The Great American Distiller’s Festival: Q&A on Northwest Absinthe

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We’re fortunate to have some great minds in absinthe here in the Pacific Northwest, and on Sunday a few of them came together to share their extensive knowledge with the attendees of the Great American Distiller’s Festival in a panel titled “Q&A on Northwest Absinthe

The panel featured Gwydion Stone, founder of the educational organization The Wormwood Society and creator of the soon-to-be released Marteau absinthe, Marc Bernhard, creator of the soon-to-be released Pacifique absinthe, and Rich Phillips from Integrity Spirits, producers of the first Oregon absinthe, Trillium.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about absinthe and tried to learn as much as possible on my own, but the panel was still informative and provided me with some great facts to fill in for the gaps in my knowledge. I’ll recap here:

Absinthe was banned in 1912 by Food Inspection Decision 147 of the USDA. It forbade the manufacture, sale or transportation of absinthe. Several events contributed to our rediscovery of absinthe:

  • An understanding of the term “thujone-free”, which relies on a test that comes with a 10 ppm (parts per million) margin of error.
  • The discovery that real, legitimate, pre-ban French and Swiss absinthes often contained less than 10 ppm.
  • A greater amount of interest in classic cocktails and lost ingredients, which was certainly fostered by communication between enthusiasts on the internet.

I wasn’t aware that sagebrush is a member of the same plant family as wormwood (artemesia), and that culinary sage actually contains more thujone than wormwood.

I didn’t really know where the green color present in verte absinthes came from, and now I do: after the final distillation, hyssop, lemonbalm and Roman wormwood are macerated in the absinthe to provide additional flavor and a pale green color. There was no mention of what might produce a neon blue color.

This one I knew, but I’d like to reiterate it here: The ritual of lighting a sugar cube on fire and dropping it into absinthe is inauthentic, a recent invention, and a potentially dangerous ceremony centered around the consumption of illegitimate absinthes of inferior quality. As Marc so eloquently put it, “Friends don’t let friends burn absinthe.

15 Replies to “The Great American Distiller’s Festival: Q&A on Northwest Absinthe”

  • Chas. Munat says:

    Not sure how these fine gentlemen contributed to a *gap* in your knowledge, but what the heck, I’ll roll with it.

    What I thought was very important was the discussion around the so-called hallucinogenic properties of absinthe/wormwood, which can be summed up neatly thus: there ain’t none and never been none. The absinthe “high” is no different from any other high-proof liquor high, psychosomatic effects excepted. Frat boys go away.

    Also interesting was Mark’s comment about sugar contributing to the mouth feel.

  • Oops. That’s what I get when I try to write too quickly.

  • C.B. says:

    If you’ve not read the Wired article about the microbiologist who “reverse-engineered” historic absinthes, definitely do.

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.11/absinthe.html

  • Kelsey Crenshaw says:

    I’m also sure that burning a cube doused in high proof liquor on the spoon could cause some toxins as most that are served in most bars in the US come with a wimpy spoon on the box…Absente is one brand. I’ve experimented with different methods of drinking. I’ve tried the frat boy ritual and have poured it on ice and shaken it with and without sugar…I know the tradition and science and have been a guinnea pig. I prefer it Poured over the cube on the spoon then coolish water poured to melt the cube then I like th glass filled with ICE (the color is so nice with ice). It’s hot in FL!

  • Marleigh says:

    Not only is that horrible absinthe neon blue, it tastes like Aqua Velva. Blech. But the Marteau is lovely!

  • Juno says:

    Total commercially inspired nonsense created by individuals wishing to sell thujone free absinthe in the USA.

    Thujone is a natural element in Artemisia absinthium (grande wormwood) and in combination with alcohol has a pronouned effect.

    Alcohol and thujone are opposites – as alcohol is a GABA agonist and thujone is an antagonist. Alcohol stimulates the production of this GABA neurotransmitter and causes drowsiness and sleep. Thujone on the other hand prevents alcohol from performing that functiom. Real absinthe – not these USA made copies – is actually a ‘speedball’, it’s constituents promote the production of GABA and open its receptors, while at the same time closing those receptors off. This is why the lucidity of an absinthe drinker contrasts to the state of normal drunkness and the experience has been described during the Belle Epoque using the metaphor of the green fairy.

  • Marc says:

    Well, it seems that the marketers of fake (i.e.Czech) “absinth” are monitoring the blogs to try and put their spin on the absinthe revival here in the US and Europe. I’d be willing to bet “Juno” is part of a group of guerilla marketers flooding any blog mention of absinthe. Never mind that current scientific testing of pre-ban absinthes have proven that the thujone theory is dead as a doornail. Never mind that the theory of Dr. Arnold was just that, a theory on the estimated thujone content of pre-ban absinthe and, he admits, never actually tested any absinthe for thujone. Be wary of any of these marketers spewing pseudo-scientific posts that try to prove that any of the new absinthes on the market are not real absinthes. Real absinthe tastes good, and doesn’t need a schlocky “fire ritual” to try to sell itself. Also, keep in mind that since here in the USA, there is no type or standard as to what can be put into a bottle and called absinthe. There are several “absinthes” on the market right now in the USA that, in my opinion, are not absinthe at all, and are hijacking the name of absinthe just to sell a product and cash in on the rising popularity of this historic drink.

  • Juno says:

    “There are several “absinthes” on the market right now in the USA that, in my opinion, are not absinthe at all, and are hijacking the name of absinthe just to sell a product and cash in on the rising popularity of this historic drink”

    Please can you tell me which ones, Marc? In your opinion…

  • “Juno” is an employee of a marketing firm that specializes in covert blog spamming.

    Notice how he/she glosses right over the fact that pre-ban absinthe has been PROVEN to contain only trace amounts of thujone, many well within current US limits.

    Studies have also shown that 19 out of 22 subjects couldn’t tell the difference between alcohol with 0, 10, or 100ppm of thujone.

    Even the thujone-added Czech brands of “absinthe” which contain up to 100 ppm have no more “effect” than US brands.

    Get the facts:
    http://www.wormwoodsociety.org

  • Juno says:

    Quote: “Juno” is an employee of a marketing firm that specializes in covert blog spamming

    What proof do you have to back up this outrageous allegation? What marketing firm exactly? You should not make allegations about people, Mr Stone. Think before you write.

    Pre-Ban absinthe has not been PROVEN to contain only trace amounts of thujone. The flawed report that you are using to make this claim has already been shown to be wrong using a basic test:

    “Thujone is fairly volatile (BP 84 °C), and this small aliphatic ketone can be assumed to be rather reactive. We prepared a fresh 100-ppm standard of α-thujone (Aldrich 89231; 1058112 24706082) in a 50% ethanol/water solution to quantify levels of thujone in wormwood samples. The standard was stored in several tightly sealed glass vials to be used at a later date. After four months, these standards were found to contain less than 10 ppm thujone when compared with a freshly prepared solution”

    It begs the question why you choose to make these claims. Perhaps because you are the manufacturer of a brand called “Marteau Absinthe de la Belle Epoque”?

    If absinthe from the Belle Epoque era did contain levels of around 260ppm thujone – as has been suggested by Dr Arnold of The University of Kansas – then this would be s problem, no?

    I look forward to hearing from Marc which brands of TTB approved absinthe are “hijacking the name of absinthe just to sell a product” and why. Out of interest do you share this opinion, Mr Stone?

    Thanks.

  • You are aware that the source of your citation is the very study you call “flawed”, aren’t you?

    All this citation suggests is that a fresh, undistilled thujone solution will decrease in concentration after four months, which means that all that alleged “100 ppm” absinthe sitting around in your warehouse is about 3 ppm by now.

    On the other hand, absinthes properly distilled strictly according to 19th century formulas and processes—unsurprisingly—contain levels precisely similar to those of analyzed pre-ban samples.

    Maybe you guys should try that distillation thing, instead of running affiliate sites.

  • Juno says:

    When thujone degrades – it does – the following chemicals are produced see “Stability of Pulegone and Thujone in Ethanolic Solution”, Frölich and Shibamoto (1990)

    “Under variable light and temperature conditions, pH values, and ethanol concentrations, the degradation products formed from the above chemicals were (E)- and (2)-isopulegone, the stereoisomer 8-hydroxy-p-menthones, 8-hy- dro~y-A*(~)-p-menthen-3-0ne, the stereoisomer3-methyl-7-methylenebicyclo[4.2.0]octan-l-ols, and (E)- and (2)-5-methylene-6-methylhept-2-ene.”

    Would it be possible to know if tests have been carried out for the presence of the above?

    I am still waiting for Marc to name and shame those TTB approved brands which are “hijacking the name of absinthe just to sell a product” and why. I am also waiting to learn if you share this opinion.

    Your bizzare personal allegations are amusing but wrong. Absinthe should be fun and you certainly contribute to the laughs! Keep it up, you never know what it might lead to.

  • oregoncoastgirl says:

    Wow. Not the discussion I’d hoped to/ thought I’d see when I clicked through from my RSS reader.
    Good job, Morgenthaler. You have people talking. Somewhat.

  • Not to discredit Jeffrey, but this blog spammer hits every blog and news article that mentions absinthe. He/she works for a marketing company that runs affiliate websites selling fake absinthe by using thujone as a marketing gimmick, targeted at gullible druggies.

    Once the word started spreading that they were hawking fake crap, they resorted to guerrilla marketing in blogs in a desperate attempt to shore up the waning belief in the thujone hoax.

    “Under variable light and temperature conditions,”

    Perhaps you’d be so kind as to favor us with a description of those conditions, and which of them apply to absinthes which have been stored in wine cellars for 90 years.

    And I’m waiting for you to tell us what happens to a mere 100ppm after sitting in a clear bottle for four months.

    Oh, you already did. You pointed out that after only four months it’s down to 10ppm. That suggests that a “100ppm” “absinthe” cannot be relied upon to actually contain that advertised 100ppm.

    Like I’ve said countless times: thujone level is irrelevant to the quality of absinthe.

  • Kelsey Crenshaw says:

    The first 4 comments are all about taste and history. Now I keep getting updates sent to my email about how some people have nothing better to do than up each other on the thujone levels in absinthe, There are way more things that are green to worry about in this world. I’m wondering why some people are so concerned with this post. I’m not that concerned about the levels of thujone in my absinthe. I know I’ve probably ingested at least 4,000 flies and other nasties in my life just from what the FDA allows in food. How about pollution, bleach in the water supply, air quality? I drink absinthe for the taste and history. If I wanted to get High I’d smoke weed!!!!!!!

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