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Absinthe and Its Silver-Tongued Marketers – Thujone’s Role in Absinthe Sales

Spirits
11.23.2010

Thujone

Definition of silver-tongued: a person who is able to clearly and effectively express themselves, or who has a clever way with words. While at once it is admission of sophistication, it is in some cases an accusation of deceptiveness.

I wanted to make sure I clearly defined that term before I moved on any further. I am referring to the latter bit of the definition.

I’m currently working on a blog article for my own blog, over at Rantings, but I thought that this little piece of the pie deserves even more attention due to its level of deceptiveness.

What I’m talking about is thujone and how some of the less scrupulous absinthe brand representatives spin the info to make it seem like it plays an important role in the consumption of absinthe.

For those of you who have not yet read my previous blog post about the authenticity of absinthe that is available in the U.S., let’s just say that thujone really plays no part at all. Reports of its significance and/or its effects are highly exaggerated, and have been proven incorrect by recent scientific studies.

Many producers who are creating some of the most highly regarded absinthes, both in Europe and in the U.S. will go out of their way to make sure the public is educated about thujone. Marteau, Jade absinthes, and Emile Pernot are just a few amongst many who work hard to dispell the myths about thujone. One producer and historian has even gone so far as to create an entire website dedicated to providing as much scientific data as possible about thujone.

But then there are others. Those who, in my opinion, feel their money is better spent on marketing misinformation, and misleading potential customers by skirting around the subject, and using clever plays on words to state correct information in a way that is still misleading. For example, I was perusing the Facebook site of a certain group of brands, and came across multiple questions regarding the thujone content of their brands. Here’s an excerpt from the page:

Question: Does this actually have thujone or wormwood in it?

Answer: Yes it does. Our products have the maximum amount (emphasis mine)… out of any Absinthes sold in the U.S. and most European countries, which is 10 parts per million of thujone.

My retort: (I’m paraphrazing because the comment was deleted shortly after I posted it) By law, absinthe in the U.S. must be thujone free, which is defined as less than 10ppm. So, by saying you have the maximum amount allowed by law, you are also saying that it contains no thujone at all.

Their response: (also paraphrazing) We prefer to answer questions directly. We simply answered the question. We stated that our brands contain the maximum amount allowed by law. These are factual statements with no other implication (again, emphasis mine).

I think you can all guess what my feelings are about their response, but what do you think? Do you believe that making the statement that the product contains the maximum amount allowed by law is implying that thujone is important? Do you think that they are trying to grab up the consumer who is viewing thujone as a potential recreational drug, and they are hesitant to dispel the myths like the other producers I linked to because they don’t want to lose that business? Is this, in your mind, dirty and misleading marketing?



Comments

  1. Tweets that mention Absinthe and Its Silver-Tongued Marketers – Thujone’s Role in Absinthe Sales | Mutineer Magazine -- Topsy.com | Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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  2. Frederic | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    It could also be the maximum amount of their wormwood distillate they can add to the mix without a problem with the law. Too much purification (through distillation or other) to remove the thujone also removes the flavor components in wormwood.

    It could also be tradition and the definition of the spirit.


  3. Brian Robinson | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Thanks for the comment, Frederic.

    The amount of thujone they have isn’t in question. Although it’s practically impossible to guarantee that it will consistently be 9-10ppm thujone from batch to batch if it is naturally produced, since levels in Wormwood vary between harvests and also vary based on processing procedure.

    What IS in question is how they convey their message of thujone content. Since all recent studies show that thujone is irrelevant to absinthe consumption, would you construe their comments as misleading, and attempting to propugate the belief that thujone is an important part of absinthe?

    It couldn’t be ‘tradition’, since thujone’s importance in absinthe didn’t really take hold until the unscrupulous marketers in the 1990s began using it as a sales tool. Thujone was never a sales tactic during the Belle Epoque.

    And regarding ‘definition’, the definition of absinthe relies on the use of the herb Wormwood (artemisia absinthium), not on the amount of thujone contained therein. But we also need to keep in mind: In order to be considered absinthe, it must contain wormwood. But not all spirits that contain wormwood are absinthe.

    Thanks again!


  4. Frederic | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Well, they did not have GS-Mass specs during the Belle Epoque so getting a reading much less an accurate one would be impossible.

    I don’t get too heavily into the absinthe lore since we’re more cocktail people and very unlikely to drink that much of it at any one sitting (save for an occasional fountain or other). And for cocktails, while we use absinthe now, there are some really good pastises out there that have just as good flavor for half (or less) the cost.


  5. Brian Robinson | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    I’m not sure what GS testing has to do with the marketing of thujone, but just to clarify, thujone wasn’t used as a marketing tactic AT ALL during the Belle Epoque. My point is that it wouldn’t be ‘tradition’ if it wasn’t being done during that time.

    If you’d like more information on the scientific studies on thujone in pre-ban absinthe, see the link in the above article.

    As for pastis, being a cocktail nerd myself, I’m sure you’ll agree that pastis has as much in common with absinthe as sambuca does. So using Pastis as a substitute for absinthe in cocktails isn’t creating the same flavor profile.

    At the same time, it’s very important that you use an absinthe that posesses a lot of the same taste qualities as pre-1930s absinthes if you’re creating classic cocktails. The brands you seem to use a lot in your blog don’t really have those qualities, so I can see where a pastis would seem like it would be comparable. Pernod and Obsello are both very anise heavy absinthes, so that might give you the impression that pastis would work the same. But for classic cocktails, you need absinthe that is a bit more wormwood forward, such as Leopold, Mystique, Pacifique, Marteau, Delaware Phoenix, etc etc. If you use something like that, the end product would not only taste very different than if you use Pernod, but it would be closer to the original.

    When it comes to the cost of pastis vs. absinthe, frankly, you get what you pay for. :)


  6. Brian Robinson | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Although, with that said, not all absinthe is created equal. There are quite a few pricey brands that just plain suck. ;)


  7. Frederic | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    I disagree that there are major flavor differences between pastis and absinthe. Especially considering how many styles of absinthe there are. By your comment, there is a truth to one absinthe has as much to do with another absinthe as one absinthe has to do with a pastis.

    There are 3 major differences. Pastis is generally capped at 80 proof instead of the general 110-130 range of absinthe. Pastis lacks wormwood. And many, but not all, pastises contain sweetener. Other than that, there’s no difference, and in many cases, a company’s pastis was based on their old absinthe recipe.

    Henri Bardouin pastis is an excellent one but slightly sweetened. And Pastis d’Autrefois is rather good and just as dry as any absinthe on the market. Herbsaint Legendre is another fine example (originally marketed as an absinthe but lacked any wormwood).


  8. Frederic | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Also, for most cocktails, it’s the anise/licorice/fennel component that rings out the strongest for many people. For example, 6 drops of absinthe in a Zombie is detectable for that component and not the wormwood. Although I will concede that your palate could be much more honed into that latter flavor.


  9. Brian Robinson | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    “I disagree that there are major flavor differences between pastis and absinthe.” – Then you haven’t done much comparing between the two, and you probably haven’t tried many well crafted absinthes. No offense intended.

    As for the three differences:

    Capped at 80 proof: As a mixologist, I’m sure you’re aware that using overproof spirits in cocktails works to enhance the flavors of the other ingredients.

    Lacks wormwood: Since wormwood has a very distinct flavor, not having it makes it a very different ingredient in cocktails.

    Sweetened: Added sugar can also affect the flavor of the cocktail.

    So, saying that they have those three differences pretty much proves my point that they are completely different animals.

    I have over a dozen different Pastis brands in my bar. None of them are direct replacements for absinthe in cocktails.

    While it’s true that the anise profile is what rings out strongest for most people, the depth of flavor that the wormwood brings to a cocktail is just as important. It’s the same philosophy as why you would use bitters. You don’t use a dash of bitters to make the drink bitter. You use them to add depth and complexity. Take that component out of the cocktail, and the end product simply isn’t the same. There’s no way you can argue differently if you do the comparison. Even d’Autrefois can’t bring the same flavor.

    It’s the same thing as if you were to make a Gin Rickey with soda water and persian limes, then again with Apollinaris and Key Limes. It’s a completely different cocktail if you use the ingredients that were originally used.

    Do me a favor. Grab a bottle of Bardouin and a bottle of one of the absinthes I mentioned above (don’t use Pernod, as it’s not a good approximation of absinthe). Now make two versions of each of the following cocktails with one of each, with everything else being equal: Sazerac, Monkey Gland, Crysanthemum, Atty, Blackthorne, Cocktail à la Louisiane, Corpse Reviver (No. 2), and Lawhill.

    I challenge you to tell me that they end up tasting the same.


  10. Frederic | Thursday, November 25, 2010

    If I grabbed 2 bottles of absinthe, the cocktails would taste differently too.

    St. George, Versinthe la Blanche, Obsello, or the Scope mouthwash-like Le Tourment Vert all modulate a drink differently. Unless you can provide me a spirit with and without the single botanical, this experiment is moot.

    After talking to a few bartenders and one bitters maker last night at an event about the role of absinthe in cocktails (since we are talking cocktails at this point), a few salient points were brought up using the Sazerac as an example.

    • Proof doesn’t mean much in a rinse that amounts to less than half a barspoon. If you mean diluting a spirit versus the original cask strength, that is a different matter. Against 2 oz of rye and a few dashes of Peychaud’s, you would need a lot of decimal places to see a difference.
    • Sugar doesn’t mean much. A standard Sazerac recipe calls for a sugar cube and I’ve been served them both here and in New Orleans with as much as an ounce of simple syrup.
    • As for lacking wormwood, no one of the people in the group thought they could detect the wormwood in the cocktail. One even mentioned that the other flavors in absinthe were built up to mask the medicine (the wormwood), although they did concede that in absinthe heavy drinks, this does matter.
    • Fetishism over the proper ingredient in Sazeracs from whether the twist is dropped in or thrown out, whether simple syrup is acceptable, or the identity of the anise-delivery system is rather high with some individuals.

    As for the comment about not tasting many fine absinthes, I’ve tasted a good number around town and at one of your events (Absinthe Soirée at Tales 2009) besides the ones in my collection. I won’t comment at your rudeness (no offense intended).


  11. Brian Robinson | Thursday, November 25, 2010

    Let me first say that my intent wasn’t to be rude, hence the disclaimer. But my point stands that, someone who is tasting an authentic absinthe, and comparing it to a pastis cannot truthfully say that there isn’t a marked difference in the product.

    Your point about grabbing two absinthes is definitely true. Not all absinthes taste the same. But all authentic absinthes share the same properties, i.e. predominant flavor of anise and wormwood. Part of the problem seems to be that a good amount of the public still doesn’t have enough education about absinthe to realize that much of what is on the market right now is not absinthe in the traditional sense.

    St. George doesn’t use traditional ingredients, so it is certainly a modern absinthe. But it isn’t one that you would use if you’re trying to recreate a cocktail as it was served in the 1930s.

    Versinthe contains sugar, hence it doesn’t meet the traditional qualifications for absinthe, which is a dry spirit with sugar added only at the discretion of the drinker.

    LTV shares nothing in common with traditional absinthe. It was a product modeled after knock-off products created in the 1990s.

    Those wouldn’t be the types of brands that were being used to make the original classic cocktails when they were first invented.

    Regarding the points made by the bartenders:

    – Proof of course doesn’t play a role if you’re using it solely as a rinse. But several of the cockails I suggested for you don’t use it as a rinse. The points I made were all factors as to why absinthe and pastis can’t be interchangeable. They don’t all apply to every classic cocktail. For example, regarding the Sazerac, proof wouldn’t play a role, but the other points would still be valid.

    – Sugar most certainly means something. If you’re using the regular amount of sugar required in the recipe, then on top of that, using a product that contains extra sugar, then your drink will be sweeter than it was originally intended. It won’t be properly balanced. Just like the Sazerac served to you with an ounce of simple syrup.

    – Regarding lack of wormwood, it again depends on the type of absinthe used. If you were using an absinthe with only a faint wormwood character, then of course you wouldn’t be able to taste it. But that goes back to my point that, if you’re trying to recreate the drink as it was originally intended (think back to my point about the Gimlet), then you should be using an authentic absinthe with a stronger wormwood profile.

    – Of course people are allowed to use whatever ingredients they like. They can make twists on classics, update classics, or make completely new, modern cocktails. People are free to do as they choose. But that wasn’t my point.

    My point has always been that, if the intention is to recreate the classic drink, using the classic recipe, then you need to be mindful of the correct ingredients and how their flavors will play together.

    Many bartenders, even many of the best ones, are still rather new to absinthe. Many aren’t even familiar enough with it to differenciate between brands that would be considered a traditional absinthe profile from those that wouldn’t be. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been asked to do absinthe presentations throughout the country. I’ve been asked to do presentations for both the Philadelphia and DC bartender’s guilds soon for the same reason. There’s just so much to know, and the lack of regulation in the absinthe industry doesn’t do much to help the consumer make the distinctions.

    If your intention in using pastis is solely to get an ‘approximation’ of the original cocktail, then so be it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you’re trying to convince yourself that there’s no difference, and that what you’re making now with pastis is how it originally tasted, then you’re doing the drink a disservice.

    I’m glad that you’ve tried quite a few different absinthes. I was solely using your blog as my research. Every recipe I saw seemed to use either Kubler or Pernod, with just a couple using Obsello, PF 1901 (a fantastic absinthe by the way) or St. George. All of them (except for the 1901) are very anise heavy, which could lead someone to believe that the only characteristic that absinthe should give to a cocktail is the flavor of anise. But I can tell you that none of the brands featured at any of our Absinthe Soirees at Tales taste like Pastis. : )

    Again, sorry for coming across as rude. That was never my intention. If you’d like to learn some more about absinthe in cocktails, or the differences between traditional/modern/fake absinthes, or between absinthe and pastis, feel free to stop into the Wormwood Society’s forum area.

    And if you’re ever in DC, I’d be happy to meet up and do a little comparison with you.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Now back to cooking!


  12. Brian Robinson | Thursday, November 25, 2010

    With all of that said, why don’t we try to get back on topic? What do you all think about the example of thujone marketing I mentioned in the article?

    I think I’ll do a follow up blog post about absinthe in cocktails. This conversation in the comments section has hit on some great points that should be shared with a wider audience.


  13. Alan | Friday, November 26, 2010

    Interesting discussion but now “back on topic.”

    Writing this from Prague where thujone has always been a big factor in absinthe “marketing.” I don’t comment on the brand(s) being discussed in the article, but it’s clear to me that in Prague, marketing people who hype thujone do so because their brands have no other redeeming feature. So I tend to see brands that hype thujone as brands that probably don’t taste too good.

    To go to the specific questions asked at the end of the article and to answer them generally, rather than about this specific example (so amending your questions a little):

    Do I believe that making statements about maximum thujone amount implies that thujone is important? YES.

    Do I think that this type of language is aimed at the consumer who views thujone as a potential recreational drug? POSSIBLY.

    Is this type of language dirty and misleading marketing? It’s certainly surprising marketing, especially noting brands that have made similar claims in the past and that have now decided not to use the “maximum thujone” claim any more. The original Doubs used the same words in the past, as did Le Tourment Vert. They don’t know (as far as I know) That suggests to me that they recognised the claim ultimately had no marketing value, and could even be counter-productive.


  14. Alan | Friday, November 26, 2010

    In the last paragraph “They don’t know (as far as I know)” should read:

    “They don’t now (as far as I know).”



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