The Green Fairy Gets a Green Card
In his New York Times column, Edward Rothstein notes that two brands of absinthe based on 19th-century recipes, the French-made Lucid and the Swiss-made Kübler, are now being legally imported into the United States. They passed muster with federal regulators because, while they contain wormwood, they do not contain signficant levels of thujone, a psychoactive chemical in wormwood that has often been credited with (or blamed for) the special qualities that were said to distinguish absinthe intoxication from ordinary drunkenness. (In the FDA's view, significant thujone content renders a beverage "adulterated," so it cannot be legally imported or sold.) As I noted in reason a couple of years ago, it now seems likely that old-fashioned absinthe rarely, if ever, contained enough thujone to have a noticeable independent effect. Absinthe's allure as the inspirational drink of artists and poets appears to have been a sociocultural phenomenon rather than a pharmacological one.
You nevertheless still see ads in places such as High Times (and here on reason online) for absinthe brands that are promoted based on their high thujone content, the sort of come-on that absinthe connoisseurs tend to view with contempt. Lucid's website reports:
Lucid contains an amount of thujone that is within the legal limits set by the US regulatory authorities. Any product that comes to the US containing Grande Wormwood must also meet those same requirements, which are similar to the requirements of many other countries. Lucid also meets the thujone requirements of the European Union. According to extensive research conducted by T.A. Breaux, contrary to some common misconceptions, it was not unusual for genuine, high-quality absinthe from the Belle Epoqué period also to contain levels of thujone that would, today, be within US and EU regulatory limits. T.A. Breaux collected vintage absinthe bottles from estate sales and applied modern chemical analysis and determined the thujone content of vintage absinthe was much lower than was commonly believed. His research has been well documented and his findings remain generally undisputed.
In another smack at cheap imitations, the site adds:
Lucid's color occurs naturally as a result of its ingredients. There are no artificial coloring agents added. This also explains why Lucid's color may appear slightly different from one bottle to the next. Lucid may also change color in an open bottle over time. In fact, these subtle variations in color have always been considered the hallmark of high-quality, genuine Absinthe. In the Belle Époque period it actually distinguished a genuine Absinthe from an imitation or artificially colored product.
Then as now, some producers used artificial colors to make the drink's appearance meet people's emerald-green expectations. Without such fakery, buyers would have deemed those brands inauthentic. Yet Kübler absinthe, produced according to a 19th-century recipe in the land were absinthe originated, is clear, not green. (It does, like the green varieties, cloud when you add cold water, which indicates the release of essential oils from the herbs used to flavor it.) There was wide variation in the formulas used by absinthe producers in the drink's heydey, which is one reason it is hard to say for sure how much thujone its avant-garde fans were imbibing.
Yet absinthe's specialness is hard to separate from its reputation for producing a unique state of consciousness—"a kind of relaxed alertness accompanying the lulling impact of alcohol," as Rothstein describes it, right before conceding that he may have been "intoxicated by the drink's cultural heritage." Even as it emphasizes Lucid's negligible thujone content, the drink's manufacturer tries to capitalize on absinthe's reputation as a forbidden potion with the slogan, "Prohibition is finally over!" After a century as contraband, can absinthe be authentic when it's legal?