Absinthe in the U.S.A.?


Someone in a forum at the Wormwood Society objected to an earlier post I put up about the legal status of absinthe in the U.S.A.  In this post I shall clarify what I meant to communicate about American-market absinthe.

California Clandestine Absinthe 2006-10 a California Clandestine Absinthe 2006-10 b

In October, 2006, I macerated and distilled (in a stainless-steel pot with a copper head) my own ‘California’ Clandestine absinthe.  I based it upon a nineteenth-century formula, but added California poppy to it.  It should go without saying that I did my distilling somewhere where personal distilling is legal!  I got about four liters and it was all consumed during my Halloween party just a few days after distilling.  I remember it as being good.  I also remember being happy and relieved at seeing that it showed a good louche when water was added.  A couple of local bartenders (now managers) were on hand that night that might remember it: Giovanni of Sadie and Greg of Hostaria del Piccolo.  The hausgemacht aside, I had no idea at the time that within a matter of months, the status of absinthe in the U.S.A. would change – at least seemingly.

In 2007, a sort of absinthe began to be available in the U.S.A. again.  I remember being excitedly told at the time by someone closer to the proceedings than myself, that the Kübler people had successfully argued that the product that they had specially formulated for the American market did not contain enough thujone to violate the 1912 ban if tested for using laboratory equipment from the time of the ban.  I don’t know if this is actually true.  But, the result of Kübler’s negotiations (and others), was that the ban on thujone (found in wormwood) would be interpreted to allow a product to be labelled as absinthe and sold in the U.S.A. as long as it was officially “thujone-free,” and that the threshold at which the product would be considered to contain thujone would be 10 ml. (per liter).  Therefore, American market absinthe must contain fewer than 10 ml. (per liter) of thujone.  The European Union allows more than three-times that amount – up to 35 ml. (per liter).

Tests have shown that absinthe bottlings from before the various bans of about a hundred years ago had an average thujone content of about 25 ml. (per liter) and a median thujone content of about 33 ml. (per liter).  That means that the typical pre-ban absinthe would not be approved for sale in the U.S.A. today, but would meet the requirements for sale in Europe.

I suppose the fact that the ban still stands in some capacity in the U.S.A., but that the interpretation of the ban has been loosened, is the reason that there has been some amount of confusion and argument.  The distillers of American-market absinthe, and many drinkers, have engaged in plenty of excited boosterism that never dwells on restrictions still in place.  On the other hand, some of those that mistakenly believe that ‘real’ absinthe is a psychedelic drug have suspected that American-market absinthe is deficient for purposes of ‘tripping’ because of the relative lack of thujone.  Makers of bad “absinth” from places with little-or-no history of making the real thing, like the Czech Republic, Russia and Israel are often happy to suggest as much.

There is plenty of bad stuff from Europe, but all of the truly great bottlings also come from there, in my opinion.  If you ask me, nothing for sale in the U.S.A. is as good as Jade Liqueurs’ (Ted Breaux) Absinthe Edouard or Combier Blanchette.  Some American-market absinthe is good, but always seems to be missing something in the flavor, in my opinion.  That said, I have never tasted an American-market absinthe that is bad in the way that so-called ‘absinth’ from the Czech Republic is.

Breaux’s highly reputed European-market absinthes are being made available in the U.S.A., at least in versions that contain fewer that 10 ml. (per liter) of thujone.  Since I maintain a stock of the European bottlings, I will be eager to taste for any differences between those and the bottles that will be available here.

That brings me to the description of European-market Kübler absinthe being described at this link as being the “full-strength EU version.”

To sum up, I would say, yes, we have absinthe in the U.S.A. – just not the same absinthe that one can buy in Europe.  Until you find a good amount of the absinthe bottlings being sold here also being legally sold in the U.S.A., it shall be proof that the governmental ban continues to have at some qualitative effect on what Americans can buy and sell as absinthe – if in no other way than keeping all of those bottlings out of our market.

6 thoughts on “Absinthe in the U.S.A.?

  1. Andrew, thanks for the post. Some interesting view points. But at the risk of possibly offending you, I would have to state that you are using flawed logic. Here’s why:

    1) Many brands that have been tested, including many bottlings of Pernod Fils, the gold standard of Belle Epoque absinthe, came in at levels that would still be legal in the US. Further, during the Belle Epoque, brands made no efforts whatsoever to regulate the amount of thujone in their absinthe, since it wasn’t a selling point. That’s why you see such a variation in the thujone levels, even within the same brand in different bottlings.

    2) Thujone levels don’t add or subtract anything from taste. In fact, one of the highest regarded small batch releases ever made (a limited release from Emile Pernot) clocked in at a whopping zero thujone. Also, I’m not aware of any authentic E.U. brands that are now available in the U.S. having to adjust production methods to qualify for sale in the U.S.

    3) You also fail to understand that both measurements (10 mg/l in the U.S. and 35 mg/l in the EU) are both labelled as THUJONE FREE. So even if the EU limit is three times as high as the U.S. level, it’s still considered to contain no thujone. If measurements are so minute, how can that truly impact your belief that one is more authentic than the other, or that the level itself will improve the flavor?

    4) Your assertion that nothing compares to the Jades in an interesting one. I would ask which of the highest regarded brands in the U.S. you have tried?

    5) I’d bring to your attention that Edouard is also available for sale in the U.S., and that Ted has made no change to the production to come in under the U.S. limit, based on conversations I’ve had with him.

    I look forward to discussing this with you on the forums.

    Thanks,

    Brian Robinson
    Review Editor
    Media Liaison
    The Wormwood Society

    1. Hello Brian,
      I think that if you will take the time to re-read my post, you will find that nothing I said contradicts any of the factual points you have made. I did not say the Pernod-Fils from 1900 would not be approved in the U.S.A. That said, according to the testing, the average (or median) pre-ban ansinthe, in terms of thujone content, would not be approved for sale today in the U.S.A. I did not say that thujone in absinthe affects the flavor. I did not say that 35 mg. per liter was officially considered thujone-laden (bearing thujone) anywhere. My main point is that the T.T.B.’s over-cautious restriction (in my opinion) continues the U.S.A. ban – in a reduced manner – since may modern European bottlings would not be approved. Neither would pre-ban absinthes with typical (average or median) thujone contents.
      I would also say that even the European Union’s thujone limit is over-cautious, in my opinion. As I understand it, a much greater amount of thujone would have to be ingested than is really effectively possible for it to have any adverse health impacts. As David Embury pointed out in his 1948 book (The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks), mothers all across the U.S.A. (and Europe, presumably) would make strongly-bitter ‘wormwood tea’ and make their children drink it daily whenever there was word of any local children with lice or worms. One can assume that the thujone levels in one cup of such ‘wormwood tea’ would be more that found in any bottle of absinthe. I am for getting rid of the ban altogether – not just re-calibrating it. To that point, I have spent a lot of time talking about the European Union’s thujone limits, but it should be pointed out that Switzerland and France, specifically, have no such limits at all (for what that is worth within an E.U. framework). Their bans were done away with altogether at the legislative level (an example our broken Congress is not liable to follow).

    2. Hello again, Brian,
      I see that I neglected to answer your question. I use Kübler weekly in my mixology courses. I find it adequate for accenting the surface of a drink with. For drinking in a more traditional manner, I really like Pacifique. I have tried many others. Some are acceptable, in my opinion, like those from Saint George Spirits and Leopold Brothers. Others have been un-acceptable. I was already aware that Edouard and other of Ted Breax’s products are ‘in the pipe’ for the U.S.. market and I look forward to trying them. I certainly hope that they will be the same as the bottles I have been buying from Europe for the better part of a decade.

      1. All of the Jades are aged in a solera type of system. What’s coming to the states is exactly what’s bottled for the EU.

        All thujone limitations, both in the EU and the US are still rooted in the thujone hysteria. Old beliefs die hard. Especially when governments just don’t want to spend the resources needed to debunk the myths.

        As for US absinthes, if you haven’t yet tried them, check out the two Marteaus, the two Vilyas (formerly Ridge), and the three brands from Delaware Phoenix, Meadow of Love, Walton Waters, and Bluescat. There’s nothing missing in any of those. 🙂

  2. Also, FYI, I won’t argue that the Edouard is great. It’s a favorite of mine. As is the Blanchette. But that doesn’t detract from the points made. I believe that has more to do with the skill of the distiller than the levels of thujone. Especially since Eddy is approved for sale in the U.S.

  3. Rather than enter all comments here, see The Wormwood Society thread with regard to this at this link: http://wormwoodsociety.org/forums/topic/7847-elemental-mixology-thinks-all-us-absinthe-is-fake/

    Start at post #14. The really pertinent posts are #s 14, 18, 22, and 30. I am the character known there as “fingerpickinblue”. I had hoped you would have stayed around to discuss this.

    BTW, love your blog… interesting approach. But none of us knows it all.

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