BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It’s the green-hued fuel that has fired flights of poetic fancy since the 1800s, but now the European Union is examining whether to change how absinthe is defined.
The intensely alcoholic spirit, dubbed “la fee verte” (the green fairy) by Parisian writers in reference to its reputed psychoactive properties, has been a fixture amongst artists and Europe’s bohemians since the 1850s, with Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire among the famous devotees.
Efforts to regulate the concoction, blamed for causing intense drunkenness and visions, have come and gone over the decades and vary widely. Now the European Parliament is to debate a new, common definition of what constitutes it.
The discussion, which will come to a head at a meeting of the parliament in the French city of Strasbourg next week, focuses on the amount of the naturally occurring chemical thujone that must be present in the drink, if at all.
Thujone, whose latin name is Artemisia absinthium, is a toxin extracted from wormwood plants that some EU lawmakers worry is too harmful, especially in higher concentrations.
Under current EU regulations, absinthe does not have to contain any thujone to justify the name, but also must not exceed a maximum of 35 milligrams of thujone per kilogram.
In order to standardise the content, the European Commission has proposed that anything labelled “absinthe” must have at least 5 and maximum of 35 milligrams of thujone per kilogram.
As is often the case in the European Union, the Germans and the French are on opposite sides of the debate.
Francoise Grossetete, a centre-right French parliamentarian, wants to protect the traditional essence of the spirit and is advocating that the new minimum be introduced.
German lawmaker Horst Schnellhardt, concerned about the health risks, prefers a definition that would allow something to be called “absinthe” even if it contains no thujone at all.
To Grossetete, that ignores the essence of the spirit.
“Accepting the sale of a drink under the ‘absinthe’ label without the guarantee that the plant of that name was used to make it amounts to cheating,” she said. “Baudelaire would turn in his grave!”
Complicating the debate is the fact that producers in Switzerland, credited as the birthplace of absinthe in the late 1700s, are hoping to protect it as a regional speciality, which could prevent producers elsewhere using the “absinthe” label.
While the Swiss may have given rise to modern absinthe, the ancient Greeks were known to flavour their wine with wormwood and it was the French in the mid-1800s who turned the light-green distillation into a cult affair.
Paris-based artists, poets and writers, from Vincent Van Gogh to Arthur Rimbaud and Ernest Hemingway were all regular drinkers, giving the spirit a bohemian edginess that wider society longed to share.
By the 1860s, absinthe was so popular in French cafes and bars that 5 p.m. was dubbed “l‘heure verte” (the green hour), according to the Virtual Absinthe Museum.
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 realised Britain had never formally banned it and began importing it from the Czech Republic, that it regained popularity.
Today, absinthe is produced everywhere from Spain to Italy and the Czech Republic using a range of recipes. No longer just green, tipplers can get it in red, black, mango-flavoured or laced with cannabis. Many varieties contain no thujone at all.
Some absinthe sellers are adamant about sticking to the drink’s long-standing recipe, and insist that natural ingredients with no artificial flavourings be used.
When it comes to the debate before the European Parliament, they are concerned that allowing something to be labelled “absinthe” even if it contains no thujone will ruin the market.
“The current EU regulation is a slap in my face,” said Markus Lion, owner of German drinks company Lion Spirits, lamenting the lack of a minimum thujone content.
“They basically allow what I think should not be on the market. It’s not worth the name ‘absinthe’.”
Next week, the European Parliament will decide whether a new minimum is necessary to protect the green fairy’s heritage, or whether the existing rules are good enough. And then all there is to worry about is the Swiss initiative to claim “absinthe” for themselves.
Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by Luke Baker