Is absinthe gluten-free?

Gluten-free diet regimens have become very popular over the past few years. As with many dieting trends, this may end up being a short-lived fad, but as the partner of someone who maintains a strict gluten-free diet by medical necessity and not by choice, I can tell you that knowing the gluten content of consumables will remain crucial for many people for the rest of their lives.

So, when it comes to our favorite aperitif, is absinthe considered to be a sweet green fairy, or a mean green scourge for folks living with Celiac disease? Simply put, is absinthe gluten-free? In a word: YES! *

That asterisk is all too familiar to baseball fans perusing player stats, and is not the definitive answer someone living with Celiac disease will be hoping to read, but the good news is that traditional absinthe made according to the authentic recipe profiles will be perfectly fine. Those absinthes consist of a distilled neutral base alcohol containing a variety of herbs and other botanicals which have been macerated in it, none of which contain gluten, so gluten-sensitive folks may indeed be given the green light to enjoy absinthe.

But let’s back up for a moment. What exactly is gluten, and why should we care? Gluten is the catch-all name for the protein complexes, specifically, prolamins and glutelins, which are found in wheat, rye, and barley (with similar complexes being found in oats as well). These protein complexes are toxic to the digestive tract of many folks; it is estimated that 5% to 10% of the population (about 3 million people in the USA) has some sensitivity to gluten, but that 97% of those folks have not been diagnosed. For some, it amounts to a sensitivity to gluten which causes some mild discomfort after consumption, but for others who have Celiac disease, it can cause damage to the small intestine which gets progressively worse (and even life-threatening) over time.

As such, it’s important for these individuals to avoid consuming anything which contains these glutens. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, this means most beers are automatically taken off their menu (after all, it wasn’t considered “liquid bread” by the ancients for nothing). However, several gluten-free beer options have become available in recent years, as brewers have experimented with using such grains as rice and sorghum to replace the traditional barley and wheat.

The subject of distilled liquor (including absinthe) is a little bit more complex. All distilled liquors are considered by the ADA and Celiac.com to be safe for those with gluten intolerances, because the distillation process removes the gluten protein complexes from the finished liquor, rendering it gluten-free. This applies even to liquor made from gluten-laden grains such as wheat and rye.

However, not everyone agrees on that being 100% true, citing their own personal experiences with grain-based distilled alcohol (see the comments section in that same link). Whether those effects are psychosomatic or possibly the result of an imperfect distillation is difficult to say, but those who are sensitive to gluten on any level should use their own judgment when it comes to grain-based alcohols. (On a personal aside, my partner and I shared several glasses of wheat whiskey over the course of a few months, and she suffered no ill effects from it.) That being said, there is no concern at all with distilled absinthe which uses a wine/brandy/grape-based neutral alcohol instead of a grain-based alcohol, so if you’re being particularly cautious, choosing one of those absinthes is the way to go.

So how is it that absinthe or any grain-based alcohol could be gluten-free via distillation, only to then become contaminated with gluten after the distillation process? For one thing, the production of absinthe doesn’t end after distillation, with the exception of blanches (white absinthe). The coloring step which gives green absinthe its distinctive color occurs after distillation, and consists of soaking a variety of herbs in the distilled liquor. As long as that combination of herbs doesn’t contain any wheat, barley, rye and/or oats, then there is little cause for concern. However, if a distillery which produces absinthe also produces its own grain-based neutral alcohol (which is rarer than you might think), then they must exercise caution and make sure that the distilled liquor from a finished batch does not come into contact with the raw grain and/or the fermented mash derived from that grain, and that any shared equipment (from paddles used to stir batches, to muslin bags used to soak botanicals in the still) is thorougly cleaned in between uses. Lastly, when absinthe is prepared at home, you may use sweeteners such as sugar, simple syrup, and agave nectar without fear of gluten-contamination, but avoid using brown rice syrup, as many of these contain barley malt enzyme.

Please note that while liquors and liqueurs are considered to be safe for those with gluten intolerance, that does not apply to all liquor-centric products nor mixed drinks. In addition to beer, wine coolers and some ciders containing gluten via barley, some pre-made drink mixes (particularly Bloody Mary mixes) also may contain barley malt and/or hydrolyzed wheat protein. You can always ask your server or bartender about potential gluten-content of these products, but remember that not everyone knows or understands which ingredients contain gluten, so consider playing it safe by not ordering certain drinks when you are enjoying a night out.

Nightshade Apothecary Absinthe by Free Spirit

Neutral no more: Switzerland goes for the green

It has been reported today that the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI labels, which include the terms “absinthe,” “Fee verte,” and “la bleue.” Given that food labels used in Switzerland are now recognized by the European Union (and vice-versa), what this means is that traditionally-distilled absinthe sold in the EU and Switzerland may only bear the actual name of “absinthe” if they were made in the Val-de-Travers region, depending on how this action progresses and is interpreted/enforced in the future. The original statement may be found here.

Of particular insult is this particular quote: “Absinthe, Fée verte and La Bleue evoke an ‘eau-de-vie’ traditionally associated with the Val-de-Travers region which has built the reputation of this product.”

No. For starters, anyone with even a passing knowledge of absinthe, the French city of Pontarlier is far and away the most famous geographical area associated with absinthe. Was it invented there? No. Was its reputation built there? Most definitely, and without question. Anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is embarrassing themselves and probably has something to sell.

The Val-de-Travers may rightly take credit for being the birthplace of absinthe. But just as almost every famous person in the world was born in one place and built their reputation somewhere else, so too with absinthe. Pontarlier was the capital city of absinthe, and French distillation and consumption of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century far outpaced that of Switzerland. In addition, the “Swiss style” of absinthe is that of the clear (blanche), and production of green (verte) absinthe was very low, so to lay claim to the colloquial term of Fée verte is reprehensible. What’s more is that it’s shocking, considering how full of national pride both Switzerland and France are known for. There is a case to be made for the Val-de-Travers to establish a PDO for “la bleue,” but the fact that they would lay claim to a term which is historically proven to have made its name in France is astonishing.

Of course, absinthe, aka the Fée verte, isn’t the only thing which is green, and it would appear that the potential revenue to be gained from a resurgence of absinthe is a factor in this pursuit of a PDO. Granted, the need to establish a formal definition of absinthe in order to protect the category from the faux-absinthe products pouring out of the Czech Republic is there, but that’s where the focus should have started and stopped. Genuine absinthe is not exclusive to a region – it’s exclusive to a list of ingredients and method of manufacture. In addition to Switzerland and France, absinthe of the 19th century was also made in countries as far away as the United States and Argentina (yes, THAT Argentina). For that matter, absinthe was made in Spain and continued to be made in Spain for over FIFTY YEARS after Switzerland made it illegal, and even then Spain didn’t ban the liquor – it simply fell out of favor for a time. If one country has to be given a Protected Designation of Origin, then let it be Spain, who actually protected real absinthe long after it’s birth-nation kicked it to the curb.

Real absinthe has since been made in the afore-mentioned countries here in modern times, and has branched out to others like Germany and Austria, the Netherlands and South Africa. It will still be real absinthe regardless of what this PDO says, but it would be much more responsible and honest for the Val-de-Travers folk to acknowledge it. Establishing and protecting the definition of absinthe here in modern times while encouraging and applauding its continued manufacture around the world would be something that the Val-de-Travers and all of Switzerland could take some real national pride in.

The only bottle of Butterfly Absinthe (distilled in Boston, MA, USA) known to survive. Circa 1907. Found on Oxygenee.com

Absinthe blending kit from Liqueurs de France

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a mad scientist if liquor libations, but are sane enough to acknowledge you lack the chemistry skills to back up those nefarious ambitions, then consider the absinthe blending kit Liquers de France brought to market this month. For a mere £75.70 plus shipping, you can equip yourself with six vials of herbs distilled in 120 proof alcohol, including the belle of the ball, artemesia absinthium, as well as her two sisters, green anise and sweet fennel. These three alone (in addition to a blended distillate of commonly used coloring herbs, which is also included in the form of an “Esprit Vert”) would be enough to concoct a pontarlier-style absinthe ala Pernod Fils, but you also receive distillates of coriander and hyssop. If you’re feeling even more ambitious, there are three other distillates available separately, included star anise (badiane), angelica, and genepi.

My mysterious lady-love S—- and I have been playing with these for the past month, and it’s been quite a face-puckering learning experience to be able to smell and taste these distillates individually (and at full strength) for the first time. For anyone who is serious about learning to differentiate between flavors and aromas while tasting and scoring absinthe, this kit is a treasure, because the organoleptic properties of herbs before distillation are oftentimes quite different than afterward. While you might be able to find a few of these herbs in an essential oils store or alternative medicine shop, to my knowledge, this is the first commercially-offered set of absinthe-specific herbs distilled in appropriately high-proof alcohol.

While the educational value of this set was the real point of interest for me, it is sold as a blending kit, which of course begs the question: Does the sum of its parts result in a good absinthe? For my first experiment to attempt to
answer that question, I decided not to pull any punches and went straight for the toughest gauntlet I could throw down, which was a taste-test comparison with two of my favorite absinthes. As it turned out, this distillate kit had exactly the herbs needed to produce a Montpelier-style absinthe (based on a 19th-century recipe documented in both the Duplais and Bedel distillation manuals), and I happened to have on hand absinthes from two different distillers which used the exact same Montpelier recipe – Pacifique, and an unnamed Montpelier-style absinthe. While the exact composition of the Esprit Vert included with the kit was a trade secret, I have it on good authority from folks involved in its production that it is a fairly traditional blend of coloring herbs used in classic absinthes, so this was a rare opportunity for a fairly accurate horizontal taste test.

First of all, I mixed up a batch of Montpelier-style absinthe using the kit distillates. [For anyone reading who may be interested in duplicating this recipe, please bear in mind that there is a typo on the absinthe recipe insert
included by Liquers de France, resulting in the amount of coriander listed being four times the actual amount! Scratch that “400” out on the sheet and replace it with a “100” before you start mixing.] After I had mixed all of the
individual herb distillates in the correct amount, I added the Esprit Vert. Given that this proprietery blend was already the peridot-green color of a good absinthe verte before being combined with anything else, I was not surprised to see that the resultant mixture was a very pale golden-green. The Pacifique was lighter in color than the unnamed absinthe, but the gap between those and the LdF blended absinthe was even wider and more noticeable. There are two primary reasons why a coloring mixture would be too light:  either there weren’t enough herbs used for the amount of alcohol they were macerate in, or the herbs were not allowed enough time to macerate in the alcohol. Given that quality herbs are very costly, herbs are very costly, which is the primary reason why a good absinthe is much more expensive than a good liquor of almost any other sort, I’m guessing that the former reason is applicable here.

However, while the color was disappointingly faint, this blended absinthe made from the LdF kit louched to a pleasant opaqueness when it came time to add water. This was surprising to me because I did not add any star anise (badiane) to the blend, which is one traditional “trick” which distillers both then and now sometimes use to boost the louche action and thickness, usually to the detriment of the taste. When I sampled the final mixture later, though, I did detect what seemed to be some star anise in the flavor, so I think it must indeed be one of the herbs in the Esprit Vert. [Update: The folks at Devoille who made these distillates came back and said that there is no star anise in the Esprit Vert. I still feel that I’m tasting star anise, but perhaps the tangy sweetness is coming from angelica instead.]

If star anise is present, restraint was shown in the amount used, and the louche was robust in the way that a Belle Epoque absinthe ought to be without skewing the flavor too much. That being said, I would prefer that star anise not be present in the Esprit Vert, since particular recipes (such as the Montpelier one) do not include it. Possibly as a result of the different coloring herbs and/or a difference of aging (for which the LdF absinthe had none), the Pacifique and the unnamed Montpelier-style absinthe had much in common, while the LdF blended Montpelier shared only a few similarities.

All in all, I’m very pleased with this kit, both in terms of the educational value, as well as the fun of being able to mix up my own absinthe with pleasant results. In the future, I’d like to see a richer version of the Esprit Vert included with the kit, and it would be excellent if they made available distillates of other herbs frequently used in absinthe, particularly lemon balm (melissa), pontica, and veronica. As it stands, this initial kit offers plenty of options to experiment with in the chemistry lab of your own kitchen, and you don’t even need to fire up a Bunsen burner. Since we all know that flame has no business being around finished absinthe anyway, that is a definite plus.

Unnamed Montpelier-style, LdF blended Montpelier-style, Pacifique

Last call for Trillium absinthe

One of the things which I admire most about the storied history of absinthe is precisely that – the story and the history. While the absinthe-fueled accounts of various playwrights, poets, murderers and thieves are intriguing, they don’t compare to living your life and making your own stories and memories. For me, absinthe has played a central role in several memorable moments, more so than any other drink. Red wine comes in a close second, but it usually plays a supporting role and I very rarely remember the specific wine for a particular occasion.

Which is why, even though it was not a surprise to me, I was saddened to hear the official word that Trillium Absinthe would no longer be produced. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say up front that Trillium is not a very good absinthe. Mind you, it isn’t bad; the distiller at least had the decency to use actual grande wormwood and to not use unnatural colors (something which, shamefully, the modern Pernod absinthe cannot say). However, the color was a bit too straw-like and pale, indicating a poorly done coloration process, and the wormwood itself did not taste like top-grade wormwood which I’ve detected in the very best brands.

Having said that, Trillium was distilled by Integrity Spirits in Portland, Oregon, as close to a hometown in my adult years as I’ll likely ever know. It’s my understanding that Trillium was actually the second American-made absinthe to be released after the lifting of the “ban” in the United States (perhaps we’ll discuss at a later date how, technically speaking, there appears to have never been an actual ban on absinthe here), the first being St. George. As it was such an early absinthe leading the charge into the 21st century, I had hoped that  Trillium would fulfill its potential and fine-tune its recipe into something very tasty indeed. As superficial as it may seem, I love the name and Trillium flower, and they had an attractive sky blue and white color scheme for the bottle. Unfortunately, it was officially announced on the Distillery Row website this week that Integrity Spirits is no more.

This was not truly a shock, as the Integrity Spirits site had gone dark months ago. In January or February, I saw smaller 375 cl bottles appear on the shelves of Portland liquor stores after the standard 750 cl bottles had disappeared, which I presumed meant they were selling off the last of their stock. Still, seeing the last nail driven into the coffin lent it a finality that was saddening. There aren’t that many absinthe distillers to begin with, and each one lost brings the drink closer to the brink of obscurity yet again.

On a more personal note, Trillium was the first (and in fact, is still the only) absinthe I ever ordered out. While I tend to drink fine liquor at home (partly to be in a more intimate environment with friends, and partly because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant markups), and especially absinthe because it’s so rare to find a bar which stocks even one decent brand, in 2010 I was tipped off to the fact that Hobnob Grille, which was a mere two blocks away from my (then) apartment on Belmont St., stocked two absinthes. Ok, in point of fact they only stocked one, since the other was Le Tourment Vert, a faux-absinthe which was mercifully booed into retirement some time ago, but I was more than ready to try the Trillium. My girlfriend and I walked in and sat down, noting the unique environment of what amounted to a sort of sports bar which nevertheless had only one television and wrap-around bar on one side of the restaurant, and a wide-open space with a few tables and a ping-pong (table tennis) table in the center.

We ordered some food (I believe some creole calimari, and definitely some french fries), and then we ordered our drinks, including the Trillium. The waiter asked me if I would like a glass of water to pour into the absinthe (a rare insight for wait staff in 2010 and maybe still today, from what I understand), and then he apologized that they didn’t have an absinthe spoon. To his amusement, I pulled my own out of my pocket. I was never in the Boy Scouts, but I had the “Be prepared” motto down cold. He brought our drinks, and I set about louching up the Trillium. I was happy, my girlfriend was happy for me, and it was a nice feeling to simply be able to enjoy a glass of absinthe at the green hour out in the wild as if it was a mundane, everyday occurrence. The waiter offered to bring us paddles and a ping-pong ball in case we wanted to have a game, but we played it cool and just soaked in the eccentric atmosphere. It was a moment. Incidentally, while local Portland favorite (and fantastic singer-songwriter regardless of geographical location) Laura Viers wasn’t playing on the sound system, her hauntingly beautiful songs were reverberating in our ears from her albums (and her in-store performance in the Apple store). If you’d like a taste of the July Flame album from 2010, I recommend “Life is Good Blues”, although “Galaxies” might be my favorite song of hers. Ah Portland, all of your quirky coolness is missed.

In addition to Trillium absinthe, Integrity Spirits also produced a few other spirits, the most notable of which may be 12 Bridges Gin. I’m not sure of what other promotional items they may have had made up for the distillery, but below you will find an extremely rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain. Mind you, I have no numerical evidence on which to base that notion, but I triple-dog dare you to try to find another one. If you do, we should share a drink.

R.I.P. Integrity Spirits.

Trillium absinthe, promo card for Laura Veirs' "July Flame" album, and a very rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain

Trillium absinthe, promo card for Laura Veirs' "July Flame" album, and a very rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain

Delaware Phoenix update – the Blues Cat is out of the bag!

The third Delaware Phoenix absinthe which last month I hinted at being in development has just had its label approved this week by the TTB. Congratulations to Cheryl Lins (the Master Distiller) and to the other three folks involved with the project. I can hardly wait to buy a bottle of this one! DP’s Walton Waters absinthe is still my favorite absinthe, with Meadow of Love not far behind, so it will be interesting to see how the new Blues Cat will rank among them. There’s no word yet about which ingredients were used in this one, but hopefully fish bones on the front label aren’t any indication!

In all seriousness though, note how DP specifies that their absinthe is “distilled with herbs and colored with herbs,” and don’t settle for anything less with your own absinthe. Unless you’re on a budget and can happen to find a good oil-mix absinthe (in which case, please let me know what it is, because boy are those difficult to find).

For more information about my thoughts on Walton Waters and Meadow of Love, please visit last month’s post here:
Spring fever is near, and the Delaware Phoenix is here

Blues Cat - front label