Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Banned in Boston ...

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... but not in London. This is a bottle of La Fee Verte absinthe that I purchased from Royal Mile Whiskies' shop on Bloomsbury Street. Called "the Green Faerie," absinthe is an anise-flavored liquor containing an herbal infusion of wormwood, which imparts a substance known as thujone into the liquid.

Europe and the United States have had a complex relationship with absinthe, in part because of the psychoactive natures attributed to the thujone. Wikipedia's entry on absinthe notes:
Spurred by the temperance movement and winemakers' associations, absinthe was publicized in connection with several violent crimes supposedly committed under the direct influence of the drink. This, combined with rising hard liquor consumption due to the wine shortage in France during the 1880s and 1890s, effectively labelled absinthe as a social menace. Its critics said that it makes people crazy and criminal, it turns men into brutes and threatens the future of our times. Edgar Degas's 1876 painting, L'absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) (now at the Musée d'Orsay) epitomized the popular view of absinthe "addicts" as sodden and benumbed; Émile Zola described their serious intoxication in his novel L'Assommoir.

The Lanfray murders spelled the last straw for absinthe. In 1905 it was reported that Jean Lanfray murdered his family and attempted to kill himself after drinking absinthe. The fact that he was an alcoholic who had drunk considerably after the two glasses of absinthe in the morning was forgotten and the murders were blamed solely on absinthe. A petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland was quickly signed by over 82,000 people.

In Switzerland, the prohibition of absinthe was even written into the constitution in 1907, following a popular initiative. The Netherlands came next, banning absinthe in 1909, followed by the United States in 1912 and finally France in 1915. The prohibition of absinthe in France led to the growing popularity of pastis and ouzo, other anise-flavored liqueurs that do not use wormwood.

In reality, it was probably the toxic dyes used to give cheaper absinthe its distinctive green color ...
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... that caused the psychoactive effects. (Wikipedia's entry on thujone says, "There is no evidence that any dose will cause hallucinations.")

The recent history of absinthe, as described by Wikipedia:
In the 1990s an importer, BBH Spirits, realized that there was no UK law prohibiting absinthe sale (it was never banned there)—other than the standard regulations governing alcoholic beverage. Hill's Liquere, a Czech Republic distillery founded in 1920, began manufacturing Hill's Absinth, a Bohemian-style absinth, sparking the modern resurgence in absinthe's popularity.

It had also never been banned in Spain or Portugal, where it continues to be made. Likewise, the former Spanish and Portuguese New World colonies, especially Mexico, allow the sale of absinthe and it has retained popularity through the years.

France never repealed the 1915 law, but in 1988, a law was passed to clarify that only beverages that do not comply with European Union regulations with respect to thujone content, or beverages that call themselves "absinthe" explicitly, fall under that law. This has resulted in the re-emergence of French absinthes, now labelled spiritueux à base de plantes d'absinthe ("wormwood-based spirits"). Interestingly, as the 1915 law regulates only the sale of absinthe in France but not its production, some of these manufacturers also produce variants destined for exports which are plainly labeled "absinthe." La Fée Absinthe, launched in 2000, was the first brand of absinthe distilled and bottled in France since the 1915 ban, initially mainly for export from France, but now one of over twenty French "spiritueux ... d'absinthe" available in Paris and other French cities.

In the Netherlands this law was successfully challenged by Amsterdam wineseller Menno Boorsma in July 2004, making absinthe once more legal. Subsequently, the government in May 2005 repealed this law. Belgium, as part of an effort to simplify its laws, got rid of its absinthe law on the first of January 2005, citing (as the Dutch judge) European food regulations as sufficient to render the law unnecessary (and indeed, in conflict with the spirit of the Single European Market).

In Switzerland the ban on absinthe was repealed in 2000 during a general overhaul of the constitution, but the prohibition was written into ordinary law instead. Later that law was also repealed, so from March 2, 2005, absinthe is again legal in its country of origin, after nearly a century of prohibition. Evidence suggests absinthe has never stopped being produced in Switzerland and clandestine home distillers had produced it since the ban.

It is once again legal to produce and sell absinthe in practically every country where alcohol is legal, the one major exception being the United States. It is not, however, illegal to possess or consume absinthe in the United States.

You can get absinthe in the States if you order online or have a friend willing to risk the third-degree from U.S. Customs (big thanks to a reader who did this for me once before).

My interest in absinthe was sparked by this article in Modern Drunkard magazine, in which the author documents his experience of drinking a 750 ml bottle of Czech absinthe (with 10 times the EU-regulated thujone content) in one sitting. After consuming the entire bottle, the writer says:
I fell asleep at around ten in the morning then spent eleven hours wrestling with a colorful gang of strange and intricate dreams, the sort where even the subplots have subplots. I woke up lethargic, but without the pain of a proper hangover.

I felt as if log jams had been cleared from my head, I felt very sharp and sociable. Strangest of all, I remembered the entire evening, I didn't pass through a single blackout tunnel during the journey, I could even remember 90 percent of the songs that came on the radio, which I certainly can't do when I'm sober. I can only conclude that thujone must stimulate the memory centers.

Drinking absinthe is fraught with all the ritual of Catholic communion or Japanese tea service. You pour a shot, and then mix it four parts to one with sugared water, which turns the clear emerald green fluid into a milky green. The French tradition is to mix the sugar and water into the absinthe by first placing a special slotted spoon over the rim of the glass into which the absinthe has already been poured. On the spoon, you place a sugar cube (or in my case, two) and drip the four parts chilled water over the sugar cubes. Depending on how patient you are, you may end up dunking the sugar cubes in the mixture and swirling it all together with the spoon. There's also a Bohemian ritual that involves lighting the mixture, but I'm not one to burn precious alcohol.

Mixed properly, it all tastes like a fluid jelly bean.


Blogger Interrobang said...

A fluid jelly bean, mmm... That sounds delicious! I'm going to have to go search the Liquour Control Board of Ontario site...

9:52 AM  
Anonymous fatslug the impetuous said...

I'm fascinated by absinthe because of its association with the decadent movement of the 1890s. (I also read the Modern Drunkard article on absinthe, as well as its fantasy "Battle of the Drunkards" contest in which absinthe plays a prominent role in the quest for dominance between Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Jackie Gleason.) Enoch Soames, Max Beerbohm's fictitious bad 1890s poet, referred to absinthe as "La Sorciere Glauque." (Read "Enoch Soames" on line if you can find it; it's great fun.) And it was after a night of guzzling absinthe that Oscar Wilde remarked, "I have made a great discovery. I have found that alcohol taken in sufficient quantities produces all the effects of drunkenness."

12:55 PM  
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