19th century painters, poets and writers.

Vincent van Gogh sliced off his ear while sipping it, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso painted it, French poet Paul Verlaine cursed it as he lay dying in his bed.

For nearly 100 years, the United States and many other nations banned it.

Absinthe. "It leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse," declared Henri Schmidt, a French druggist urging his own countrymen to outlaw the green liquid in the early 1900s, which they did.

Now it seems that no one can remember exactly why it was prohibited. Some say it was the chemical thujone found in the herb wormwood, used to make absinthe, that affects the brain. Others say it was a plot by the wine industry to put the popular spirit out of business. And there are those who believe it was a case of baseless hysteria, not unlike "Reefer Madness," the 1936 propaganda film about marijuana


The whole article is here: Alameda distiller helps make absinthe legitimate again
And now what?
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Peter May

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Peter May » Wed Dec 05, 2007 5:33 pm

As I read this, the USA Govt hasn't changed its stance, the stuff this distiller is making just meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations that the drink contain no more than 10 parts per million of the chemical thujone.

So it is absinthe in name only, like the stuff they sell in Canada.

True tho' that to ban something makes it desired; absinthe was never banned in the UK and remains a minority drink, albeit one that became fashionable in club-land some years ago.
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Max Hauser

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Max Hauser » Wed Dec 05, 2007 6:25 pm

Thanks for posting, Gary. (That local article has again brought some interest to the subject. I gather St. George is now able to talk openly about this.)

I didn't realize this forum was interested in spirits. Absinthe is a large subject with a good deal of content and also, meta-content (i.e. the nature and context of recent writing). Some recent hobbyists write tutorials that claim to demystify the subject but also perpetuate a few old myths and even new ones. (Public interest took off a few years ago. As recently as late 2000 I found something like 8 hits on a Web search under "Absinthe." Just now I found 5.5 million.)

Below are links to one large discussion thread where I posted some background information. These actually are on the same page so if you scroll down from the first you'll find the others.

General info; 19th-c. scapegoating of thujone;technical points summary.
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Paul Winalski

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Paul Winalski » Thu Dec 06, 2007 1:28 am

So has anyone in the field of pharmacology ever done a rigorous, scientific analysis of the toxicity of absinthe or its alleged active ingredients?

Seems like there should have been a PhD thesis ripe for the picking for someone here.

There's a well-established methodology for getting substances approved/denied as safe for consumption. Has nobody put absinthe or its alleged terrible ingredients through this regimen yet?

Personally, I wouldn't drink the stuff. I dislike the whole anise-flavored liquor family. Just don't like the liquorice taste.

-Paul W.
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Bill Hooper

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Bill Hooper » Thu Dec 06, 2007 2:14 am

A Czech friend of mine brought back a bottle a few years ago. The mixing ritual is interesting, but I can do without the stuff. Though I am partial to a bit of the old Chartreuse now and again.
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Max Hauser

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Max Hauser » Thu Dec 06, 2007 6:16 am

Paul Winalski wrote:So has anyone in the field of pharmacology ever done a rigorous, scientific analysis of the toxicity of absinthe or its alleged active ingredients?

Please see links I listed above containing quantitative toxicity details. Actually I have far more documentation on this subject than I post about (including fairly rare but authoritative botanical and pharmacological writing). The analysis and toxicology were worked out pretty thoroughly by about 1940 and publicly available ever since; those data are not lacking at all, the basics are in any public library. They just don't appear in recent popular writing about absinthe.

Some sources give far more detailed and trace analyses, but grosso modo the dominant toxin in even a thujone-rich absinthe is alcohol (human lethal dose ca. 1 Liter). The herbal principle thujone, stigmatized in the 19th century (a terpenoid related to menthol, thymol, and camphor, and congener with them in various plants) may be a very distant second. Thujone is a convulsive poison in gross overdose; so is caffeine at the same dose levels. (Popular accounts mention the first part of that, but not the second.) For human-size animals, there's one lethal dose of thujone per 100-200 bottles of thujone-rich absinthe; that amount contains around 100 lethal doses of alcohol. Some traditional absinthes had zero thujone anyway in the finished product (a selling point before the early-20th-century ban, contrary to claims that it's a recent discovery). Liquors close to absinthe (containing plants in the wormwood/mugwort family) but meeting the letter of USFDA regulations have been available over-the-counter in the US since before the recent hobby interest. Part of the absurdity in all this is that US regulations are starkly contradictory. As the science developed further after the ban, thujone was found in "many essential oils." Food herbs classified today as entirely healthy in the same USFDA index that banned wormwood products (due to thujone content) contain the same thujone levels as wormwood. This information was already in mainstream scientific texts sixty years ago.

Many real health problems casually charged to absinthe and its thujone content in the 1800s were ultimately attributed to toxic impure alcohol, adulterants used for cheap green coloring, etc. Again, much more in the links.
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Bob Ross

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Bob Ross » Thu Dec 06, 2007 8:46 am

Paul, in addition to Max's excellent collection of information, there are two excellent articles on absinthe at http://www.greendevil.com/absinthe_in_news.html

The first quoted in full is an overview from the "Wall Street Journal"; the second -- linked at the bottom of the page -- is from "The New Yorker". I commend the second article in particular -- I found it fascinating, on first reading, and again last night.

The Green Devil site itself contains quite a bit of useful and well founded history of absinthe.

Regards, Bob
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Max Hauser

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Max Hauser » Thu Dec 06, 2007 2:08 pm

Bob Ross wrote:in addition to Max's excellent collection of information ... the second -- linked at the bottom of the page -- is from "The New Yorker". I commend the second article in particular -- I found it fascinating, on first reading, and again last night.

Thanks Bob. Please note for the record that Jack Turner's 2006 New Yorker piece did a good basic, and very readable, job of background and a very good job of presenting Ted Breaux's perspective (he is a commercial manufacturer). Unfortunately that article (like many others) also omitted much of the available demystifying information that's in my summary above (it was specifically one of the cases I meant by "Popular sources"). Moreover, the New Yorker received letter feedback with authoritative source material on those points, and elected not to print it, in favor of info about recipes for making your own absinthe. You might take my summary and links above as what's missing from many of the current expositions.

Many Web sites appeared in the last three years rehashing basic absinthe tutorial information (some more comprehensive than anything previously online, but some including prominent ones downright misleading, though enthusiastic and nicely laid out). The basics in them are in the standard US book by Barnaby Conrad, 1988 (reissued 1997), also cited in Finz's Chronicle article yesterday that started this thread. That book contains most of the history repeated elsewhere (unfortunately it missed some of the longtime demystifying technical history, and of course it doesn't mention current absinthe products.) Ten years ago a broad pharmacological review was online (I printed it out, it was half an inch thick), surpassing virtually all later-established Web sites for technical content. But in recent years it's more popular to write repetitive books and online rehashes than to point people to the excellent existing ones.
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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Paul Winalski » Thu Dec 06, 2007 2:48 pm

Thanks, Max.

So the bottom line is that absinthe's special toxicity (relative to other alcoholic beverages) is a myth. That's what I thought.

-Paul W.
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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Mark Lipton » Thu Dec 06, 2007 3:37 pm

Paul Winalski wrote:Thanks, Max.

So the bottom line is that absinthe's special toxicity (relative to other alcoholic beverages) is a myth. That's what I thought.

-Paul W.


Yep. Some additional comments:

1. Absinthe isn't the only dietary source of thujone (of which there are two forms, BTW, alpha and beta), so if thujone were really as toxic as some claim it to be, we'd have greater problems facing us than absinthe.

2. Highly alcoholic beverages have always been demonized. The absinthe hysteria of the early 20th C isn't that different than the controversy surrounding gin in the 18th and "John Barleycorn" even earlier. Many of the problems associated with absinthe consumption can be ascribed to alcohol poisoning and addiction.

3. Like any distilled beverage, one has to take care during the distillation to avoid unwanted congeners creeping into the beverage (methanol, isopropanol, etc.) Unskilled or unscrupulous distillers can make a dangerous beverage, regardless of its identity. Just ask all those victims of wood alcohol (methanol) in homemade sour mash whiskey and "bathtub gin."

And, regarding your aversion to anise-flavored beverages: having had the privilege of trying a couple of absinthes with Max and Rahsaan a while ago, I can tell you that a good absinthe has a lot more going on than that. It's got an appealing herbal character to it that's reminiscent of Chartreuse, but a lot more pleasant (to me). It was really quite a revelation, and powerful enough to make me wait a good long while before getting into a car :shock:

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Max Hauser

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Max Hauser » Thu Dec 06, 2007 9:15 pm

Paul Winalski wrote:So the bottom line is that absinthe's special toxicity (relative to other alcoholic beverages) is a myth. [Emphasis added.]

Besides alcohol effects (common to all spirits and as Mark stressed, absinthe is uncommonly strong in it), I'd say part myth, part past problems that were misattributed. Those past problems were real, more in the "scapegoating of thujone" link upthread. It's important that France, unlike some countries, was not a culture accustomed to daily spirits drinking before absinthe became a mass fashion in mid-1800s. That created an industry of new distillers, when the science was less mature than today. It also relates to the French wine industry's opposition to absinthe. When people like Magnan labeled absinthe toxic (some of his claims were fantastic: "absinthism" as a disease that once caught was hereditary), an eager chorus of "j'accuse!" converged on the liquor and failed to distinguish real absinthe from dangerous contaminants from alcohol per se. It's not even clear that those voices would have distinguished those factors if they could. (Witness related situation in new anti-salt advocacy, "NaCl" thread in Kitchen forum, that suppresses the important complication of individual sensitivity.)

Long after absinthe's realities were clarified, residues of old hysterias distort current tutorial writings and even USFDA safety regulations.


Mark Lipton wrote:thujone (of which there are two forms, BTW, alpha and beta), so if thujone were really as toxic as some claim it to be, we'd have greater problems facing us than absinthe.

Last is key point because the data are anything but secret! Therefore if someone with an audience fails to explain the real-world data, in context, it raises the question of whether they didn't do their most basic homework, or whether they did it and kept it to themselves. Thus I don't know why Ted Breaux in the New Yorker cited a reference book about thujone "toxicity" without mentioning the comparable toxicity of caffeine etc., or dominant toxicity of alcohol in any absinthe liquor -- all found in the same book. Or why Breaux and the New Yorker article claim that he "discovered" pre-ban absinthes that are thujone-free by analysis, when that claim was already in absinthe advertising 100 years ago, quoted in modern absinthe literature.

(Note that in my linked notes "natural thujone" means the so-called equilibrium ratio of 1:2 alpha:beta isomers.)
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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Hoke » Thu Dec 06, 2007 9:46 pm

Paul Winalski wrote:Thanks, Max.

So the bottom line is that absinthe's special toxicity (relative to other alcoholic beverages) is a myth. That's what I thought.

-Paul W.


When common "proofs" of absinthe's harmful effects are Van Gogh (c'mon, his problem wasn't absinthe; his problem was severe mental illness) and Picasso's art (Picasso didn't evidence a problem with absinthe; he captured an element of society at the time and focused on it).

Was the problem with dissolute society the drink absinthe...or was it simply that it was a dissolute stratum of society that used absinthe?

And as Mark points out, it's common practice to demonize the abused substance (Demon Rum, anyone?) rather than the causal factors that led to the abusive activity.

I seem to recall reading a great deal of commentary about how coffeehouses were the devil's own creation and were leading society to wrack and ruin, and that coffee was the very liquid of evil madness (And this was at least a couple of hundred years before Starbucks!. And that gin was the ruination of good Englishmen. Geez, you think maybe that was an exaggeration...or maybe that it wasn't the gin, it was the misery of the poor and huddled masses that drank what was cheap and handy to help blot out their misery?

As to the 'licorice' thing...I've never been a big fan of licorice myself. Can't stand the classic black licorice candy, for instance. Ugh. But point me toward a well-made Sazerac, with a little Peychaud, a little Herbsaint (absinthe substitute) and a lot of Rye (pre-frosted glass, twist of lemon peel and made fresh, of course), and I'll say Hell Yes!

Might even say it two or three times.
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Max Hauser

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Re: Article: The Return of Absinthe

by Max Hauser » Tue Jan 29, 2008 1:58 pm

[Whew! New forum look. Feedback below.**] Happy new year!

I recently picked up my bottles of first release of the "absinthe verte" from respected artisanal California distiller St. George Spirits, subject of this thread. First US product with AT-TTB approval for "absinthe" on its label; stories in December-5 numbers of San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times and in late December, aerial photo of queue to buy limited offering at the distillery. I'd put in an order at my regular spirits dealer ($69.95 a bottle) when the story broke, and the order was filled in December; I just picked it up. (Should I see any of you in person, I'm happy to share.)

The St.-George has a distinctive bottle and label, declaring 10 herbs used, and generic tag "brandy with herbs." 60% ABV. (The original Pernod absinthe, which started all the fuss 150 years ago, used brandy for extracting and distilling with the herbs; details in Conrad's standard absinthe book. The Kübler and Lucid absinthes I've tried, retail in US, use a neutral-spirits base.) Greenish-tan color undiluted, pale-green louche with water,* slightly herbaceous variant of classic absinthe nose and flavor, wormwood discernible. Anise-fennel flavors predominate as usual. There's a resemblance among absinthes I've tried (some better known than others) fashioned after the pre-ban products (especially Pernod) that the makers had sampled, and this one is solidly in that class. Overall a quality, artisanal impression, befitting St.-George (better known for its premium vodkas; I haven't tried them, malt whiskys are more to my taste among materia distilleria, and St-George makes small batches of an excellent, distinctive malt).

* Basis of the dialect word "pastis" in southern France, for drinks of this broad class that cloud in water when oils from anise etc. leave solution.

** Quick feedback: Sole complaint is that when testing my embedded links -- St. George and so on above -- in "Preview" mode, instead of opening in a new window as they did formerly (and do on most other such discussion fora), they now open in the same window, i.e., they replace the working text of the posting. It then is hard to get back. Of course there's an obvious workaround. But is this an option, Robin and Jenise, that you can re-set, back to what the old forum software did (and most others do that I use), i.e., open links in a new window ? Also obviously, this thread is not the place for much discussion of that.

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