Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Absinthe to make the heart grow fonder

Ted Breaux (left) with the Institute's own
Mr Bridgman-Smith

I clearly remember the first time I encountered absinthe. On holiday in Prague I doubletook as I spotted a bottle of Hill’s finest green fluid. I “smuggled”* it back to Blighty and saved it for a gothic dinner party I was planning as the crowning highlight of the evening—look everyone, REAL ABSINTHE. The illegal stuff that gives you hallucinations and drives you insane. In fact by that stage in the evening everyone was too stuffed and wasted to pay much attention, but I took my dose and waited for the visions to begin.

Of course they did not. Hill’s is just a highly alcoholic green drink that was invented in the 1990s to cash in on absinthe's mystique. (Radomil Hill claimed to be using an old family recipe but there's scant evidence for this.) It had never been banned in what was by then the Czech Republic, mainly because there was no particular tradition of drinking it there. No one knew what it was supposed to taste like so they just made something up. The famous Czech “tradition” of igniting an absinthe-soaked sugar cube then stirring it into your drink was also invented at that time.

One man who has highly mixed feelings about all of this is Ted Breaux, founder of Jade Liqueurs. He cheerfully admits that the mystery, infamy and illicit mythology of absinthe helped him launch his mainstream brand Lucid across the US in 2007. “But we’re way past the fascination stage, where people only want to try it out of curiosity because it was banned,” he insisted, when Mr Bridgman-Smith and I had a chance to chat with him a fortnight ago on as part of Lucid's UK launch. “Eighty per cent of our US sales are now restocking. Our demographic is incredibly broad, from college kids to older consumers who have perhaps travelled in Europe.” This is important to Ted, because his whole career in absinthe is driven by a passion to bust myths and show the world what absinthe is really supposed to taste like.

Breaux is a New Orleans native, and he was working there as a commercial environmental biochemist in 1993 when he got to wondering about a local watering hole called The Old Absinthe House. He asked a friend about it and learned what absinthe was—a ruinous drink that had been banned in the US in 1912—and that New Orleans had previously been the home of absinthe in the US. The drink is an alcoholic distillation infused with a mixture of herbs, the principle three being anise, fennel and grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)—this last is the defining ingredient in absinthe. Breaux looked it up in the Merke Index, a database of chemicals, and found that it did indeed cause “stupor, tremor, convulsion and death”.

But something about all this didn’t make sense to Breaux the chemist: why would a drink that caused such effects have been so popular? Soon his colleagues began to wonder why the lab always smelled of anise on Monday mornings—Ted was trying to synthesise his own absinthe.

Travelling to Eastern Europe Ted was, like me, surprised to see bottles of absinthe openly for sale—but was appalled by the vile, bitter concoction he tasted. Was this what all the fuss was about?

For him the revelation came when he got hold of two unopened bottles absinthe that had been lurking in cellars since before the ban. He tasted the contents and found it rich, complex and divine. He set about a rigorous chemical analysis—and found nothing toxic about it whatsoever.

Using his skills as a chemist, Breaux “backwards engineered” the authentic drink and decided to try and rediscover the techniques and ingredients used during absinthe’s heyday, eventually finding the Liqueurs Combiers works in Saumur: founded in 1834 and legally a museum—its ironwork was designed by Gustave Eiffel—this plant has antique copper stills that are still in good working order (two of which were salvaged from the original Pernod Fils factory after fire destroyed it in 1901). Here, in 2004, Breaux began making his own absinthe, as authentically as possible.

Like all proper absinthes, Lucid "louches"
(clouds) as you add water
While many modern “absinthes” are made from bulk spirit that is cold mixed with industrial extracts and essential oils, then dyed green (or even blue, red, purple or black—hell, why not?), Breaux insists upon toting bales of real herbs which are macerated in spirit then the whole redistilled. Some herbs, however, such as hyssop, don’t distil well and are macerated after distillation—the chlorophyll leaching from these is what gives absinthe verte its famous green colour. (Traditional absinthe blanche or bleu misses out this stage and is bottled colourless.)

It’s actually been six years since Ted created the first four Jade absinthes: PF 1901 is designed in imitation of the original Pernod Fils drink (the number is the year of the distillery fire!); Edouard is a copy of the product made by Edouard Pernod in the late 19th century; VS 1898 (formerly “Verte Swiss”) is modelled on the Swiss product made by C.F. Berger in Couvet, Neufchâtel; and Nouvelle Orleans is a personal take on the absinthes popular in his home town, often drunk as a cooling frappé (mixed with crushed ice and sugar syrup) in the Old Absinthe House itself.

But making absinthe this way is expensive and slow: Ted's four “ultra-premium” brands sell for about £57 a bottle. (Annoyingly, the cheaply made absinthes on the market ride on the coat tails of the more lovingly made ones and tend to charge just as high a price, adding insult to injury. As Ted says, “Would you pay $60 to $70 for a  fine red wine’ whose label read  made from alcohol, grape extract and FD&C Red #40’?”)

If Ted was going to spread his message and show the whole of his native country what absinthe should taste like he had two problems: (a) he’d have to be able to produce it in bulk, and (b) absinthe was still illegal in the US. That’s when he teamed up with Jared Gurfein, a disillusioned corporate lawyer looking for a change of direction. Gurfein formed Viridian Spirits and did some research, discovering that there was no specific prohibition against any of the ingredients in true absinthe. (They even discovered that the original ban probably wasn’t even valid—under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Gurfein says, it needed to be signed by three cabinet members, and in fact had only been signed by one.) They handed over their proposed product for testing and it passed with flying colours. Then they put the word “absinthe” on the bottle and that's when the fuss started. But over the course of a 13-month legal campaign Ted was able to provide the historical and scientific evidence to show that real absinthe was safe. In 2007 they were given the go-ahead to sell Lucid in the US.

“Immediately after we got the ban overturned there were 61 applications from other firms,” Gurfein says sourly. “Most of these died in the recession.” In fact ancient Swiss brand Kübler was also working to have absinthe legalised in the US at the same time, but Lucid still represents 60 per cent of the US market.

The bottle design embraces commercial necessities, but those
eyes are at least a bit authentic: they're a reference to the Chat
Noir posters from the Belle Epoque era…
So if real absinthe is cosy and harmless, where did its reputation come from? There are various conspiracy theories about absinthe becoming a scapegoat for the temperance movement, or being assassinated by a jealous wine industry. The active ingredient in grande wormwood is thujone (also present in sage) and for a long while this was believed to cause the drink’s special effects. In the 1970s some scientists noted thujone’s molecular similarity to THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, and proposed that thujone acted on the same neuro-receptors, though this was quickly dismissed. In truth thujone in high doses will cause “stupor, tremor, convulsion and death” (but no evidence yet for hallucinations) and the EU has a limit of 10mg per litre for absinthe. Past theories have suggested that pre-ban absinthe may have had much higher levels, but modern analyses such as the ones Breaux was able to conduct show that this is not true, and in fact they generally had less than the EU limit. In order to get a toxic dose of thujone from absinthe you would have to drink so much that the alcohol would kill you first.

Even back in the late 19th century some were complaining about the cheap ersatz absinthes being thrown together to satisfy the craze for it, and many now suspect that both the harmful and psychotropic effects described by some at the time were actually caused by illicit additives such as methanol. I myself can’t say that I have ever felt an “effect” from absinthe other than that of the alcohol, but many contemporary absinthistes say that they do. Ted Breaux attributes this to the blend of herbs involved, some having an excitatory effect and others a sedative one. He believes that the resulting “heightened” or “lucid” intoxication (where Lucid gets its name) is what would have appealed to artists of the Belle Epoque, enabling them to get creatively sozzled but still have the energy and clarity to work.

Needless to say the Institute will be following this matter with a  keen eye. I already have a dozen of so absinthes collected and I think a comparative tasting is in order. In the meantime we can report that Lucid is smooth and balanced and a far cry from bitter Czech firewater. Lucky for Americans that, thanks to Ted Breaux, most of them have never had to make this distinction.

* In fact absinthe was never illegal in the UK—it just passed out of fashion when France and Switzerland, where it was made, outlawed it. A 1988 EU law effectively overruled an national legislation, though nobody quite realised this at first. Production in Switzerland was officially legalised in 2005 while in the Netherlands an off licence owner found himself obliged to challenge the law in 2004 when police found a bottle of absinthe in his shop. Successful, he was dubbed the King of Absinthe and found himself suddenly shifting 40 or 50 bottles a week.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Christ - I remember the absinthe at the Gothic Dinner Party - though by rights I shouldn't. *I was very, very drunk*