Tuesday, 22 December 2009

A Christmas present from US Customs?

The photo above is on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) website as "Photo of the week." Looking at it, I'm not sure whether a bottle of real absinthe was harmed in the making of the photo, but that's a whole different debate.

The TTB website gives clear guidelines regarding the use of the term "absinthe" on labels of distilled spirits products and in related advertising material. A key clause relates to thujone:

We approve the use of the term "absinthe" on the label of a distilled spirits product and in related advertisements only if the product is "thujone-free" pursuant to the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) regulation at 21 CFR 172.510. Based upon the level of detection of FDA's prescribed method for testing for the presence of thujone, TTB considers a product to be "thujone-free" if it contains less than 10 parts per million of thujone.

Contrary to the comments made by some of the more disreputable "bootleggers" of absinthe shipping bottles from Europe to the USA, this figure is no different from the absinthe regulations in Europe (although there is an additional "bitters" category in Europe with a higher limit), and is also no different from most of the samples of 19th century absinthe analysed by chemists in recent years.

There have been countless debates on blogs and forums over the last 2/3 years about the relevance of thujone content, limits and effects. In the interests of science I confess to having drunk absinthes with less than 1 part per million as well as one with over 300 parts per million. For me, and others at that tasting, there was absolutely no difference in effect between these (I won't comment here on the taste differences). In any case, the US Government prohibits the import of absinthe with 10 or more parts per million of thujone ...
Or does it?

For more than a year from late 2009 until 2011 or later, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) gave a different figure:

"Absinthe (Alcohol)

The importation of absinthe is subject to the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration regulations (21 C.F.R. 172.510
and the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and
Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations (27 C.F.R.
Parts 13.51, 5.42(a), and 5.65. The absinthe content
must be “thujone free” (that is, it must contain less than
100 parts per million of thujone).

The less than 100 ppm limit was published in the both the text and in a larger PDF file. Of course this didn't (and still doesn't) mean that Americans returning from Europe can bring in any absinthe they find there since it would still have to meet the guidelines on both the TTB and CBP websites on labelling:

"the term “absinthe” cannot be the brand name; the term “absinthe” cannot
stand alone on the label; and the artwork and/or graphics cannot project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects."

However the apparent discrepancy between the TTB and CBP on thujone was interesting, and I wonder whether anyone was able to challenge the confiscation of an absinthe that meets the written CBP guidelines?

I assume that the CBP documents were incorrect with a finger slipping twice to add a zero and hence an extra 90 parts per million to the limit. In any case, the mistake has now at last been corrected and the TTB and CBP both state the same thujone limit and the same packaging regulations.

So, on reflection, the CBP may not have been giving Americans a Christmas present here. And, based on my own experiences, it didn't matter anyway!

I was planning to close this article by saying that I wish my readers a merry Christmas and hope that Father Christmas brings your favourite drink for the holidays. However another article of US legislation states (see page 5 of the PDF):

"Beverage alcohol advertising and marketing materials
should not contain the name of or depict Santa Claus."

So I'll close with a picture of Billy Bob Thornton instead ...

Joyeux Noël!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Absinthe around the World Late 2009: 8

For my last article looking at absinthe events around the world in late 2009, I've opted to get away from snow-covered Europe and North-East USA. While the beautiful panoramas are good for getting us in the holiday mood, I, for one, long for the warmth of the tropics.

I'm also going to focus on cocktails, including several new creations. Some absinthe lovers are not totally convinced that absinthe should be discovered via cocktails, feeling that the complexity of a great absinthe is best discovered with just the addition of water. Given the apparent involvement of Toulouse-Lautrec in the creation of the Tremblement de Terre cocktail (absinthe and cognac) and of Ernest Hemingway in the creation of Death in the Afternoon (absinthe and champagne), and given the 104 absinthe cocktails in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, I firmly believe that cocktails are a legitimate and perfect way to discover absinthe.

But in the tropics? Well, while the tropics may not be thought of as typical absinthe territory, and while Westerners may consider their own mixologists and bar scenes to be the best, there are some very pleasant surprises to be found in South-East Asia. Papa's Tapas in Thailand has a wide range of absinthes, including La Clandestine, Angélique and the Jades. Several bars in Singapore stock a large range of absinthes (not all of the highest quality, it must be said). And in Malaysia, absinthes are developing a strong following across most sectors of the on-trade.

The latest developments there have been reported in at least two Malaysian blogs: the Juice Online Blog and the Thirsty Blogger Blog, as well as in the largest English-language newspaper in Malaysia, the New Straits Times.

The event covered was the launch of absinthe at one of Asia's top bars: the Sky Bar at the Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. And local mixologist, Ben Ng, was on hand to create several amazing new cocktails. Ben is very cosmopolitan in his outlook, approach and creativity and has worked for a number of spirit brands across Asia.

Ben's first creation:

Winter Whisper

30ml Vodka
20ml La Clandestine Absinthe
10ml Monin Gingerbread Syrup
Orange Rind
Dark chocolate Cookie Crumbs

Rim martini glass with vanilla syrup and dark chocolate cookie crumbs. Mix rest of ingredients into a mixing glass and stir. Fine strain into the rimmed martini glass. Garnish with orange rind.

Ben's version of the ...


4 nos Lime Wedge
30ml Vodka
20ml La Clandestine Absinthe
30ml Sugar Syrup
15ml Boiron Passion Fruit Puree
1/4 Fresh Passion Fruit (local)

Muddle limes and add rest of ingredients with ice into a shaker and shake. Strain into ice filled glass and garnish with a passion fruit quarter.

Ben Ng, at work ...

making a ....

Bramble Ramble

2 nos Blackberry Fruit
30ml Vodka
20ml La Clandestine Absinthe
20ml Monin Vanilla Syrup
1 nos Grapefruit Quarter

Muddle blackberry fruit, add rest of ingredients with crushed ice and STIR. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with 2 raspberry fruit.

This ...

is probably the best-looking Death in the Afternoon I have ever seen.

Of course, the Sky Bar is not the only great bar in KL, so I was interested to read another Malaysian blog, writing about The Library, and their cocktails, including these:

The Fucking Awesome (Frangelico, Mozart White, Mozart Dark, Amarula, espresso, milk) & Quickly But Slowly (Mozart Black, milk, La Clandestine Absinthe).

I will, however, spare my readers real-life photos of the Malaysian version of

the Hulk, a shooter glass of absinthe sunk into a pint of Guinness ...

Two photos to conclude. Ben's ...


40 ml La Clandestine Absinthe
15 ml Passion Fruit syrup
20 ml White Peach Puree
60 ml Apple Juice

Shake together, strain into a tall glass, and top with ice cubes (stand against the KL Towers to admire!)

And finally to take us back to the snows of Europe and the USA, a cocktail created by New York mixologist, Adam Schuman:

The White Christmas Cocktail

1/2 oz La Clandestine Absinthe
1/4 oz Simple syrup
1 oz Grapefruit juice
3 dashes St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram or The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters
Top up with Champagne or Prosecco

Mixologists of the world: without your hard work drinking might be so one-dimensional. So thank you. Cheers, Santé, Kampai and Yam Sing!

Drinkers of the world: what absinthe cocktails will you be enjoying these holidays?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Absinthe Around the World Late 2009: 7

I am delighted to welcome a guest writer for this article. I first encountered "Habu" online on the Fée Verte forum, and then met Štefan Habulinec in person at the 2009 Absinthe Festival in Boveresse. Štefan has compiled the ultimate Czech resource on real absinthe, www.absinthe-cz.com/, is an administrator on the Czech Absinthe Forum, www.absinthemafia.com, and a moderator on the new Absinthe Review Network forums.

Štefan's report from Prague is especially notable because until recently Prague has been famous - or infamous - as the city to visit to drink Czech absinth. Until recently it would have been difficult to find Czechs actually drinking real absinthe, but thanks to Štefan, Martin Zufanek and others, that is now changing.

I am pleased to present Štefan's account completely unedited (apart from one or two spelling mistakes!):

Absinthe in the Bar Hemingway, Prague.

La Clandestine and friends. :)

"Today, on the 8th of December 2009, in a small bar in the center of Prague, an absinthe introduction took place. It was basically first training-introduction for notable barmen in Prague, including chief of the Czech bartender scene, Alexander Mikšovic. The old crapsinthe myths were taken down and another absinthe landmark in Czech was set!

It was also the premiere for La Clandestine, Mansinthe and La Fée XS to be officially poured in a bar in Prague. St. Antoine included of course. :) All received highly positive results from the audience.

Main speakers - Ondrej Abrahamek (left) and Ales Puta (right)

The lecture was given by two barmen, Ondrej Abrahamek and Ales Puta, with some support of absinthemafia members, Martin Zufanek and Stefan Habulinec. Besides the absinthe history, the main difference between bohemian absinthe and authentic one was also presented, along with the degustation of La Clandestine, La Fée XS, Mansinthe and St. Antoine. Our goal was to put the crapsinthe with absinthe on the same table and compare it by taste, but unfortunately, nobody was interested in that, since the whole degustation was a real treat and there was no need to spoil the evening. Maybe next time we'll be more tough. ;)

Ondrej Abrahamek

Audience was left with the assurance of the next meeting in similar spirit, no pun intended. ;)

Hemingway Bar interiors

Hemingway Bar is now one of the few places in Prague, where you could get some good absinthe along with the correct preparation without a weird stare from the bartender or from the guests. The other ones are Cerna Vdova and Café Jericho (definitely my next bar to visit!), where you could get Kübler.

Burning the sugar is strictly forbidden in these places! :)

Last glass of St. Antoine

Cheers from Prague!"

Na zdraví, Praha!

Thanks and na zdraví, Štefan!

Footnote: the Hemingway Bar offers much more than real absinthe of course. It is a home of "fine mixology and luxury spirits," as can be seen on their own website as well as on Facebook. I look forward to visiting in 2010!