Friday, December 13, 2013
OAKLAND — A local company is about to become the first in the state to legally produce and then sell absinthe, a green alcoholic spirit that carries its own air of mystery and subversion.
Bruce Olson, co-owner of Tree Spirit Winery, holds a tray of absinthe in different stages of production at the Oakland company. At left is a glass of absinthe in the Louche phase, a more flavorful version that turns white after water is added. The center glass is the finished version that is more potent, with a green tint from added herbs. At right is the clear, beginning phase.
Staff photo by David Leaming
'THE ABSINTHE OGRE'
In 1861, a newspaper ran the following "health warning" under the heading "The Absinthe Ogre," according to the website of the absinthe enthusiasts who make up the Wormwood Society.
The clip, and others like it, helped fuel the mistaken notion that absinthe has hallucinogenic properties, making it more harmful than other types of alcohol:
"A correspondent of the N.Y. World, writing from Paris on the 1st of March last, says that the frightful effects of absinthe drinking are now exciting a great deal of attention among the medical classes of France. He related that in front of the cafes of the Boulevards, between 3 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon, hundreds of men may be seen sipping this villainous green liquor as an appetizer for dinner, and many of the women have also become habitual drinkers of it. It is used to an enormous extent in all the French colonies and statistics of importation show that immense quantities of it are sent to America.
"This liquor is stated to be as wonderfully seductive as it is dangerous and many ladies of distinction have fallen victim to its use. It is said to be made by soaking wormwood, flag root, aniseed, angelica root and sweet marjoram in alcohol of very high proof for about eight days, after which the mixture is distilled and half an ounce of the essential oil of anise is then added to every three gallons of the liquor. This is essentially a very stimulating poisonous liquor and Dr. Moret of Paris says that its frequent use terminates in insanity and death.
"The nervous system of a person addicted to it becomes disorganized, the knees tremble, the skin becomes the color of green coffee, the mucus membrane assumes a violet hue, the hair falls off, and the man becomes prematurely old, with a diseased brain, which nothing can cure."
Absinthe was outlawed in the United States for nearly a century, but can now be legally made and sold under regulation by the federal government. Absinthe is not a hallucinogen, despite legend that it is, according to Bruce Olson, who co-owns Tree Spirits with his partner, Waterville Mayor Karen Heck.
Olson and Heck have created their first gallon or so of absinthe using a traditional recipe from 1800s France and their own apple-based alcohol, in keeping with their trademark of using all locally grown ingredients in their products.
Before the absinthe can be sold, the alcohol and its proposed label have to be approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which holds absinthe to a higher standard than other drinks.
The alcohol itself must not to have too much of the chemical thujone, a compound derived from wormwood that has been charged with being psychoactive.
Olson said he doesn't expect problems with what he considers a rubber-stamp process to appease outdated concerns.
"Traditionally, none of these products are ever over the limit," he said. "Probably, it's never been a problem."
Another test is visual. The product label must not "project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects," according to federal guidelines.
Olson's label features a green fairy — a common symbol and nickname for absinthe — against a black background, but he would not release an image of it for publication until it has been approved by the feds. The label is more colorful than the staid labels of other absinthe competitors.
There are no separate state regulations for producing absinthe.
Olson and Heck hope to launch their product from their store after federal approval. They believe they'll get the OK any time now on thujone levels, and then they plan to immediately mail in their product label, a review that could take up to 45 days. The absinthe could start being sold in two months.
Olson, sitting recently behind the bar at Tree Spirits in Oakland, dispensed absinthe in different stages of production. He held it in glass jars of various sizes and shapes as he described how apples and herbs are transformed into what may be the world's most notorious alcohol.
A jar of raw apple spirit looks and smells like clear rubbing alcohol. But the smell changes significantly after it has been allowed to steep for 24 hours with three plants known among absinthe enthusiasts as the holy trinity — anise, fennel and the infamous wormwood, a much-maligned herb used predominately in absinthe production.
Once it has been distilled, the liquid is clear again, but the alcohol smell is significantly dampened, almost overtaken by the licorice-like aroma of the anise.
Three more herbs — a different variety of wormwood, lemon balm and hyssop, are added, steep and then filtered out. The smell, now more complex, is still reminiscent of licorice and the color is changed.
The first of two test batches came out tinted light green, while the second is darker, a so-called dead leaf green that Olson can't explain.
"It's not uncommon for absinthe to turn that color with time," he said. "I don't know why it turned that way immediately."
Olson is thinking about how to tinker with the product to mellow out the taste, which he said is harsher than grape-based absinthe.
One option that he also uses on the company's applejack is to age the spirit in an oak barrel, charred on the inside.
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