Handle The Proof: Pernod Absinthe

They bill themselves as founding distillers of the infamous spirit. But Pernod should be ashamed of themselves after a performance given by their representative last Friday at Morton's.

Pernod teamed with the downtown steakhouse for an "introduction to absinthe" session, which included cocktails and samples served in the more traditional manner--dripping cold water onto a sugar cube and on into the pale green beast. During the event, Pernod's young blond rep spoke about the spirit's unique history through the usual highlights.

You know, a doctor in Switzerland concocting the stuff as a cure all, the "green hour" (the precursor to happy hour in absinthe's heyday) ritual, Van Gogh slashing off his own ear while under the green fairy's spell--that sort of thing.

In the midst of this cute little tale, she reiterated--as if they were fact--many absinthe-related myths.

As many of you know, the United States and much of Europe banned the popular spirit around the time of World War One, thanks to a rash of incidents (notably a series of bloody encounters blamed on the lifelong affinity to absinthe of Swiss laborer-turned murderer Jean Lanfray). Some people called it an aphrodisiac, capable of making women swoon after a drink or two--powers apparently not found in a few late night glasses of any other alcohol. Most often, however, people blamed the erratic behavior of absinthe aficionados on wormwood, the ingredient responsible for the drink's almost quinine-like bitterness. Or, more accurately, on thujone, a chemical found within wormwood.

Wormwood, said Pernod's presenter at Morton's, can make you crazy.

Hmm...as many who study the topic have pointed out, the most likely cause of fits, anger and other anti-social behaviors blamed on wormwood was really the quality of alcohol sold around the turn of the last century. Cut-rate producers laced their brands with chemical additives to turn clear liquor green or make colored grain vodka cloud up with mixed with water. Even worse, they often sold inferior grade hooch containing near lethal levels of methanol.

Producers now make it with the legal amount of thujone, the presenter said.

Well, once again those who study the history and science of such things have tested vintage bottles. The European Union now caps the thujone level at 10 mg per liter in absinthe (and, oddly enough, 35 mg per liter in bitter spirits, allowing the Czech to sell a tolerable Absinthe 35). Beginning in 2007, the U.S. allowed brands measuring under 10. The amount found in modern-day commercial product generally hovers around 8 to 10. A bottle of Pernod from the glory days? About 6 mg.   

Simply put, the thujone in absinthe was never a threat to human sanity, then or now. The alcohol, however--often 70 percent and, as noted, sometimes poisonous--probably caused a disfigurement or two.

It does drinkers a disservice when one of Pernod's talking heads perpetuates myths.

Then again, considering how many Americans traveling overseas in the past would ask in hushed tones where they could purchase some of the green liquor, maybe the company is just showing some marketing savvy.

But they still should be ashamed.