Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Absinthe Around the World Late 2009: 3

For the third article in my series of Absinthe around the World Late 2009, I look back five years to New York (well, to the New York Times), to an event in Seattle that same month, to the Czech Republic then and now, then much further East to Japan today, and finally back to the Val-de-Travers where it all started. Half-way through writing this, I saw a thread on the Wormwood Society about the world having truly changed (demonstrated by the presence of absinthe glasses in Bevmo). That remark dovetails quite nicely with my theme ...

Five years ago today, Claude-Alain Bugnon, distiller of La Clandestine absinthe, was featured in an article in the New York Times. So today it seems appropriate to look back those five years to consider the absinthe world then and now. Click on the image at the top to see the full article or see a PDF of this and other stories about Swiss absinthe at the New York Times here: highlights from the article follow:

"For three years Claude-Alain Bugnon has competed with his wife for space in the unfinished concrete basement of their home here, she to do laundry, he to make absinthe.

Armed with plastic containers of dried herbs, tubs of pharmaceutical ethanol, a homemade still and a secret recipe from a friend's grandmother, Mr. Bugnon has used his skills as an oil refinery technician to produce the powerful herbal elixir long blamed for driving people mad.

In January (2005) a new law takes effect in Switzerland aimed at rehabilitating the reputation of absinthe, whose distillation, distribution and sale were banned after an absinthe-besotted factory worker killed his wife and children nearly a century ago.

The new law will allow Mr. Bugnon and dozens of other underground absinthe makers to ''come out,'' as one Swiss newspaper put it, seek amnesty and produce absinthe legally.

''Absinthe is good for your health and I drink it almost every day,'' said Mr. Bugnon, filling glasses with his still illegal beverage. ''My kids are growing up with its smell. Of course, I still have to be a bit careful. Until the end of the year I could be denounced by an enemy and turned in.''

For Swiss distillers like Mr. Bugnon, the goal is to produce top quality, high-octane, government-approved absinthe produced from Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, a plant native to the Val-de-Travers, the region in western Switzerland where the drink was invented.

If all goes well the distillers hope to obtain an official governmental ''appellation'' declaring that the region produces the only real absinthe in the world. Legalization will help the Swiss cash in on the rising global market for absinthe, which can be bought easily, and often illegally, over the Internet. There are Internet sites offering absinthe recipes and sources for wormwood seed.

Absinthe .. is already sold legally in countries including Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Austria, Japan, Sweden, Italy and Britain, but not the United States. The Netherlands lifted its ban last July .....

Mr. Bugnon is still tinkering with the right mix of herbs (among them fennel, coriander, mint and anise) for a substance that will have 53 percent alcohol content and turn creamy and slightly bluish when diluted with water. It will contain 30 to 35 milligrams per liter of thujone, less than the concoctions of a century ago.

Mr. Bugnon has received a small metal license plate from the Swiss government that has been soldered to his still. An Italian illustrator has designed an elegant green label. A German importer wants to take his product abroad ..."

Five years ago then, absinthe was in the process of going legal in Switzerland, but at the time USA legalization was still nearly 30 months away. If Americans wanted to buy absinthe at that time, then they had to order from Europe and risk the vagaries of the delivery system and possible confiscation.

Five years ago this month, the Wormwood Society added a forum to its existing internet site.

And, five years ago this month, just a few weeks after I had accepted a job in the absinthe business, I made my first trip to Prague to the epicentre of the then infamous Czech absinth empire.

Five years later ...

There are now over 60 absinthes and/or absinths approved for US launch (and several more that I know of in the pipeline). There are some shops in the US with around 18 or so absinthes, and I am aware of a bar with more than 20 absinthes (more news on that very soon!).

The Wormwood Society has 1,798 members and nearly 200,000 posts have been made. It has moved from a quiet beginning in Seattle to become the major online meeting point for absinthe consumers (especially American consumers), with several producers and retailers also posting there. While two other forums have seen a significant drop in postings over the last year, there is now a new forum, The Absinthe Review Network Forum. I expect this to have a growing impact on the absinthe category.

There is now at least one excellent Czech absinthe approved for US launch, and at least one Swiss absinthe that can be purchased in the tourist shops in Prague (fuller story here).

And absinthe is starting to appear in the most unlikely places: just last week a Japanese Manga magazine featured Claude-Alain Bugnon and his absinthe:

Definitely a sign that the absinthe world is changing!

However, there are still issues to be resolved. The world's largest buyer of liquor, the LCBO in Canada is still insisting that absinthe has to come in at less than 1 part per million of thujone (an easy target for chemistry-set style products or for pastis, but not for real absinthe, using high quality natural ingredients). I am aware of at least one country where absinthe legislation may be going backwards (sorry: the details are still confidential). And at least one retailer blog reports on poor absinthe sales in the USA. David Driscoll, Spirits Buyer of K & L Wine Merchants writes:

"It seems that more than a few of the first-born bottles were quickly (and shabbily, according to these guys) formulated and speedily released in order to capitalize on the movement. The distilleries that got involved with their “me-too” absinthe variations got it all wrong because, in their haste, they didn’t adhere to the original recipe and failed to capture the true nature of the beast. Some producers made terrible bottles with fancy labels to disguise the inferiority of their absinthe. Basically, because it was the hip thing to do, many people who shouldn’t have been making absinthe decided to and, in my opinion, they didn’t do a very good job of it.

However, as is usually the case, the best things come to those who wait ...... To conclude the fourth entry in the home bar series, I must stress the importance of an absinthe bottle to your domestic drinking habits."

So at least that account, while warning of the damage that poorly made products can have on the entire absinthe category, has a slightly happier ending!

To end this article, I am returning to 2004 and to a great video. This was filmed for the Thirsty Traveler in Switzerland in 2004 (when many of today's absinthes had not even been conceived), while La Clandestine was still illegal and while Claude-Alain was distilling in the laundry room in his house! Kevin, thanks for the film.

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