Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cross-Post: Green fairies are just as imaginary as any other color

A victim of urban myth = me. I learned this weekend that absinthe tastes like butt and evil. And, according to that Wikipedia article, it's not even hallucinogenic:
Absinthe has long been believed to be hallucinogenic, but no evidence supports this. ... Today it is known that absinthe does not cause hallucinations, especially those described in the old studies. Thujone, the supposed active chemical in absinthe, is a GABA antagonist and while it can produce muscle spasms in large doses there is no evidence it causes hallucinations.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) inhibits nerve impulses, so giving it the day off will allow your nerves to fire too easily (hence, spasms). This is not a hallucination, more like a seizure. Furthermore, this stuff has to pass TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) testing, which means it's got less than 10mg/L thujone in it anyway (not large doses). Being 62% alcohol by volume, I have no qualms about chalking up these hallucinatory claims to the placebo effect. Further complicating this issue is the fact that some modern absinthe concoctions contain additional hallucinogenic ingredients, the goal being not to drink absinthe as it was drunk "back in the day," but to get the high attributed to it. Which, I mean, that's cool & all, but let's please not fool ourselves into thinking it's because of the absinthe. That's just backwards.

I came across the stuff Friday night at Friar Tuck's Booze Emporium (known to the rest of the world simply as "Friar Tuck"), when I had planned to buy a fifth of Captain Morgan Private Stock, tastiest of the Captain Morgan brand rums. At checkout, though, the guy who had previously turned me on to Distinguido tequila (a good, inexpensive tequila, which is valuable to me now that I'm out of the Mexican stuff) mentioned that they had one bottle of absinthe left. I inquired further and he mentioned that it was recently legalized. I took a look at the bottle, and it said it was made according to traditional French methods, with a full measure of Grande Wormwood, and gave rather detailed preparation instructios. Also, had the stuff recently been legalized, I found it plausible that there might be some, uh, "incentive" for the media to be rather quiet about it, which would explain why I hadn't heard the news. It looked authentic, and this guy had done well by me in the past, so I took a gamble. Anyway, the bottle cost $50, so I'm not tossing the stuff. If anyone wants to try it, you can fairly help yourselves - I wouldn't dare charge anyone for this. I've got like half the bottle left.

How this stuff ever became so popular is beyond me. It tastes terrible - I'd rather drink grain alcohol. It's like super-Jager, in that it has more licorice flavor in a shot than is present in a whole bag of licorice whips, and could probably be used as an industrial-strength solvent (and it has actually been used to disinfect contaminated water in the past). I tried two of the mixed-drink versions, wherein the absinthe is diluted to about the potency of wine, and was quite unimpressed. Doing a shot of it, however, was like having a licorice fireball tear through my esophagus.

I decided to do some homework and find out just what I was getting myself into, so I read a couple articles: one on the origin of Lucid, the absinthe in question, and another on T.A. Breaux, a chemist playing a major role in the modern absinthe revival. This is the guy most directly responsible for getting Lucid approved, as he discovered that his own absinthe (produced with authentic equipment, ingredients, and procedures), as well as the pre-ban vintage absinthe he had acquired, had very nearly no thujone in them at all - making it trivially easy to bypass the thujone concentration rule which allows "refined" absinthe (strong liquor without wormwood) to be sold. Breaux is like an absinthe connoisseur or something, which leads me to believe that either there's more to it than I have come to expect, or there are far darker corners of the human heart than I dare imagine.

It turns out that absinthe isn't supposed to taste like Satan's asshole. Magically, I guess. The stuff came into popularity during a rather devastating wine shortage in France, and so if it was used as a wine substitute, I suppose it ought to be sipped rather than gulped or shot - and this could make a rather major difference, as it would with whisky or cognac. I'm going to lock myself in a room and try science to see if I can get this stuff to work right. You know, make it taste like herbs and flowers rather than suck and fail. However, my optimism remains cautious, for I know that there are those who drink moonshine and other noxious toxins straight from a jug. I'll let you know if something exciting happens, but otherwise, you would all do well to stay behind the safety glass.

Additionally, the stuff technically wasn't "legalized" because the consumption and possession of it aren't illegal in the first place (though it can be seized with a warrant, oddly enough), just importation and sale without FDA/TTB approval, which involves thujone concentration and almost no other factor - if it's an alcoholic product, then it cannot contain wormwood, and for legal purposes this means coming in under the aforementioned 10mg/L thujone concentration. Other thujone-containing substances, such as sage, are completely unregulated. So, it turns out, authentic absinthe doesn't legally contain the substance thought to be the active ingredient in... authentic absinthe. Since no laws had to be changed, it simply had to get approved by the FDA, which was just a matter of putting in the time and paying the lawyers. Another major detail, I guess, since getting something approved is probably a far lesser legal ordeal than trying to repeal a ban on a particular substance. The moral of the story is that thujone - as well as wormwood, from which it is derived - aren't controlled substances. The Lucid website has an FAQ which also corroborates this information, as well as providing me ideas for my experiments.


Zach L said...

I love licorice and anise flavor in anything at any intensity.

I've been dying to try absinthe for that specific reason (not the hallucinogens or any of that garbage).

So! Please to be saving me at least a shot kk.

Craig said...

running comments:

It's Captain Morgan PIRATE stock, thank you.

I saw Distinguido, but I read Disgusting Guido.

Also, all the talk about the thujone content is what I was raving about at that one party where you were sciencing up some absinthe last time. If there's no Wormwood, it's not Absinthe.

Ms. Hermit said...

Ages to late, I know, but absinthe will never taste like herbs and flowers. If you don't like licorice, you will never like it.

I personally find that skipping the "light it on fire" step in the traditional sugar + cold water preparation renders me a wonderfully chilly glass of licorice booze.

D said...

Hmm... damn. Well, thanks for the tip!