|Posted on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 - 9:48 am: |
Long banned drink absinthe returns in a new distillation
By Dietlind Lerner
Special to the Tribune
October 23, 2002
PONTARLIER, France -- Striding through a field of prickly, thigh-high plants, Francois Guy ponders possible explanations. He has been asked why absinthe, a drink once considered so lethal it was almost universally banned nine decades ago, is once again legal and attracting consumers?
"Here take this," he finally says, nimbly bending his 6-foot-4-inch frame to pick a leaf from one of the plants. "Now rub it between your fingers and then lick the residue."
"You see," he continues in his baritone voice, "that bitter, astringent taste, that's the taste of absinthe. And what we're doing today is producing the odor and the taste of that plant in an absinthe-based aperitif." Pause. "Consumed in the right way, it should be harmless." Pause. "Of course, if you have six of these in one evening, it could cause considerable carnage."
It is not clear to what extent Guy is joking. What is clear is that Guy, 38, has a vested interest in making absinthe sociably palatable.
A fourth-generation producer of spirits -- Guy's great-grandfather Armand Guy founded the family's liquor business, basing it on absinthe -- Francois Guy has spent much of the past 20 years searching for a distilling process to remove some of the plant's thujone, the element that supposedly made people crazy.
At the same time, he has successfully lobbied to have European absinthe laws relaxed to allow for the production of a "safe absinthe." Legal production of the drink has been Guy's dream ever since adolescence, when he realized that what his family took so much joy in consuming on private social occasions actually was prohibited by law.
And so, beginning in December 2001, Guy has been selling absinthe legally. Using his great-grandfather's methods and re-employing his enormous, 100-year-old stills, Guy produced 21,000 liters in the first half-year, selling the drink for a fairly hefty $50 a bottle.
Dubbed "La Fee Verte" ("the Green fairy") because of its green hue, absinthe has been illegal in France since 1915 -- and in the U.S. since 1912.
Historians and aficionados tend to agree that the recipe for absinthe was invented by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire sometime in the 1790s. Ordinaire subsequently promoted the medicinal virtues of the drink, whose active ingredient, wormwood, was thought to cure a host of ills.
By the early 1800s, Pontarlier, the little French town on the edge of the Swiss border where today Francois Guy tends his fields, had become the center of absinthe distillery. By the time Armand Guy founded the family distillery in 1880, he was competing with 22 manufacturers.
The rolling hills of Pontarlier made an ideal home for absinthe. Icy winters allow the absinthe root to grow slowly, while mild summers sustain it through to October harvest. And in the 1800s they were home to hundreds of French troops, who became addicted to the licorice taste.
Convinced of its powers as a remedy for dysentery and malaria, the army began sending absinthe out with soldiers. In consuming the drink on cafe terraces wherever they went, the French forces soon unleashed it upon the world.
Meanwhile, back in France, absinthe was developing a passionate following among bohemians, many of whom drank it all day long (Van Gogh is said to have been under its influence when chopping off his ear.)
By the end of the 19th Century, sales in France had reached millions of gallons a year. La Fee Verte was being consumed by all classes of people, and was considered an acceptable drink for women as well as men.
End was in sight
But the age of absinthe was nearing an end. On Aug. 28, 1905, a Swiss worker named Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife and two children while drunk. Although he was said to have consumed only two glasses of absinthe, along with several other alcoholic drinks, his case became known as the "Absinthe Murder." Religious groups and temperance advocates used the Lanfray case as an example of the drink's evils.
By 1908, absinthe had become illegal in Switzerland, and France followed seven years later, ostensibly banning the drink as part of the war effort.
To this day, no one really knows for certain what made Belle Epoque absinthe so potent. For some, it is a simple explanation of the "speedball" effect of mixing an "upper" like thujone with a "downer" like alcohol. Others believe that thujone contains narcotic properties similar to marijuana's.
This scandalous history does not bother Guy. Au contraire, he believes it is good for marketing.
"We know that the myth never disappeared," he says. "The word of mouth is great. And some people have taken it upon themselves to see that my product makes it -- in secret -- to America. The secrecy involved certainly helps give it an extra cachet, especially with people who have a bit of money, like show biz people." All the better, I say, because the notion of being in style is going to help us the most."
Nor does Guy worry about the potential negative effects of absinthe on his customers' health.
"At the time they banned absinthe," he says, "it was being consumed at between 116 to 144 proof. Today we are making it at 90 proof. Of course we tried making it at 144, but the little added taste we got was not worth getting people drunk so quickly. I want to create a product which will withstand time, not one which will be in fashion for six months or so."
Proof is in the taste
To prove his point, Guy decides its time to make some drinks. In a room adjacent to his six great absinthe stills, Guy pulls out a beautiful water fountain and places it on top of a large wooden barrel. A delicate glass structure about 6 inches high, it is of a type that was ubiquitous in French cafes at the turn of the last century.
He fills the fountain with cold mineral water and places large, wide-rimmed absinthe glasses under its six spigots. Filling each glass a fourth of the way with absinthe, he then covers each glass with a vintage absinthe spoon -- a wide-lipped silver affair with small holes scattered throughout. On top of each spoon he then places a cube of sugar. Finally, he turns each spigot so that it slowly drops water onto the sugar, which slowly dissolves into the absinthe.
The process is mesmerizing. The idea is to dilute the absinthe with the water, and cut the acidic taste with the sugar. It takes a good 10 minutes.
Law took a decade to pass
Europe's new absinthe law, which Guy began lobbying for in 1988 and which took a decade to pass, specifies that the drink may not contain more than 35 milligrams of thujone. So, in order to maintain the taste, Guy distills a portion of the thujone out of the plant.
Some purists have proclaimed Guy's efforts all for naught. If it isn't exactly the same as the old absinthe, they say, well, then it isn't the same. And they're right: It isn't. By law Guy is not even allowed to label his drink "absinthe." Instead he has had to settle for the more roundabout term, "Spiritueux aux Extraits de Plantes d'Absinthe."
But Guy has no problem with the current restrictions. Holding up a glass of the absinthe that he has just finished preparing, he predicts, "People who have respect for that which is made correctly, in the manner of the time, will not care about the degree of thujone in the drink. What they are really looking for is the taste, and that is here."
He smiles, then imbibes.
|Posted on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 - 9:44 am: |
a bit confused with some of the facts, and guy's usual spiel...