Science & History I – Absinthe, alcohol & old recipes

Alcohol & the fermentation, distilling & aging of alcoholic beverages is an old (OLD!!!) trade that has a lot of science and a lot of art and a mind-boggling amount of technique and lost or secret knowledge.

A friend recently sent me a link to an article in Wired magazine (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.11/absinthe_pr.html) about a microbiologist who has studied absinthe, including some old samples that date back before the 19-teens, before absinthe was outlawed & while people still knew how to make it.

I especially like this part:

“You can read a paragraph or two on how to make wine, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make Chateau Latour,” says [Ted] Breaux. “What I’ve done is, I’ve made a Chateau Latour.” In the process of proving that absinthe wasn’t insanity-inducing poison, he had cracked its code. He’d sourced the concentrations of all the herbs it contained and even traced them to their original regions of cultivation. He knew precisely which classes of wine spirits those herbs were combined with.

To summarize the rest of the story, absinthe is legal in Europe (for reasons I’ll get to in a second) and Breaux has partnered with a French distillery to make absinthe and sell it in Europe. His brand got a perfect score & gold medal at an absinthe tasting contest in Europe in 2004 (and this in spite of the fact that his brand was an almost unknown newcomer). Breaux has come to the conclusion that somewhere in the whole absinthe-making process, a lot of the thujone in the wormwood disappears and never makes it into the absinthe (and it is the thujone that gives absinthe it’s horrible taste and worse reputation – and interestingly enough, the author of the article says that Breaux’s absinthe actually tastes pretty good). Breaux said that at first he though the thujone somehow got filtered out during the distilling process, but now he thinks it probably dissipates out of the wormwood as the wormwood dries.

I (still) have no interest in trying absinthe, but the article was certainly interesting.

Interesting Note #1 – At the end of the article, it says that Breaux is next working on distilling a drink from tobacco leaves (??) which is expected to be a bit tricky as nicotine is toxic if ingested (!!!).

Interesting Note #2 – Absinthe in now legal in Europe again, NOT because of any purposeful decision on the part of lawmakers, but because European Union food regulation adopted in 1988 superseded national regulations and also neglected to mention absinthe.

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