Oddly Enough

European lawmakers leave "green fairy" out of absinthe

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Charles Baudelaire and Ernest Hemingway may well turn in their graves.

A glass of St. George Sprits' Absinthe Verte is shown in the tasting room at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California July 31, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Absinthe, the green-tinged alcohol that fuelled poets, writers and artists in 19th century France, does not have to contain its most important ingredient to be labeled “absinthe”, the European Parliament decided on Wednesday.

In a vote, lawmakers declared there was no need for the spirit to contain a minimum amount of thujone, the wormwood plant toxin that is believed to give it its peculiar intensity.

For devotees of the drink, often referred to as “la fee verte” (the green fairy) for its supposed psychedelic properties, the decision goes against tradition, and leaves the market open to all sorts of copycat absinthe spirits.

“We are disappointed,” said Carole Brigaudeau, a spokeswoman for Spirits Europe, a lobby group for the alcohol industry.

“We are really disappointed that the parliamentarians have not understood our arguments.”

Under existing European Union regulations, absinthe cannot contain any more than 35 milligrams of thujone per kilogram, but there is no minimum limit.

In an effort to standardize ingredients, the European Commission proposed that there should be a minimum of 5 milligrams of thujone and a maximum of 35 milligrams.

But the parliament, the EU’s only directly elected body, rejected the proposal, saying the rules should stay as they are.

“It was important to me to maintain the high level of consumer health and fair competition which are guaranteed by existing rules,” said Horst Schnellhardt, a German parliamentarian who opposed the proposal on health grounds.

Makers of traditional absinthe expressed frustration, maintaining that a drink that fuelled the fancies of romantic poets such as Baudelaire and writers Oscar Wilde and Hemingway should contain a minimum of its most beguiling ingredient.

Francoise Grossetete, a French parliamentarian who supported a new minimum in an effort to protect absinthe’s traditions, said she was disappointed. Since thujone comes from wormwood, known as Artemisia absinthium in Latin, she said the spirit without thujone is not deserving of the name “absinthe”.

“Allowing a drink to be sold under the ‘absinthe’ label without being sure that the plant of that name was used in it is blatant trickery,” she said. “Baudelaire would turn in his grave!”

At the height of its cult in the 1860s, absinthe was almost as popular as wine. It was so common in Parisian cafes and bars that 5 p.m. was dubbed “l’heure verte” (the green hour).

But the effects of all that drinking, with absinthe addicts depicted in paintings and doctors worried, led to prohibition and it was banned across much of Europe in the early 1900s.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when a British company realized Britain had never formally banned it, that it regained popularity, with imports soaring from the Czech Republic.

Today, absinthe is produced throughout Europe using a range of recipes. No longer just green, tipplers can get it in red, black, mango-flavored or laced with cannabis, with many varieties containing no thujone at all.

Reporting By Teddy Nykiel; editing by Luke Baker