A Forbidden Fairy Makes a Comeback

Even a substitute such as Absente can be enjoyed in the traditional way.
Even a substitute such as Absente can be enjoyed in the traditional way. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

It's not often that the feds get involved with this column. But sometimes a duty to homeland security calls, even for the cocktail writer.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in passing that absinthe is no longer illegal in the United States. In New Orleans, at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in July, I'd tasted several "authentic" absinthes, and the excited word was that true absinthe, banned since the early 20th century, would soon be widely available. One brand, La F?e -- which imports absinthes from France, Switzerland and the Czech Republic -- offered tastings, fittingly, in the Ernest Hemingway Penthouse at the Hotel Monteleone.

The day my column ran I received an e-mail from Janice Mosher, director of the call center for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Mosher was "curious" as to the "legal basis" of my statement on absinthe. "I have not heard that it was now legal," she wrote. "And since I run the Customs call center -- and we are often asked about absinthe -- I'd like to get more information."

That's when Mosher and I delved deeper into the legal issues. What we discovered will thrill -- and possibly deflate -- those who've waited years for a taste of the "green fairy," the infamous drink of Zola, Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde.

Basically, it boils down to chemistry. According to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, U.S. law prohibits absinthe that contains over 10 parts per million of thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. Wormwood is the plant that makes absinthe absinthe -- with its mythic tales of hallucination and belle epoque debauchery.

But here's the thing: Just about all absinthe has less than 10 parts per million of thujone and perhaps always did. The ban existed mainly because there had been no way to prove otherwise. Until now. In fact, New Orleans-born chemist Ted Breaux, creator of the new Lucid absinthe, has used modern technology to test bottles from the late 19th century to show that properly made absinthe contained very little thujone.

The Tax and Trade Bureau has done similar tests. "There are currently four absinthe products that we've tested and we're allowing in the marketplace," spokesman Art Resnick says. They are Lucid, Green Moon from France, and two versions of the brand Kubler from Switzerland.

None of those is available in the Washington area, though they soon will be. But widespread availability of absinthe might be both a good and not-so-good thing. People now will be able to see what absinthe tastes like. But because all absinthe is now technically classified as "thujone free," two centuries of myths central to Western artistic tradition will immediately be exploded. For instance, how can we believe that Van Gogh cut off his ear on thujone-free absinthe?

Historians theorize that cheap, poorly made absinthe may have been responsible for the drink's unsavory reputation. "The whole thing about thujone appears to be overblown," writes Mosher, "but it still has a certain mystique, which is why no one wants to come right out and declare their product 'thujone free.' "

The label of Green Moon, for instance, will refer to itself as "Absinthe Essence" and "Anise-Flavored Vodka." Have fun imagining you're a Left Bank boulevardier with that.

Mosher's concern is that travelers would be emboldened to pick up a bottle in Barcelona or Prague and try to bring it back through Customs -- where agents would seize the souvenir. "As always, such an outcome produces tears," she says.

Sometimes, of course, there are tears of joy: I remember fondly the bottle of absinthe that was not confiscated upon my return from Barcelona. (Years ago, I swear.)

The Tax and Trade Bureau says it has no authority or jurisdiction over "personal use imports." But Mosher says, "Until we've been formally informed, we can't just decide on our own to stop enforcing it." However, she acknowledges, "It appears to me that there is no basis for not allowing it anymore."

Mosher and I agree that, as with Cuban cigars, once absinthe is widely available, there will be an inevitable letdown. I enjoy the bitter anise flavor and the hints of fennel and other herbs, but I know it is an acquired taste that many will never acquire.

"The real problem," Mosher says, "is that it tastes icky."

That reminds me of something Oscar Wilde once said of absinthe: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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