Tuesday, 22 December 2009
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:
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 ...