A brief history and overview of the brands that brought Absinthe back to the U.S.
In the beginning
Some will say that Absinthe made a comeback to the U.S. market only recently, when the TTB (Alcohol Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau) lifted the ban on Wormwood and allowed products to be sold as Absinthe for the first time in over a century (though Absinthe is still not technically a stand-alone category within distilled spirits classifications). As with most stories, this is not really the case. . Absinthe in the U.S. market had a much longer journey. You have to go back to a small conference room in New Jersey in 1999, where Crillon Importers Chairman and CEO Michel Roux proudly proclaimed that we were going to bring the notorious and legendary liquor, Absinthe, back to the U.S. market. It was the recipe that graced the lips of bohemian artists from the Belle Époque era and ingrained itself in Parisian culture. Absinthe was the trademark drink of artists like Degas, Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Many of the most celebrated painters devoted pieces to Absinthe such as Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker and Degas’ L’Absinthe. To this day, absinthe continues to inspire creativity of the art community and legendary artists
Absinthe in the US Becomes a Reality
The “Holy Trinity” of the absinthe formulation is anise, fennel and wormwood also known as artemisia absinthium. In addition to those three standard ingredients, there are found a great many proprietary variations in botanicals and spice content. Government bans of absinthe in the U.S. and other countries were due to the presence of wormwood (artemisia absinthium). Wormwood contains a substance known as thujone which is classified as a neurotoxin and was rumored to cause massive hallucinations during the belle époque period (and beyond). Hallucinations were largely a myth, simply tracing to overindulgence in a 130-150 proof liqueur.
Nevertheless thujone, and therefore wormwood, and therefore absinthe, was forbidden for sale to U.S. consumers. Specifically, ANY product containing as little as ten-parts-per-million thujone was illegal. Clearly our dilemma could only be solved by an absinthe without wormwood, or a wormwood without thujone. Yet without wormwood we could not produce a historically genuine absinthe. Mr. Roux found a lovely distiller in Forcalquier in the south of France called Distilleries et Domaines. Together, we were able to discover a sister botanical called Southern Wormwood (artemisia abrotanum), or as the residents of the region called it “Petite Absinthe”. This was perfect in two ways. First, Southern Wormwood was only a small degree away from wormwood, so we felt we were doing the best we could at that time to maintain the integrity of our absinthe product. Second, the TTB had established that any product with less than ten-parts-per-million thujone content can be considered thujone free, therefore legal. The thujone content in Southern Wormwood allowed us to remain inside of the guidelines, so we approached the TTB with an Absinthe formula containing Southern Wormwood (artemisia abrotanum).
On April 5, 2001 Crillon Importers gained government approval to market the first absinthe products in the United States since 1912. We called the brand Absente™, Absinthe Refined™ and at 110 proof it was this formula approval that would later set the precedent for other U.S. Absinthes to come.
The Story Blurs
Through the lens of hindsight, we now view 2006 as the year Absente came of age – meaning the year our competitors throughout the spirits industry began vigorously seeking ways to capitalize on the interest Absente had aroused. The U.S. government, of course, had been paying close attention to America’s acceptance of Absente over those years following its introduction. So after several marketers sought approval for an absinthe made with traditional wormwood, yet still remaining below the ten-parts-per-million thujone limit that had been pioneered by Absente, the government gave the go-ahead.
And as the engineers of absinthe’s return, Crillon Importers was ideally positioned to fulfill that expanded demand. Following the government’s lifting of the ban on wormwood, in February 2008 we offered another exciting Absinthe brand, Grande Absente™, Absinthe Originale™ at 138 proof. After reviewing more than 200 recipes in partnership with our distillery, we selected a recipe we discovered from an old manuscript that would become Grande Absente. This recipe offered an authentic and original Verte absinthe recipe (Verte is green in French), but also resulted in a great taste. Grande Absente as well as all of our other absinthes, initially gain their color from the chlorophyll of herbs during the distillation process. It is only after distillation is complete that we add a small amount of additional color to stabilize the shelf life of our products. Our Grande Absente is painstakingly handcrafted using the perfect blend of the finest botanicals, exotic spices and distilled with classic artisanal methods.
As we continued to see success in U.S. Absinthes we felt that is was important to continue to expand our Absinthe repertoire. First things first, in 2009 Crillon decided to add the legendary botanical wormwood to Absente, Absinthe Refined which changed the recipe only ever so slightly. We were busy in 2009 as this is when we launched yet another absinthe product, Absinthe Ordinaire™ at 92 proof. The world of absinthe is one of legends and mystery; it has been told that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1792 created the first true Absinthe recipe in rural France. Shortly after the French Revolution, Dr. Ordinaire traveled around the Val de Travers on his faithful horse, Rocket, and sold his absinthe initially as an all-purpose cure-all. Although his intention was medicinal, absinthe rapidly became the recreational drink of choice. This brings us to today’s era, where Absinthe Ordinaire recalls one of the original and most commercially successful absinthe recipes during the glittering era of La Belle Époque Paris. We felt it was necessary to create an absinthe that boasted superior authenticity at an affordable price. Finally we arrive at our latest product. In September 2010, we proudly introduced Michel P. Roux, Supreme Absinthe™, a new and exciting small batch absinthe produced in limited quantities. At 151 proof Supreme Absinthe is exclusively produced in small batches annually and each bottle is individually numbered.
Credit to Crillon
Nearly 100 years after its ban, Americans can now enjoy one of history’s most notorious liquors in all its 19th century glory. Not since the early 1900s have Americans been able to experience the caliber of absinthe that Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed during their time.
While the lines fray and the story blurs as time passes, let’s be crystal clear. U.S. Absinthe may not even exist today without the focus and persistence Crillon Importers and M.P. Roux. The door was certainly opened with Absente, Absinthe Refined and has continued to grow with Grande Absente, Absinthe Ordinaire and Supreme Absinthe.
Please visit the links below for Trademark and TTB Documentation.