(Originally published on the Mutineer Magazine Blog on 10/08/2010, and updated here on 06/05/2015)
Time to drop a little nerdy absinthe knowledge on you today.
Since 2007, one of the most popular arguments I’ve seen from disreputable producers and their followers is that the absinthe currently being sold in the U.S. isn’t ‘real’ absinthe. So, I thought I’d give you all the truth behind the marketing-speak.
Many U.S. absinthe nay-sayers argue that products sold in the U.S. don’t contain wormwood (or specifically a chemical contained in wormwood – thujone), and therefore aren’t true absinthes. While the European Union has indeed granted a bit more leeway in regards to thujone content in absinthe (10 mg/l if labeled “absinthe” and up to 35 mg/l if it’s labeled as a “bitters”), the U.S. government has not yet studied absinthe in depth. Therefore, they continue to impose a limit of 10 mg/l.
An uninformed consumer may argue that the limit implies that the US brands don’t contain as much wormwood as those in Europe. This is incorrect. The amount of thujone is not necessarily proportional to the amount of wormwood used. Some of the brands that use the most wormwood in their recipes also have the lowest thujone levels. Further, what those nay-sayers won’t tell you is that both of these numbers are deemed ‘thujone-free’, meaning there is so little present that it won’t cause any detrimental effects.
Another interesting fact relates to thujone levels of pre-ban absinthes. Some still incorrectly believe that pre-ban absinthes contained much higher levels of thujone than modern brands. This idea comes from an armchair assumption in an article written by Dr. Wilfred Arnold where he hypothesized that pre-ban absinthes contained as much as 260 mg/l of thujone. He arrived at this figure by taking the assumed concentration levels of thujone present in wormwood, and multiplied by the known quantities of wormwood used in pre-ban absinthe, assuming 100% recovery of the thujone in the distillate.
However, his conclusions have since been solidly debunked. Research found that Dr. Arnold’s article didn’t involve the study or analysis of ANY actual absinthe, modern or vintage. Nor did it take into account the behavior of thujone during distillation. As it happens, thujone itself doesn’t readily vaporize in an alcoholic distillation and most of it stays behind in the pot. So one cannot conclude that the same amount of thujone in raw wormwood will be present in the final product.
More recent studies have overwhelmingly invalidated Dr. Arnold’s theories. In 2008, a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry performed chemical analyses of both pre-ban absinthe and currently produced absinthes that use historic recipes and production methods. The results showed that many pre-ban absinthes would have come in under the current European and/or US thujone limits. It also showed that currently produced absinthes that using the historic recipes had similar levels of thujone, suggesting that thujone levels are rather stable once in the bottle.
In April 2009, a supporting study analyzed the stability of thujone in absinthe. The study found, amongst other things, that absinthe stored in traditional green glass bottles (such as those utilized by most brands of the Belle Époque), and subjected to high amounts of ultraviolet radiation for upwards of 200 hours, showed no decomposition of thujone. This disproved the theory that thujone levels found in pre-ban absinthe may have decreased due to chemical degradation over time.
So, in short: Yes, while there are a very few cheap impostors, most absinthe in the US is REAL absinthe, and contains the traditional and authentic ingredients in correct proportions. It is distilled the same way. It is colored the same way. And it’s finished and bottled the same way. In fact, several of the highest rated absinthes in the world are produced in the U.S.