In the 20,000 years or so that humans have been getting piss-drunk, no spirit has earned a worse rap than absinthe. Said to turn mild-mannered imbibers into raving maniacs, it was banned in the US and much of Europe in the early 1900s. (Remember Van Gogh's ear incident? Some scholars blame the green fairy.) The chemical culprit was thujone, a toxic compound found in the crushed flowers and leaves of absinthe's key ingredient, wormwood. Or so we thought.
Three years ago, Wired sent me to meet Ted Breaux, a chemist and microbiologist who had reverse engineered the liquor's recipe and discovered that there was barely any thujone present (November 2005). During harvest and distillation, he explained, its concentration was reduced to a minuscule five parts per million.
Breaux's research — finally published this spring in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (.pdf) — and that Wired story have helped change absinthe's image from drug to drink. The US has been slowly peeling away its ban, and in March, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the sale of absinthes that were "thujone free" (containing less than 10 parts per million).
To date, there are four brands on US shelves: Lucid (Breaux's formula), Kuebler, Green Moon, and St. George Absinthe Verte. "The US is lucky in that its first absinthes are high-quality products, distilled from whole herbs," Breaux says. "In the European market, 80 to 90 percent is industrial junk."
Under the Jade label, Breaux is making his own absinthes in France and trying to get them green-lighted for sale in the US. "Even at this point, gaining that approval seems to involve more luck than anything," he says. Luck, and a little chemistry.