Monday, 31 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 1


I introduced this series in the first article I published (Number 10). Knowing that some readers in the future will start the series with this post, I will repeat that introduction now.

As someone involved in trying to create more interest in high quality absinthes, I am well aware that there has been - and continues to be - a lot of misinformation about absinthe. So the three most important things I can do to rectify that are .... "Education .... education .... and more education."

I am also aware that education isn't always fun, so I try to lighten up my efforts to educate with my own particular sense of humour. English humour? Yes, albeit not directly in the style of Monty Python.

I can also be quite verbose (see some of my other posts for proof of that), so in an attempt to keep it simple, I am going to present over the next 10 days my short list of things you didn't know about absinthe. Some of my better-informed readers will no doubt say "I already knew that," so to them I apologise in advance. A headline saying "10 things you might not have known about absinthe, but maybe some of you do" would not be so punchy!


And so to ..

NUMBER ONE:

ABSINTHE WILL NOT HELP YOU SEE GREEN FAIRIES, AND IS NO MORE LIKELY TO CAUSE ANY EFFECTS THAN ANY OTHER STRONG SPIRIT. WHILE THERE IS A NATURALLY OCCURRING SUBSTANCE IN ABSINTHE CALLED THUJONE AND WHILE THIS CAN HAVE “EFFECTS,” YOU’D HAVE TO DRINK SO MANY BOTTLES OF ABSINTHE TO GET THEM, YOU’D DIE OF ALCOHOL POISONING LONG BEFOREHAND.

Time and time again, it is obvious that many of those starting their absinthe journey expect to get much more than the normal effect of alcohol from absinthe. As I write this, someone has just posted on Twitter:

i wanna try absinthe that drink that makes u hallucinate lol

while over the last day or so, I have read the following on the La Clandestine page on Facebook:

what's the most powerful Absinthe still being sold int he world?

Now, again, what absinthe has the most consciousness rattling bank fir my quid?

Day in, day out, I read similar posts, or, worse still, see similar statements on websites and blogs. There are still some absinthe makers who insist on touting their products as having the maximum thujone, as if that were a relevant point. In the past, I might have expected to read such claims from Eastern European absinthe makers, so it is disappointing to read it from supposedly reputable French companies.

I'll say it again:

ABSINTHE WILL NOT HELP YOU SEE GREEN FAIRIES, AND IS NO MORE LIKELY TO CAUSE ANY EFFECTS THAN ANY OTHER STRONG SPIRIT. WHILE THERE IS A NATURALLY OCCURRING SUBSTANCE IN ABSINTHE CALLED THUJONE AND WHILE THIS CAN HAVE “EFFECTS,” YOU’D HAVE TO DRINK SO MANY BOTTLES OF ABSINTHE TO GET THEM, YOU’D DIE OF ALCOHOL POISONING LONG BEFOREHAND.

For anyone who wants to read the science on this, see thujone.info. I've tried myself to see if thujone can make a difference. In the interests of science, I have drunk absinthe with less than 1 part per million, and one with over 300 parts per million. Almost 10 times the EU limit. And the difference in the "absinthe effect?" None. Nada. Rien de tout. Gar nichts. Niente.

When I talk publicly about absinthe, I try to make my talks interactive. So I ask the following:

Is there anyone here who has seen the green fairies as a result of drinking absinthe?

Or anyone who has heard about the fairies and has been disappointed not to see any?

And the near universal answers to these questions are NO and YES.

Sadly, it seeems that some of those starting to drink absinthe may have been influenced by unscrupulous online merchants. Becase of what they read online, they try absinthe, are disappointed by the lack of effects and never drink absinthe again. They may never have the opportunity to enjoy an absinthe just for its taste.

Maybe some are influenced by famous absinthe paintings, like the one at the top of this article or like this one:

Nice paintings, but these are not really saying the 19th century painters saw hallucinations when drinking absinthe. Consider this much more down-to-earth painting which could also be considered to show an "absinthe effect:"

Of course, drinkers who enjoy absinthe responsibly will not end up looking like Degas's drinker! Or like this one ...


So, just one more time:

ABSINTHE WILL NOT HELP YOU SEE GREEN FAIRIES, AND IS NO MORE LIKELY TO CAUSE ANY EFFECTS THAN ANY OTHER STRONG SPIRIT. WHILE THERE IS A NATURALLY OCCURRING SUBSTANCE IN ABSINTHE CALLED THUJONE AND WHILE THIS CAN HAVE “EFFECTS,” YOU’D HAVE TO DRINK SO MANY BOTTLES OF ABSINTHE TO GET THEM, YOU’D DIE OF ALCOHOL POISONING LONG BEFOREHAND.

Sometimes, I feel that this is a "boring" message for those starting their absinthe journey. But I'd rather tell the truth. Actually if drinkers could focus on the good ... no, the great things about absinthe: its taste, what it can do for cocktails, the sense of drinking part of history, enjoyment of the absinthe drinking ritual (no burning, please), then they would be discovering something much better than any so-called but non-existent effect.

To all my readers who can enjoy absinthe for the right reasons, Santé!

......................................................................................

For Part 2 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How and where absinthe originated), click here.

For Part 3 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (Why have women been so important in the history of absinthe), click here.

For Part 4 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (Clear absinthe was made and sold before Green absinthe), click here.

For Part 5 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How artificial colours are not needed in absinthe), click here.

For Part 6 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How Absinthe boomed, died and was re-born, helped by a series of accidents), click here.

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 2



Drinks originate for different reasons.

The first sparkling wine was probably a mistake, arising from secondary fermentation of wine. Brandy was created as a way of concentrating wine to make it cheaper to ship (just like concentrated fruit juice). And Scotch? Well, maybe it was just cold in Scotland and they wanted something to warm them up!

Wormwood has a long history as a medicinal product, starting with Lucretius in the century before Jesus:

"And as physicians when they seek to give
A draught of bitter wormwood to a child,
First smearing along the edge that rims the cup
The liquid sweets of honey, golden-hued."

There are further medicinal references to wormwood and to absinthe (also the French for the wormwood plant), so it is hardly surprising that the first uses of the drink absinthe as we now know it were of a medicinal nature. While the Henriods were probably the creators of the drink we know as absinthe, it was the legendary Dr. Ordinaire who apparently sold it to the villagers as he rode round. And then it became even more popular when it was used for its medicinal benefits for the French soldiers in Algiers in the 1830's and 1840's.

The therapeutic nature of the drink with its clear origins in Switzerland in the late 18th century seem to be very much at odds with the claims of Pernod to be the "creator of absinthe in 1805." Brian Robinson has already blogged about this and has asked Pernod to respond, but to no avail.

It seems to me that Pernod may be capitalising on an earlier book written by Marie-Claude Delahaye. While that book's title may previously have helped Pernod to justify their claim to be the creator of absinthe, her latest book, published in 2010, (L'Absinthe de Pontarlier au Val-de-Travers d'Hier a Aujourdh'hui) makes it clear that Pernod was NOT the creator of absinthe in 1805. Pages 228 - 233 give the following chronology:

1. Pre-1798: Major Dubied purchases a recipe for absinthe from the Henriod family.
2. 1798: First absinthe distillery established in Couvet, Switzerland by Major Dubied with help from Henri-Louis Pernod.
3. Next (no year given): Henri-Louis Pernod sets up his own absinthe distillery, also in Couvet.
4. 1805: Henri-Louis Pernod finally sets up his own French distillery in Pontarlier.

As Brian Robinson reported in his blog, Pernod's own promotional literature of 1896 gets the facts straight (with just a year's change):

"1797. It was at that time the first absinthe factory was built. The establishment was created under extremely modest conditions, even for Couvet."

while an early Pernod absinthe website (now taken down but still available via The Wayback When Machine archive) repeated the information about Couvet:

I'd welcome a response from Pernod as to why they choose not to believe their own company's promotional literature of 1896 and why they have now decided their earlier website needed to be taken down.

In the meantime, this fact seems clear to me ...

NUMBER TWO:

ABSINTHE ORIGINATED AS A MEDICINAL DRINK IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE 18TH CENTURY IN THE VAL-DE-TRAVERS, SWITZERLAND AND THE FIRST ABSINTHE DISTILLERY WAS ESTABLISHED IN COUVET, SWITZERLAND IN 1797 (OR MAYBE 1798).


And absinthe historians will be delighted to know that Jacques Kaeslin and Michel Kreis have just published a new book: "L’absinthe au Val-de-Travers, les Origines et les inconnu(e)s." I understand that this book will go back a few more years into absinthe pre-history and I hope to review that here soon!

...................................................................................


For Part 3 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (Why have women been so important in the history of absinthe), click here.

For Part 4 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (Clear absinthe was made and sold before Green absinthe), click here.

For Part 5 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How artificial colours are not needed in absinthe), click here.

For Part 6 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How Absinthe boomed, died and was re-born, helped by a series of accidents), click here.

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Friday, 28 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 3

I have written before about ladies and absinthe, even though that article was slightly tongue in cheek.

Women have in fact played a significant part in the development of absinthe, just as they have in the world of champagne. Champagne boasts Lily Bollinger, also famous for this quote:

"I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty."

And Veuve (Widow) Clicquot is probably even more famous. In fact she became a widow in 1805, the very year that Pernod was established in France (having previously been involved in absinthe distilleries in Switzerland).

Prior to 1805, there were three famous Swiss women involved in the very first production of absinthe, even if such production was on a somewhat smaller scale.

Mère Henriod and her two daughters are generally credited to have been involved with the very first absinthe recipes that were then sold to Major Dubied who created the world's very first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet, Switzerland in 1797.

113 years later, after absinthe was banned in Switzerland, several famous absinthe ladies came to the rescue, and Duvallon's blog refers to them in detail. La Malotte, la Calote, la Marta and Charlotte Vaucher (creator of the La Clandestine recipe) are amongst the most famous ladies who did much to keep absinthe alive, during the time it was officially banned. The Charlotte Vaucher story is detailed here, with some fascinating details remembered by her family.

Coming right up to date, there are still some famous ladies involved in absinthe. I am fortunate to know Karine Bugnon


the multi-tasking wife of Claude-Alain, and very much involved in the production of his absinthes. Gaudentia Persoz is also well-known in the Val-de-Travers.

Heading over to the USA, Cheryl Lins' Delaware Phoenix absinthes are highly regarded, and there may be more women waiting to follow where she has led (Esprit Vert, anyone?).

And in France, of course, Marie-Claude Delahaye is probably the most famous absinthe historian of all.

SO, NUMBER THREE

WOMEN HAVE PLAYED KEY ROLES IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ABSINTHE. MERE HENRIOD AND/OR HER TWO DAUGHTERS ARE GENERALLY RECOGNISED TO HAVE MADE THE FIRST DRINK WE WOULD RECOGNISE AS ABSINTHE, SEVERAL WOMEN ABSINTHE “MOONSHINERS” IN SWITZERLAND KEPT THE ABSINTHE FLAME ALIVE, AND THEY ARE SUCCEEDED BY MORE WOMEN IN SWITZERLAND AND USA TODAY.

Why are women so key in the history of absinthe? Intially it could have been the nature of the product they first made: a medicinal cure-all, good for curing gout but also for menstrual pains. And today? Maybe the noses and palates of women can work with and blend all those floral and herbal aromas and tastes much better than many men. In any case, santé to all those women, past, present and future, who have been so important in making absinthe what it is!

And a special santé to the ultimate absinthe lady herself, of course ... La Fée Verte!

For Part 4 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (Clear absinthe was made and sold before Green absinthe), click here.

For Part 5 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How artificial colours are not needed in absinthe), click here.

For Part 6 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How Absinthe boomed, died and was re-born, helped by a series of accidents), click here.

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 4

What came first? The chicken or the egg? A perennial puzzle which sometimes gets the answer it probably deserves.

So here's another question? What was created first, and what became a popular drink first? Wine or champagne? Easy: Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by inducing the in-bottle secondary fermentation of the wine to effect carbonation (Wikipedia), so evidently wine existed first.

The next question: what was created first, and what was probably sold first? Clear or "blanche" absinthe, or green or "verte" absinthe?

For those who know a little about making absinthe, the answer is indeed "clear." When absinthe is made, it always come out of the still as a clear drink. It only becomes green after a secondary process of "dunking a tea bag" of herbs in the distillate, releasing chlorophyll into the absinthe.

As wine had to exist before champagne could exist, so it is evident that clear absinthe had to exist before green absinthe could exist. In the case of wine and champagne, wine existed for hundreds, indeed thousands of years before champagne. The time between the first clear absinthe and the first green absinthe was definitely much less than that, maybe only a few years or a decade or so.

NUMBER FOUR:

IT IS PROBABLE THAT CLEAR OR “BLANCHE” ABSINTHE WAS MADE AND SOLD BEFORE ANY “VERTE” ABSINTHE (IN THE SAME WAY THAT WINE PROBABLY PRECEDED CHAMPAGNE).

18th century documentation doesn't provide final evidence, but I know that at least one major absinthe historian agrees with this.

Of course, being first historically doesn't mean anything beyond that chronological fact. The green fairy remains "green," and even the Swiss who are more famous for their clear absinthes call her "green." What it does suggest, however, is that when the Swiss moonshiners produced clear absinthe during the time it was banned, they were not missing out the secondary colouring step. They were, in fact, going back to their roots and going back to the very first style of absinthe ever made.


For Part 5 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How artificial colours are not needed in absinthe), click here.

For Part 6 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How Absinthe boomed, died and was re-born, helped by a series of accidents), click here.

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 5


Some people are sad to read that Van Gogh did not cut off his ear because of his so-called "absinthe habit." In fact, it seems much more likely that Van Gogh's mental state was affected because he was constantly ingesting the noxious fumes from his paint palette.

Fortunately paints are not as noxious as they were in the 19th century. Unfortunately there are some absinthes moving in the other direction by adding artificial colours to their recipes, where previously there were none. Several examples of this are listed in a previous article here. This is such an important issue, however, that I make no apology in including it again in this series.

NUMBER FIVE:

THERE IS NO NEED TO PRODUCE ABSINTHE WITH ARTIFICIAL COLOURING. ABSINTHES WITH ARTIFICIAL COLOURING IN LATE 19TH CENTURY FRANCE WERE RECOGNISED AS THE LOWEST QUALITY PRODUCTS, COLOURED GREEN TO SAVE MONEY AND TIME IN THE PRODUCTION PROCESS. CALLING “ARTIFICIALLY COLOURED ABSINTHES” GREEN ABSINTHES IS LIKE SAYING IT’S OK TO ADD RED COLOURING TO WHITE WINE AND THEN CALLING THAT RED WINE!

Sadly one famous absinthe that was sold throughout most of the 19th century now contains artificial colours, where previously it did not. Other absinthes that are widely available in the USA and elsewhere boast about using 19th century recipes, while their back labels list the inclusion of very modern additives such as FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1. My earlier post details the issues with using such additives, so rather than repeating that here I will merely state that such additives are primarily used to cheapen the product cost, cutting out one step of the manufacturing process and producing a much less complex absinthe. Which may cost the consumer just as much as a properly made, naturally coloured absinthe. Would you pay gourmet steak prices for a fast food burger?

Since I am in involved in the promotion of absinthe, it is not appropriate for me to list the competitor brands that rely on artificial colourings here. So instead I am going to work on a list of absinthes that do not include artificial colourings as a future blog article. A quick list follows; please add in the comments any absinthes I have left out that should also be included.

A LIST OF UNCOLOURED OR NATURALLY COLOURED ABSINTHES: WORK IN PROGRESS (Add any missing in the comments below)

La Clandestine, Angélique, Butterfly and all others produced by Artemisia, Switzerland.
Kubler and all other absinthes produced in the Val-de-Travers, Switzerland.
Mansinthe, Duplais, and all other absinthes produced by Matter, Switzerland.
All other Swiss absinthes.
Vieux Pontarlier, Maison Fontaine, Tenneyson and all other absinthes produced at Emile Pernot, France.
Lucid, Jade and Blanchette, Combier, France.
Francois Guy.
Perroquet, Désirée and all other absinthes produced for Vert d'Absinthe, Paris.
Enigma.
St. George, Sirene, Vieux Carré, Marteau, Pacifique, Meadow of Love, Walton Waters, Ridge, Germain Robin, Leopold, Sorciere, Edward 111, and most other absinthes made in the USA.
Taboo from Canada
St. Antoine and other absinthes produced by Zufanek, Czech Republic.
Obsello from Spain.
The XS absinthes produced for La Fée.

And others to be added in the comments below. Apologies for any omissions that will be added above and to the future article as soon as I can do so.

For Part 6 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How Absinthe boomed, died and was re-born, helped by a series of accidents), click here.

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 6

The history of absinthe is amazing, from its birth, through its development in the 19th century, its demise in the early 20th century, and then its recent renaissance. And throughout all this, the growth, decline and re-birth were in large part caused ... by accidents:

NUMBER SIX:

ABSINTHE BOOMED, DIED AND WAS RE-BORN HELPED BY A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS. FIRSLY IT WAS CHOSEN AS A MEDICINAL SUPPLEMENT TO PROTECT FRENCH SOLDIERS IN ALGERIA, THEN IT BECAME A REPLACEMENT FOR WINE AND COGNAC WHEN AN AMERICAN VIRUS DECIMATED FRANCE’S VINEYARDS FROM 1868 ONWARDS, THEN ITS VERY SUCCESS AND A FEW ACCIDENTS ARISING FROM ALCOHOLIC OVER-INDULGENCE LED TO ITS BAN, AND FINALLY, THE EU BUREAUCRATS RE-LEGALISED IT BY MISTAKE (the last of these is recounted in more detail here).

The individual events are well-known to absinthe historians and followers, but the accidental nature of the series of events has not really been detailed. The fact that French soldiers were given absinthe in Algeria was, I am sure, chance. Unless the corporate officers at French absinthe companies in the 1830's really planned a Coca-Cola style of colonialism which worked in a different way (Coke established soft drinks bottling lines in Europe during World War 2 to keep the troops motivated ... and to supply the locals after the war finished). 110 years earlier, the victorious French soldiers returned to Paris with a love of absinthe and demanded that café owners find it for them. Genius ... or accident?

I am sure that the phylloxera outbreak of 1868 was accidental, and it was this that really caused absinthe sales to boom in France (and elsewhere). In fact, if this had not happened, then maybe absinthe's growth would have continued, albeit less spectacularly. And thus absinthe might not have become the enemy which led the wine companies and the temperance movement to form their unholy alliance against it. In short, the accident that led to its amazing growth also contained the seeds of its death.

Assisted of course by one or two accidents involving over-indulgence, such as Jean Lanfray, the Swiss labourer who in 1905 consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. He returned home drunk with his father, and drank another coffee with brandy, and then shot his wife and daughters. And absinthe became the scapegoat and was then banned.

It's good to know that today, most of the companies who make and sell absinthe are taking charge of their destiny, by not allowing accidents (like Lanfray) to happen again. Properly made absinthe (and not the bath tub sort that became popular when demand exceeded supply in Paris), responsible marketing (no over-indulgence), and well thought-out strategies will hopefully continue to prevail in the 21st century. Au revoir aux accidents!

For Part 7 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (How even the French called their best absinthes "Absinthe Suisse" during the 19th century), click here.

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Monday, 24 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 7

Firstly, a declaration of writer's interest: I am involved with the promotion of Swiss absinthe. You may therefore want to take some of what I say here with a pinch of salt, although never with fire, and possibly not even with sugar!

Absinthe was born in Switzerland in the second half of the 18th century. From the start of the next century, some companies also started to produce absinthe in France, partly, it seems, to avoid import duties.

Over the course of the next hundred years, different styles, strengths and qualities of absinthe appeared, and as that happened a system appeared for grading the different qualities. These included "Absinthe Suisse", "Absinthe Superieure", "Absinthe Fine" or "Demi-Fine" and lastly "Absinthe Ordinaire".
And ...



number SEVEN:

In the 19th century, “Absinthe Suisse” was used as a term to indicate the very highest quality absinthes, even if some of them were not made in Switzerland.


So you can still find today old posters of French absinthes adorned with a Swiss flag (or if you are really lucky, you may find old bottles!). The excellent Absinthe Encyclopedia also shows several 19th century French absinthes clearly labelled "Absinthe Suisse." The poster for Royer-Hutin absinthe (produced in Dijon, France) bears the headline "Absinthe-Suisse;" labels for P. Course of Bergerac and Premiers Fils proudly bear a top banner stating "Absinthe Suisse" (pages 36/37).

Three years after absinthe was banned in Switzerland, Pernod's bottle continues to show the Swiss flag:


And after absinthe was banned in France and after Pernod shifted production to Spain, their 1935 bottles referred to the Couvet, Switzerland address. One could even make an argument that old bottles of Herbsaint (the US replacement for absinthe) bore a cross with more than a passing resemblance to the Swiss flag.

Interestingly, absinthe was still made in Switzerland during the time it was banned (making it the only country with a continuous 220 year history of making absinthe). Interestingly Switzerland is the only country with rules governing how absinthe must be made (it must be distilled and cannot contain artificial colours): rules which stop many of today's leading absinthes being sold in Switzerland.

So in certain respects the standards which led to "Absinthe Suisse" being seen as the top quality in the 19th century are still in place. 21st century consumer legislation and protection, however, will probably prevent French or any other non-Swiss absinthes from using any reference to Switzerland on their packaging in future ....

For Part 8 of 10 things you don't know about absinthe (What happened when absinthe was banned, and how the Swiss bypassed that ban), click here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 8



Absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910 and in France in 1915. And what happened then? Well, there were three interesting developments.


1. Some of the French absinthe production shifted to Spain. Notably Pernod who first made absinthe in Couvet, Switzerland around 1797, then moved to France in 1805, and who then set up an absinthe distillery at Tarragona, Spain where they continued to produce absinthe until the 1960's.

(Picture taken by Luc Santiago of Vert d'Absinthe, Paris.
Luc quite often has bottles of this for sale)


2. 17 years after the French absinthe ban, Ricard began producing pastis in France.


While there are some major differences between absinthe and pastis, it does seem likely that pastis was intended to fill the gap left by the disappearance of absinthe in France.

And

3. The Swiss carried on making absinthe! Which, in this series, becomes:

NUMBER EIGHT:

W
HEN ABSINTHE PRODUCTION WAS BANNED IN FRANCE AND SWITZERLAND, THE SWISS BYPASSED THE BAN, AND CARRIED ON PRODUCING "UNDERGROUND." THEY HAVE THUS MAINTAINED WHAT IS NOW ABOUT 220 YEARS OF CONTINUOUS PRODUCTION OF ABSINTHE.

The Swiss were not going to let a small thing like the law get in the way of their love of absinthe. While the big distilleries had to be closed down, that only meant that consumers had to find other ways to get hold of it. And thus absinthe quite literally became a cottage industry, produced at home by farmers and their wives, for themselves, their families and their close friends. It is suggested that they reverted to clear or "blanche" absinthes to fool the Customs officials that their bottles could contain schnapps or other colourless spirits, but I think the Customs officials knew what was going on and probably took their cut of the spoils. And so it continued from 1910 to 2005 when absinthe was finally re-legalised in Switzerland.

More details can be found here, and in the first video here.

For Part 9 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The accident that led to full European re-legalisation of absinthe), click here.

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.



Saturday, 22 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 9

Absinthe has boomed, been banned, and then been re-born through a series of accidents. Circumstances completely beyond the control of those making or promoting absinthe.

The first accidents which led to absinthe's growth in the 19th century were the prescription of absinthe to French soldiers in Algeria from the 1830's onwards and the outbreak of phylloxera which decimated the French vineyards after 1868.

But my favourite accident came in 1988 from the bureaucrats of the European Union.


NUMBER NINE:


ABSINTHES WERE EFFECTIVELY RE-LEGALISED ACROSS EUROPE BY ACCIDENT WHEN THE EU STANDARDISED THE USE OF ADDITIVES IN FOOD AND DRINK FROM 1988 ONWARDS. THE IMPACT OF THIS AS FAR AS ABSINTHE WAS CONCERNED WAS ONLY REALISED IN FRANCE ABOUT 11 YEARS LATER!

Deciding there was a need to standardise the use of food ingredients across the European Union, 22 June 1988 saw the Council Directive on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to flavourings for use in foodstuffs and to source materials for their production.

Page 10 of that document sets out the limit for Thujone use:-


  • 5 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages with not more than 25% volume of alcohol
  • 10 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages with more than 25% volume of alcohol
  • 25 mg/kg in foodstuffs containing preparations based on sage
  • 35 mg/kg in bitters

There seems to have been no thought at the time that this had anything to do with absinthe. Indeed it did not lead directly to the onset of or any increase in absinthe production in the European Union. But 10 years later when companies within the EU started looking at the possibility of importing absinthe from outside the EU and selling it more widely within the EU, this document provided full legal justification for doing so. "Absinthe," or more correctly "Bohemian Absinth" came to the UK in 1998, and the first products bearing the word "absinthe" on the label were produced in France in 2000.

It is not often that one has cause to thank the bureaucrats of the European Union. But this is definitely worth a big "Thank You" and an even bigger "Santé!"

For Part 10 of 10 things you didn't know about absinthe (The truth about the so-called Burning Ritual), click here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

10 things you didn't know about Absinthe: Number 10

As someone involved in trying to create more interest in high quality absinthes, I am well aware that there has been - and continues to be - a lot of misinformation about absinthe. So the three most important things I can do to rectify that are .... "Education .... education .... and more education."

I am also aware that education isn't always fun, so I try to lighten up my efforts to educate with my own particular sense of humour. English humour? Yes, albeit not directly in the style of Monty Python.

I can also be quite verbose (see some of my other posts for proof of that), so in an attempt to keep it simple, I am going to present over the next 10 days my short list of things you didn't know about absinthe. Some of my better-informed readers will no doubt say "I already knew that," so to them I apologise in advance. A headline saying "10 things you might not have known about absinthe, but maybe some of you do" would not be so punchy!

And I'm going to present them in count-down style from 10 to 1, knowing also that in the future, readers will see them in the blog format (from 1 to 10, in newest post first date order).

So here goes:

NUMBER TEN:

THE SO-CALLED "BURNING RITUAL" SEEN IN SOME BARS HAS NO BASIS IN HISTORY: THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF ANY SUCH RITUAL EXISTING BEFORE THE MID-1990'S.



There is a published account about the birth of the burning ritual on the La Fée site. This is the key excerpt, recounting the event in 1998:

"Our next move would simultaneously misinform the world's media and popularise what we call the Sugar and Burn, a thoroughly modern way of serving absinth. It happened quite by chance, as we arrived back in Prague ..  at one of my favourite Prague hangouts, Café FX, above Wenceslas Square in the Praha 2 district. After settling into the lounge seats at the back, fate decreed that we would witness our first ever burning absinth, something I had never seen in all my years of socialising in bars, clubs and the homes of friends in Prague."


I won't talk too much about so-called "Bohemian absinth(e)," which tends to be not much more than wormwood flavoured vodka with added food colouring and which seems to be disappearing in most countries at long last.If its makers think such a product is fit mainly for burning, who am I to disagree?

However it is clear that "Bohemian absinthe" is significantly different from anything called absinthe in the 19th century.

Firstly it doesn't have anise, so it doesn't turn cloudy – or louche – when water is added.

Secondly it is a very different colour – electric blue almost, usually as a result of artificial colouring.

And then somehow someone decided that the best way to drink it was to burn it first.

Call me old-fashioned but something seems wrong here! Does anyone use an XO cognac to set fire to the Christmas pudding? Or would one normally use a cheaper brandy? So maybe Bohemain absinthe and the burning ritual are made for each other.

However there is no reason to burn real absinthe. To do so ruins the taste and merely burns off the alcohol that is a major part of the product cost. It's effectively burning bank notes.

And if that wasn't sufficient reason, then I suggest you sit back and watch this video ....



Wow!