Anyone up for another absinthe definition?

Sepulchritude Forum: The Absinthe Forum Archives Thru July 2001: Topics Archived Thru Nov 2000:Anyone up for another absinthe definition?
By Don_walsh on Sunday, November 26, 2000 - 04:35 am: Edit

Dear Grim

Yes, that was intended to be taken seriously (as seriously as anything ever is around here anyway -- sometimes not at all and sometimes way too much, I mean, it's not a world shattering matter of great pith and moment, not like Palm Beach or anything... :)^

I think Absintheur had a perfectly valid objection to my tendency (since corrected) to label everything that I didn't think was legit absinthe as 'pastis'. Some of those would be an insult to pastis! And yes there are unAbsinthes of considerable worth. Versinthe, Oxygenee, and Hermes by all accounts are well crafted complex liqueurs of merit. They aren't pastis, and they aren't (IMHO) absinthe, so: unAbsinthe. It's not intended as a epithet or slur. The soft drink biggies used unCola as a slogan (for 7Up). No insult intended.

I think Kallistis already has the Pastis section titled to cover 'Absinthe Substitutes' as well as Pastis proper.

Where the unAbsinthes sometimes stray is when they are cheap sleazy concoctions like Absente, and when like Absente they are deliberately touted as what they are not.

Suntory labels Hermes as Absinthe, then on the back label (in Japanese and in the earlier version anyway) says there is no wormwood (absinthium) 'poison' in the bottle. I don't think Suntory was trying to deceive anyone, but I also don't think Hermes is absinthe. Then is it pastis? Not if it looks like absinthe. Is it green, or brown? If former it's unAbsinthe, if latter then it's probably pastis. (Absintheur may demurr about the oversimplification, but...)

This is a product that is bloody hard to get hold of; I myself have tried and failed. Once I determined that the stuff isn't absinthe I was no longer very motivated to obtain a bottle. Had I continued to expend energy and time and money, under the assumption that Hermes was really Absinthe as it says, and then when I got it, found to contrary, I'd be ANGRY. Isn't the Buyers Guide supposed to help consumers avoid much the same circumstance? This is alcoholic bait and switch...remember the old Parkay commercials where the margarine keeps muttering BUTTER as the person is about to take a bit of a piece of toast. Then after she tastes it and says, This is good! the margarine says PARKAY! ?? This is same sort of thing.

By Grimbergen on Sunday, November 26, 2000 - 01:54 am: Edit

"If some people are unhappy with calling any unAbsinthe 'pastis' -- because pastis does have an identity of its own which not all unAbsinthes may meet -- then we have to move from a bipolar (absinthe vs pastis) to a multipolar (absinthe vs pastis vs unAbsinthe) view."
I don't know if you inteded for that to be taken seriously, but the more I think about it the more it seems to be a reasonable solution.

Grim

By Grimbergen on Sunday, November 26, 2000 - 01:50 am: Edit

Don,

I was talking about a definition of absinthe in the more abstract sense. I didn't intend to address the issue of a standard for the BG. With that said, thanks for bringing the issue back to hand. Again, as I said, I believe your definition would be the most useful functional definition (with problems noted), and that certainly is a standard that can be applied for the BG.

Grim

By Don_walsh on Sunday, November 26, 2000 - 01:39 am: Edit

Friends, we seem to have gone a lot farther down the road than I at least intended. No one is enacting law here, or promulgating industry regulations (that can't be ebforced.) We were just looking for a litmus test for the Buyers Guide, which was and is in confusion.

If a skeleton definition with merely one requirement is so hard to agree on, then a narrower definition is going to be impossible to achieve consensus about.

I rather hate to use anything from the Vaud Commission as they were the enemy! It's the Marxist definition of 'capitalist'.

I had no intent to exclude products from oils, or (ugh) macerated products, or cheap products, or much of anything really. As this was only for BG purposes, it didn't matter that someone might propose Chartreuse or wormwood vodka as meeting the definition -- because Kallisti wouldn't list those as absinthe anyway. You see?

If some people are unhappy with calling any unAbsinthe 'pastis' -- because pastis does have an identity of its own which not all unAbsinthes may meet -- then we have to move from a bipolar (absinthe vs pastis) to a multipolar (absinthe vs pastis vs unAbsinthe) view. Absintheur says pastis is caramel colored while absinthe is green (sorry, Serpis). So how to peg Hermes? Well, Kallisti and friends can call that, I am happy with the outcome so long as it isn't called absinthe. (Predicated on the absence of absinthium!)

I think anything more ambitious by way of definition is doomed.

By Grimbergen on Sunday, November 26, 2000 - 01:29 am: Edit

Ted,
I was reading a past post and it seems I f-up on my own position.

You said:
"Unless I am mistaken, I think he was trying to point out that there was a need to make a definition more or less detailed enough to exclude macerated products. "

And I said:
"Nope. Just noting that they would be included as undesirable as it is."

Actually I hadn't even contemplated macerated products. If they contain wormwood, then under the A. absinthium rule they would be absinthe. Under a more detailed definition like the one Artemis they might not.

In my post I was simply foreseeing gray areas of products that closely resemble absinthe, but would not qualify as absinthe even though they are better than products that do qualify as absinthe.

Don't hold me to too much here, I am tired and there is a good chance I am getting muddled

Grim

By Sir_winston on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 10:28 pm: Edit

Artemis,

"If a product has the same flavor profile and effects as Scotch, is it Scotch? I think not."

I think this is a big part of my objection to a definition of absinthe which only goes so far as to require the use of a. absinthium. What's more important is perhaps not the fact that some cheap 19th century absinthes probably omitted a. absinthium in favor of other herbs and various chemicals, but rather that there was always a certain style even among cheap products, just as there is a style to gin or vodka or any other broad categorization of spirits.

If we completely ignore the past and its baggage, we are still left with a spirit which is being produced today but which lacks any significant standards. When I mentioned that, by only defining absinthe as containing a. absinthium, things such as chartreuse and wormwood vodka could be called absinthe, my point wasn't that such products could reasonably be mistaken as absinthe or are being called such, but rather that they *could* be. This very fact renders the definition of absinthe as a drink containing absinthium inadequate.

You mentioned Scotch. Well, what makes a Scotch a Scotch is adherence to certain strict standards--not every whisky made in Scotland can be called a Scotch. Among other things, there are specific types of barrels which must be used in the aging of the raw spirits, and the raw spirits must be aged for a minimum number of years within the borders of Scotland itself--I think the minimum is three, though I may misremember. These are considered all-important because they define the flavors and styles associated with Scotch--if strange woods are used, or the whisky is aged in steel or cement, it won't taste like Scotch; if the whisky is not aged for at least three years, it won't taste like Scotch; if that aging is not done for the minimum time within the unique atmosphere of Scotland, it will not taste like Scotch.

There are similar definitions for nearly every major spirit, definitions which give general paramaters for flavor and style. For example, to be called a Tennessee Whisky, it isn't enough to be made within Tennessee--if memory serves, it has to be aged in newly charred barrels, and charcoal filtered at least once.

I think that if you want to have a truly useful modern definition of absinthe, it has to be more complete than "it contains a. absinthium." Lots of things do. If you want to create a new definition which ignores the "mistakes of the past," fine. But if you are going to make such a definition for modern absinthe, you ought to make it a truly useful one, one which defines the style just as other definitions of spirits define their styles.

The problem isn't necessarily with products on the market today. But, would you want someone using this very loose definition of absinthe to market wormwood vodka with green dye as absinthe? There are grumblings here that Hill's isn't really absinthe, not only just because it may not contain absinthium, but because of its flavour and style or the lack thereof. Then, why not have a working definition that would call a spade a spade?

To that effect, the definition by the Vaud Commission which you quoted is far more useful. In addition, your correction of that definition to require the use of a. absinthium is perhaps even more useful in creating a modern definition of absinthe. But the fact that the lean definition used here, merely that the liquor have been made with a. absinthium, is not being abused at present to call things absinthes which shouldn't be, in no way reflects upon its unfitness as a definition. It is not fit as a definition because as a definition it *does* include Chartreuse, wormwood vodka, and many other liquors. A good and workable and useful definition should surely exclude things which are not absinthe.

That's just my opinion. Take it for what little it's worth. ;-) But, if the main forum for discussing absinthe doesn't even strive to define the liquor with basic standards in a generally accepted way, that says a lot. Maybe, just maybe, doing so should be a priority. Until there's a good definition with some reasonable minimum standards regarding style rather than one herb, there's no real reason or way to separate something like La Fee or Ted and Don's absinthe from the gunk some Goth makes by mixing wormwood oil with vodka. That just doesn't seem right. And, a real definition isn't really a concept that needs to be aimed most at the sort of experienced people who generally post here; rather, it's most useful to people who are new to absinthe. Why not lobby for some decent minimum standards for absinthe? Almost every other liquor already has a generally accepted definition. Why not be the people who make the generally accepted definition for absinthe? Just a thought...

sir_winston@usa.net

By Grimbergen on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 02:13 pm: Edit

I'm still trying to decide that too! Half way through my first bottle and still can't tell. It is just such a strange drink.

Grim

By Artemis on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 02:08 pm: Edit

For instance London Dry Gin and Dutch Gin (a malty gin. tastes a lot like what you would get if you mixed whisky and gin).

I only recently learned about the existence of that Dutch style gin. I can't decide if it sounds appealing or nasty!!

By Grimbergen on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 01:58 pm: Edit

Ted,
"Unless I am mistaken, I think he was trying to point out that there was a need to make a definition more or less detailed enough to exclude macerated products. "

Nope. Just noting that they would be included as undesirable as it is.

" As a final note, the herb A. absinthium contributes more than thujone to absinthe."
But of course. The flavor imparted by the wormwood is one of the main reasons why I prefer absinthe over other anis products (not to suggest that this is the only difference). I don't know if other people have had similar experiences, but I personally don't really feel the secondary effects; it is very likely that in my case it is just psychosomatic.

Artemis,
"We can come up with all the definitions we want; we can't force anybody to use them."

This is indeed a problem. In my initial post I foresaw a similar problem when I was discussing using qualifiers such as czech-absinthe. I said that producers SHOULD use these qualifiers, with the emphasis on 'should' because I know it would be hard to enforce. Many area of the alcohol business do this on their own because they want the consumer to be able to distinguish between products. For instance London Dry Gin and Dutch Gin (a malty gin. tastes a lot like what you would get if you mixed whisky and gin). But in time we might not get this distinction being made with absinthe. The reason is that there don't appear to be any notable virtues in czech absinthe. If consumers come to realize this, there will be no reason for czech producers to try to differentiate their products from the quality products.

"If a product has the same flavor profile and effects as Scotch, is it Scotch? I think not."
Um...I think that was actually my point when I was describing the shortcomings of my definition. If it tastes like scotch I would like to call it scotch. (Ignoring the fact that legally scotch can only come from Scotland). The whole point of a functional definition is to impart some knowledge of to the consumer of what the product tastes like.

I think your suggestion of a definition is a good one. Amending the Vaud Commission definition would probably be the best way of achieving what Don and Ted want, only products with wormwood can be called absinthe, while also insuring that only products that are recognizable as absinthe are called absinthe. This of course would have to be made into law for it to be useful.

Grim

By Artemis on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 01:39 pm: Edit

Okay, that's what I thought you meant. I have no problem with macerated products being included, although I prefer distilled (until you point out to me which of those that I thought were distilled are made from oils :*), and I suppose if you could get Artemisia P. to deliver the goods, that would also be absinthe even if there is no absinthium. I guess that queers my definition, but it's hard to get a grip on this.

By Tabreaux on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 01:31 pm: Edit

I was addressing Grimbergen. Unless I am mistaken, I think he was trying to point out that there was a need to make a definition more or less detailed enough to exclude macerated products.

By Artemis on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 01:28 pm: Edit

Ted wrote:

"I think I see the point you are trying to make, and IMO, a proper absinthe will always be distilled with absinthium."

Ted, I'm not clear on whom you're addressing, me or Grimbergen. Could you expand?

By Tabreaux on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 01:17 pm: Edit

I think I see the point you are trying to make, and IMO, a proper absinthe will always be distilled with absinthium. In the same way, a proper wine will be made from a fermentation, not from adding alcohol to grape juice. I have no problem whatsoever in including this important aspect in a proper definition. The problem here is that inferior absinthes in the old days were made with oils, just as are what seems to be most modern 'absinthes'.

I feel this is largely irrelevent, as the difference between cheap wines and good ones is about as apparent as the difference between most modern absinthes and more authentic absinthes.

As a final note, the herb A. absinthium contributes more than thujone to absinthe.

By Artemis on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 12:57 pm: Edit

Grimbergen has presented a reasonable discussion of the absinthe definition issue. I really don't have a dog in this fight, but to respond to some of his points:

"Brewers don't use a list of flavors for defining a beer, they use technical specs. Of course the technical specs don't mean a thing to the consumer, the flavor does."

Technical specs also don't mean anything to the marketing arms of some (most?) brewing companies. Witness the outrage among beer fans when Samuel Adams had the gall to label that awful cranberry concoction of theirs a "lambic". Now, they know it's not lambic - there's no room for argument on that score and no possibility of error. But they refuse to back down from their mendacity. We have the same situation now with several makers of "absinthe". We can come up with all the definitions we want; we can't force anybody to use them. All we can do is strive to educate. Unfortunately, we lack a sound base from which to do so, because there is no "scientific", much less uniformly accepted, definition of absinthe.

"On to absinthe. I side with Don and Ted here. By using A. absithium as the standard for absinthe, we will generally know what to expect of the product; this definition meets much of my functionality requirement."

When Ted first raised the issue here, I replied that I had no problem with the definition "promulgated by the Vaud Commission" which was used to ban absinthe in France. Here it is again:

It is an aromatized liquor, characterized by a high alcohol content, which allows it to hold in solution a number of essences: wormwood, anises, fennel, hyssop or other similar essences, such that addition of dripped water separates them into a lingering turbidity. It is manufactured by macerating herbs containing these essences in alcohol, followed by distillation, or by simply mixing an alcoholic fluid extract prepared from these herbs, colored green and sweetened, with alcohol of approximately 70%.

Note that according to this definition, no louche means no absinthe. Also, the presence of wormwood is not so much required as implied - "wormwood ... *or other similar essences*". This may be because it was taken for granted that no wormwood means no absinthe, but it would seem more likely that as Don and others have pointed out, herbal liquors in general were seen as a threat to the wine industry and the intent was to get rid of all of them while the opportunity, in the form of the bad rap hung upon just *one* of them, was at hand.

To convert the above definition from one which served for herbal liquors including absinthe, into one which *defines* absinthe, it would seem that all we need to do is change the implied presence of wormwood into a requirement - it *shall* be present. I'm not utterly confident that the wormwood must be artemisia absinthium, but it's hard to argue against the simple logic that it would never have been called absinthe if it wasn't based upon absinthium. If the designation of grand wormwood as artemisia absinthium predates Dr. Ordinaire (I don't know if it does - anybody?), I would say that clinches it. I personally have no problem with a requirement that absinthe shall louche, because that's what I've come to expect - the "alchemy" is an endearing aspect of absinthe, and part of the show I expect for my money.

To address an issue raised in other threads, the supposedly undesirable inclusivity of an absinthe = absinthium definition: It's been said that this means chartreuse is absinthe. Nonsense. Chartreuse is not absinthe for the same reason Heinz Catsup is not absinthe - NOBODY IS CLAIMING THAT IT'S ABSINTHE!

"If they were to subsequently add thujone, from a source other than wormwood (proper), it would be hard to argue that it shouldn't be considered absinthe."

I think that would be very easy to argue, and has been, right here.

"If a product has the same flavor profile, and in the case of absinthe, secondary effects, then for heaven's sake isn't is absinthe?"

If a product has the same flavor profile and effects as Scotch, is it Scotch? I think not.

"To put it another way, if two products were chemically identical, but one used wormwood in the production, would you want to call one absinthe and the other pastis?"

I find the introduction of "pastis" as a box into which to throw products that don't cut it as "absinthe" not only entirely arbitrary, but unnecessary. If a product isn't absinthe, I don't care what else it may or may not be. I have no interest in pastis, don't give a damn about pastis, and would welcome it if discussion of pastis were taken to the pastis forum, where it will gather dust as do the bottles of that stuff on the liquor store shelves.

By Grimbergen on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 11:17 am: Edit

Ted,

I think you made too much of my stressing thujone and secondary effects, I will try to be more clear this time.

"But be advised that the presence of thujone is purely incidental."
Nevertheless, consumers have come to expect that absinthe contains thujone. It is no longer incidental, it is essential. I've stressed secondary effects, because for many consumers it is the primary motivation for purchasing absinthe.

"Additionally, thujone is not the only compound contributed by A. absinthium, but is one of several. Neither has it been proven to be the sole source of secondary effects."
I abbreviated here, as we generally do in this forum--when we talk about secondary effects we talk about thujone. Insofar as this is incorrect, it can easily be corrected in the framework of my definition.

"Some traditional liqueurs contain thujone, and are certainly not absinthe (and don't claim to be). If Oxygenee contained thujone (it doesn't), it would simply be a pastis which has been adulterated with thujone. "
The idea behind talking about Oxygenee is that people here have claimed that it is more authentic in taste than most absinthes. If something tastes like absinthe, and if we were to adulterate it so that it would have the same effects, then it's hard to say that it isn't absinthe. My contention isn't that you have to add thujone (and any other
active compounds) to pastis to make it absinthe, but rather, if it taste and feels like absinthe than it is absinthe.


" "To put it another way, if two products were chemically identical, but one used wormwood in the
production, would you want to call one absinthe and the other pastis? "

Well, if I distilled A. absinthium with rum, I could call it absinthe-rum. Naturally, leave out the absinthium and it would just be rum, not pastis. Therefore, this 'rule' may not always applicable. If the absinthium-free beverage resembles as pastis, then call it pastis. If it doesn't, we'd consider it something else. "

I wasn't clear here. My hypothetical was that the two products were chemically indistinguishable. That is one product would be made from wormwood, and the second would have the exact same compounds, but from sources other than wormwood. Absinthe-rum and rum would not be chemically identical. Take the absinthe that you and Don are making. It is theoretically possible ( I believe) to clone your product. That is to make a product that is chemically identical (has all of the same compounds in all the same proportions) without any wormwood coming within 100 miles of your still. If I place a bottle of your absinthe in front of you and a bottle of my hypothetical clone, would you want to call one abinthe but not the other? They would be identical in every was except for how they were produced.

I hope I did a better job this time of pointing out the shortcomings of this definition. Again, I feel that it is the best option.

Grim

Damn you Winston look what you've done! You have us all writing long posts! ; )

By Tabreaux on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 10:09 am: Edit

I appreciate your point of view, and at one time, I likely would have shared it. Naturally, where commercial production of authentic products are concerned, it would even be to my advantage. Here are the problems however:


"If they were to subsequently add thujone, from a source other than wormwood (proper), it would be hard to argue that it shouldn't be considered absinthe."

But be advised that the presence of thujone is purely incidental. Additionally, thujone is not the only compound contributed by A. absinthium, but is one of several. Neither has it been proven to be the sole source of secondary effects. Some traditional liqueurs contain thujone, and are certainly not absinthe (and don't claim to be). If Oxygenee contained thujone (it doesn't), it would simply be a pastis which has been adulterated with thujone.


"If a product has the same flavor profile, and in the case of absinthe, secondary effects, then for heaven's sake isn't is absinthe?"

No. Absinthe was never defined by any purported secondary effects. Secondary effects are always subjective, are usually embellished to the point of absurdity, and cannot be reliably gauged. Therefore, secondary effects cannot be used as a measure from which to judge the validity of a product.


"To put it another way, if two products were chemically identical, but one used wormwood in the production, would you want to call one absinthe and the other pastis? "

Well, if I distilled A. absinthium with rum, I could call it absinthe-rum. Naturally, leave out the absinthium and it would just be rum, not pastis. Therefore, this 'rule' may not always applicable. If the absinthium-free beverage resembles as pastis, then call it pastis. If it doesn't, we'd consider it something else.


"I doubt that a producer would want to market a product, or that it would be fair to require them to, as "absinthe-like pastis with thujone.""

Just because a pastis would be adulterated with thujone doesn't make it absinthe or even absinthe-like. Most modern pastis doesn't resemble absinthe in construction or taste anyway. As far as what is 'fair' to a producer, the burden of meeting accepted definitions, standards, and descriptions is always solely the responsibility of the producer.


I am in agreement that certain styles have already distinguished themselves, like Czech usually being akin to rubbing alcohol and thin in content, Spanish typically being akin to pastis, etc. I could easily come up with what I consider to be a technical definition for absinthe, but I am afraid it would exclude just about every modern product, and certainly some of the old ones. Perhaps products which were made in rigid accordance to strictly authentic standards could be differentiated with the term "absinthe superieure". Naturally, where there are accepted terms and standards, there also has to be acceptable methods of verifying that certain products meet the standards, and that is an entirely different issue.

By Grimbergen on Saturday, November 25, 2000 - 12:21 am: Edit

As a brewer I have had many similar discussions on how to classify different styles. Classification is a tricky thing; let's see if I can get at the heart of this any better.

The importance of classifying something is primarily functional. As Don notes, consumers want to know what they are buying. With beer, we give different beers different names so that consumers know approximately what they are buying. If a beer is labeled as an IPA, you will know pretty much what it will taste like. However, it is hard to define things in terms of how they taste. Brewers don't use a list of flavors for defining a beer, they use technical specs. Of course the technical specs don't mean a thing to the consumer, the flavor does. The wine or beer geeks among you will recognize that it would be hard to define a style by detailed flavor profile.

My first experience with this problem was defining barley wines. A friend of mine contended that many of the strong belgian ales were barely wines because their technical specs were similar to US or British barley wines. The problem is that they taste a lot different. This is the problem: we want to have functional definitions, and the best way to define products is by specifying technical characteristics of the beer (as opposed to subjective tasting), however, the technical definition often falls short--it does not make the distinctions that we want it to make.

On to absinthe. I side with Don and Ted here. By using A. absithium as the standard for absinthe, we will generally know what to expect of the product; this definition meets much of my functionality requirement. A. absithium will give the product the taste and secondary effects that people expect when buying absinthe.

Of course nothing is this clear cut. This still isn't a very informative definition. I believe that producers SHOULD also use qualifiers (I think winston was suggesting this). Czech-absinthe, spanish-absinthe, etc. so that consumers know the other characteristics of the product.

I still have other reservations. While I believe Don and Ted's definition is our best option, there are still significant problems from a functionality standpoint. Oxygenee is the best way of illuminating the problems. From the accounts on this forum, Oxygenee is a better product than most of the available absinthes (and more authentic). If they were to subsequently add thujone, from a source other than wormwood (proper), it would be hard to argue that it shouldn't be considered absinthe. If a product has the same flavor profile, and in the case of absinthe, secondary effects, then for heaven's sake isn't is absinthe? To put it another way, if two products were chemically identical, but one used wormwood in the production, would you want to call one absinthe and the other pastis? Perhaps qualifiers would work here, but I doubt that a producer would want to market a product, or that it would be fair to require them to, as "absinthe-like pastis with thujone."

To restate my position, definitions should be technical--based on how the product is produced, even though this will be problematic.

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