Monday, 27 June 2011

What makes the "Green Fairy" green?

I love discussing absinthe with fellow absinthe fans, with so-called "absinthe virgins," and with customers, and I have the opportunity to do so nearly every day. I have done so in North America, Europe (including Russia), Asia and Australia.

And one question that is commonly asked wherever I go is "What makes the Green Fairy Green?"

That's an interesting question to ask, having just gone past mid-summer's day (in the Northern hemisphere), and as I look out at our garden which remains a beautiful natural green. Which is more than can be said for many of today's vertes.

In the USA, the addition of artificial colours in absinthe has to be declared on the label. This is what is declared on three absinthes that are available in the USA:-

Absinthe 1:

Contains caramel color & certified colors FD&C Blue #1 & FD&C Yellow #5

Absinthe 2:

Contains FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1

Absinthe 3:

Alcohol with natural flavors, certified colors and FD&C Yellow #5 added

And this is what one of those looks like (removed from the bottle to spare their blushes).
Now it is true that in the 19th century some absinthes were artificially coloured, but these were the lowest quality absinthes that were available. So there is a precedent for artificial colours in absinthe. What's the difference, then, between these artificially coloured absinthes and those vertes made without artificial colours?

Naturally Green Absinthe

I'll use the Wikipedia description:

"The distillation of absinthe first produces a colourless distillate that leaves the alembic at around 72 percent ABV. The distillate can be bottled clear, to produce a Blanche or la Bleue absinthe, or it can be coloured using artificial or natural colouring. Traditional absinthes take their green colour from chlorophyll, which is present in some of the herbal ingredients during the secondary maceration. The natural colouring process is considered critical for absinthe ageing, since the chlorophyll remains chemically active. The chlorophyll plays the same role in absinthe that tannins do in wine or brown liquors. This is done by steeping petite wormwood, hyssop, and melissa (among other herbs) in the liquid. Chlorophyll from these herbs is extracted giving the drink its famous green colour. This process also provides the herbal complexity that is typical of high quality absinthe."

This process can take 24 hours and produces an absinthe with complexity, one that change subtly in the bottle over time. Just like fine wine.

Artificially Green Absinthe

The process to add artificial green colouring to a clear absinthe is very different. It is simply added in the way that cassis is added to champagne to make a Kir Royale. Instant visual effect, but no added complexity. In fact adding colouring in this way has been likened to adding red colouring to white wine, and then declaring it as ... "red wine."

I am grateful to Ted Breaux for helping me with these notes on artificial colouring:

"The colours that are almost always used to create an artificial green are what are formally known in the U.S. as FD&C Blue #1 and FD&C Yellow #5 (FD&C = Food, Drug, and Cosmetic). U.S. labeling requirements mandate that artificial colors be disclosed in the USA market, although this is not generally so elsewhere.

FD&C Blue #1 in the USA is E133 in the E.U., “FCF Brilliant Blue” in commerce, or to the scientific community: N-Ethyl-N-[4-[[4-[ethyl[(3-sulfophenyl)methyl]amino]phenyl]2-sulfophenyl)methylene]-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-ylidiene]-3-sulfobenzenemethanaminium hydroxide inner salt, disodium salt. First discovered in 1896, it is commonly used as a textile dye and wood stain. The Wikipedia article is quite informative. It is a synthetic dye that is produced from petroleum, was previously banned in most of Europe, and remains a subject of debate where health is concerned.

FD&C Yellow #5 in the USA is E102 in the E.U., “Tartrazine” in commerce, or to the scientific community: 4,5-Dihydro-5-oxo-1-(4-sulfophenyl)-4-[(sulfophenyl)azol]-1H-pyrazole-3-carboxylic acid trisodium salt. It was first patented in 1949, and has also been used in textiles. Of the synthetic azo dyes, this one carries the greatest possibility for allergic reactions. Again the Wikipedia article is well worth reading, revealing a very questionable track record for this synthetic dye, which has raised some serious concerns in the UK."

Caveat Emptor

Of course consumers can make up their own minds whether to choose blanche absinthes (like La Clandestine), naturally coloured verte absinthes, or artificially coloured absinthes. The use of artificial colours does not make an absinthe "not real," although some of the artificially coloured brands do also add sugar to their recipes. Using artificially colours in a pre-sweetened product delivers a product that is much cheaper to make, but, in most cases, not much cheaper to buy.

Maybe some of the poorer 19th century poets and artists drank lower quality artificially coloured absinthes sometimes. But they were clearly in a minority. For 21st century consumers looking to enjoy the drinks enjoyed by most people in France, Switzerland, the USA and the UK back then, you might want to check the ingredient list if you live in the USA. Or just hold your absinthe up to the light if you live elsewhere ...