A vote that took place this week in European Parliament saw officials declare that the green-tinged alcohol will no longer need to include a minimum amount of thujone –the wormwood plant toxin believed to give the spirit its notorious intensity – and well-known for leaving drinkers more than a little absinthe-minded!
Absinthe was the drink of choice for many poets, writers and artists of 19th century Europe, like Ernest Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire. Enthusiasts often refer to it as “la fee verte”, or “the green fairy”, because of its hallucinogenic effects.
But devotees of the drink, who recently celebrated National Absinthe Day, believe the decision goes against tradition and they are afraid that the move will open up the market to “copycat” versions of absinthe spirits.
“We are really disappointed that the parliamentarians have not understood our arguments,” said Carole Brigaudeau, a spokeswoman for the alcohol industry lobby group, Spirits Europe.
Existing laws state that absinthe cannot contain any more than 35 milligrams of thujone per kilogram – but at the time, a minimum limit did not exist.
In an effort to standardise ingredients in the drink the European Commission proposed a minimum of five milligrams of thujone per kilogram, but the EU rejected the proposal arguing that the rules should stay as is to maintain a high level of competition and consumer health.
Francoise Grossetete, a French parliamentarian in support of the effort to protect the classic spirit, was disappointed with the result and believes that without thujone the drink is no longer worthy of the name “absinthe”.
“Allowing a drink to be sold under the ‘absinthe’ label without being sure that the plant of that name was used in it is blatant trickery,” Grossetete said. “Baudelaire would turn in his grave!”
The base flavours of the popular spirit are star anise, mint and fennel mixed in with other complex herbs and wormwood or Artemisia absinthium – which is where the drink gets its name.
Absinthe was first produced by a nun in a Swiss canton, who created the drink from a blend of local mountain plants. The concoction then found its way to a French doctor who sold the drink as the “absinthe elixir” to his patients. Henri-Louis Pernod opened the first absinthe distillery in 1798, and the Pernod Company still creates the bottled green liqueur today.
At the height of its esteem in the 1860s the drink became almost as popular as wine, it was so common in Parisian bars and cafes that 5pm was dubbed the green hour (“l’heure verte”).
But the effects of the alcohol, as depicted in painting of addicts worried medical practitioners and soon led to a prohibition and subsequent ban of the substance across much of Europe by the 1900’s – which only served spur a soaring import industry.
Over the years, the green spirit earned its bad-boy reputation after a string of unsavoury incidents – including murder and other crimes – were linked back to the drink.