Ethanol, not thujone, makes you crazy

We’ve got our problems with too much ethanol, and so did nineteenth century cafe goers. But while our excess ethanol wastes money and starves the poor, theirs just made absinthe drinkers a little too drunk:

An analysis of century-old bottles of absinthe – the kind once quaffed by the likes of van Gogh and Picasso to enhance their creativity – may end the controversy over what ingredient caused the green liqueur’s supposed mind-altering effects.

The culprit seems plain and simple: The century-old absinthe contained about 70 percent alcohol, giving it a 140-proof kick…

The modern scientific consensus is that absinthe’s reputation could simply be traced back to alcoholism, or perhaps toxic compounds that leaked in during faulty distillation. Still, others have pointed at a chemical named thujone in wormwood, one of the herbs used to prepare absinthe and the one that gives the drink its green color. Thujone was blamed for “absinthe madness” and “absinthism,” a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial tics, numbness and dementia.

Prior studies suggested that absinthe had only trace levels of thujone. But critics claimed that absinthe made before it got banned in France in 1915 had much higher levels of thujone than modern absinthe produced since 1988, when the European Union lifted the ban on making absinthe.

“Today it seems a substantial minority of consumers want these myths to be true, even if there is no empirical evidence that they are,” said researcher Dirk Lachenmeier, a chemist with the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany.

Lachenmeier and his colleagues analyzed 13 samples of absinthe from old, sealed bottles in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States dated back to the early 1900s before the ban. After uncorking the bottles, they found relatively small concentrations of thujone in that absinthe, about the same as those in modern varieties.

Perhaps this will put to rest the debate about the authenticity of the new wave of absinthes, and if we’re really lucky persuade the US government to become less uptight about approving them.

Night with the Green Fairy
Sazerac variations


Surprise! Poor people like drinking too

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports on how Washington state officials are frustrated by the fact that, despite efforts to ban the beverages favored by the brown bag and park bench set, poor people still find ways to knock a few back:

In late 2006, the state prohibited grocery and convenience stores from selling certain alcoholic beverages in most of central Seattle and the University District, including all or portions of downtown, Belltown, lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, the Central Area, the International District and Sodo. The city had requested the move, an expansion of an “alcohol impact area” ban that had previously only applied to Pioneer Square.

The restricted booze is mostly relatively low-cost, highly fortified beer and wine that officials think is favored by the people who are chronically drunk on city streets and sidewalks.

These days, though, alcohol distributors are skirting the ban by selling the same products under different labels, Scales said. For now, the state Liquor Control Board should add additional products to the prohibition, he said. The long-term solution requires the ban be driven by a formula based on alcohol content, not brand names, some city officials say…

“There are thousands and thousands of beer and wine products out there, and to use a formula base, that’s a very broad brush that could impact thousands of products,” [Liquor Board chairwoman Lorraine] Lee said. “There’s no one formula that’s going to capture exactly what the (chronic public inebriates) are drinking.”

This isn’t the first time that Seattle has lamented that drinkers find substitutes when access to their first options is restricted. And as Radley Balko has noted, there’s an undeniable tinge of classism to this kind of legislation.


Miracle fruit on the BBC

This blog’s favorite fruit is once again in the news. Back in September, the BBC’s Tom Mangold and Adam Fowler stopped by my apartment to record a miracle berry tasting party for a documentary on the fruit’s history. They’ve done a lot of digging into how the FDA shut down miraculin products just when they were about to hit the market, denying diabetics and dieters a natural sugar alternative and relegating miracle fruit to tropical obscurity. Adam has an article up on the BBC website now, and the full documentary, including clips from our tasting party, will air on BBC4 radio tonight at 9 pm London time (4 pm EST). You can listen live here, or archived under “m” for miracle fruit for seven days here.

My friend David Barzelay introduced me to the fruit and hosted the first tasting party, which we covered here and here, lighting up lots of blog coverage and eventually leading to a front page story in The Wall Street Journal. I can only hope that someday I will accomplish something that brings me a fraction of the publicity this curious little berry has. To order some online, visit Curt Mozie, a.k.a. the Miracle Fruit Man, and good luck getting some before his current crop runs out.

[Update: “Anyone want a margarita?” It’s better than “make sure it coats your tongue,” but I am not producing winning quotes on these miracle fruit stories! Nevermind, I missed the opening on the live broadcast. I’m on there a bit more in the beginning to introduce the tasting.]

September’s party was a lot of fun for all involved. Photos below the break…
Continue reading “Miracle fruit on the BBC”


Why my gin budget is through the roof

Aviation cocktail with creme de violette

A quick rave for Central Liquors: Located at 917 F. St NW, Central Liquors has become my go-to spot for hard to find bottles. The store has limited shelf space, but uses it well to stock a selection of high quality, esoteric items you won’t easily find elsewhere in Washington, DC, and definitely not in the state run liquor stores I’m stuck with in Virginia. I went in a few weeks ago and asked the clerk if they ever carry creme de violette, an obscure liqueur flavored with violet flowers that hasn’t been widely available in the U.S. for decades. “We used to,” he said. “But nobody ever buys it.”

“Will you carry it again?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so.” And that, I thought, was the end of that. I already had one bottle at home that I’d ordered from England and figured I’d have to carefully ration it until I get my hands on more.

I dropped in again recently to pick up something else. As I was checking out, the guy at the counter asked me if I’d called in a special order, nodding his head toward a lone bottle sitting on a shelf behind the counter. And there it was, creme de violette! He wasn’t the person I’d spoken with before, but apparently I’d bought enough strange bottles there to be recognizable. After making sure it really was mine and not someone else’s special order, I was on my way with a bonus acquisition.

There are some subtle differences between the two creme de violettes. The one I had imported, from Deniset Klainguer, is all sweetness and flower petals. The one I bought in DC, Rothman and Winter, has a little must in the aroma and lower proof. Overall, I like the DK a little better, but they’re both excellent in a mixed drink.

Why does this matter? Because creme de violette is an essential ingredient in one of the greatest cocktails ever made. Walk into any bar in America and ask for an Aviation and you’ll probably get a blank stare from the bartender. Walk into a really good bar and you’ll get one of these:

1.5 oz gin
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz maraschino liqueur

That’s a perfectly good cocktail. Anything that starts with gin is on the right track, the lemon is a nice counterpoint, and the unique flavor or maraschino takes this a step above the average drink. (Maraschino deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say that what passes for maraschino cherries in bars today is a pox upon mixology. Good maraschino liqueur tastes a bit of cherries, but really expresses the nuttiness that comes from the pits. It doesn’t have anything to do with the red-dyed, corn syrup-infused travesties of a cherry you find at the grocery store. Luxardo is considered the best brand. You can get it at Central Liquor too.)

But walk into a great bar and you’ll get something like this:

2 oz gin
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz maraschino
.5 oz creme de violette

Now, my friends, you’ve got yourself a drink. It’s got amazing complexity: the botanicals of gin, the tartness of citrus, the nuttiness of maraschino, the floral notes of violet flowers. And the color! It’s a vibrant purple with a hint of gray. The kind of purple cocktail a man would drink. Elegant. Beautiful. Just the way it was made before Prohibition.

If I had to choose one cocktail to drink for the rest of my life, this might be it. And now that I can get a steady supply of this liqueur, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this month.


Anti-smoking legislation I can support

California is considering a new law that protects the right of apartment owners to restrict smoking in rental units:

Sen. Alex Padilla says his bill would ensure that owners of rental housing have the option to ban smoking.

“The way the law is (currently) written…, it’s not explicit for landlords to declare smoke-free housing units without being sued,” he said. “We’re trying to make the law a little more clear, a little more explicit.”

The bill, scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would allow landlords to ban smoking on all or a portion of their property, including in any building on the site.

Tenants could continue to smoke inside their homes until their pre-smoking ban rental agreements expired. A violation would be considered a breach of the agreement and could lead to eviction.

I suspect that, given inflated fears over secondhand smoke and the contemporary anti-tobacco mindset, there is a good chance that an excessive number of apartment buildings will go smokefree and have a hard time reversing their decision when the current hysteria is over. However, I support the right of people to form smokefree communities, and of landlords to provide spaces for them. Allowing smoking is not very different from allowing dogs or cats. If existing law is unclear on this point, the proposed change sounds like a useful clarification.


No such thing as legal weed

Our government, unfortunately, has decided that paying humorless drones to evaluate alcohol labels is a worthwhile use of taxpayer money. They’re the reason why Lagunitas’ “Chronic” ale now bears a big “Censored” label and why St. George Absinthe Verte features a contemplative monkey rather than a monkey playing drums. The regulators have struck again:

Vaune Dillmann thought the wording on his bottle caps was just a clever play on the name of the Northern California town where he brews his beer — Weed.

Federal alcohol regulators thought differently. They have ordered Dillmann to stop selling beer bottles with caps that read “Try Legal Weed.” …

But illegal drugs are no joke to the federal agency, which maintains meticulous rules about labeling. Drug references on alcoholic beverages were banned in 1994, agency spokesman Art Resnick said.

“We protect consumers of alcohol beverages against misleading advertising and labeling. That’s one of our primary functions. That’s what we do, as well as collect taxes,” he said.

The ruling is not so amusing to Dillman, who just dropped $10,000 on 400,000 bottle caps he can no longer use. And the man’s got a good point:

[The] native of Milwaukee said he wonders how some other brewers have gotten away with the names for their products, such as Hemp Ale or Dead Guy Ale. And he can’t understand how his label has run afoul of federal alcohol regulators who must surely be aware of one of the most famous advertising slogans in American marketing: “This Bud’s for you.”

[Via Slashfood.]


Smoking bans snuff out charity

When even The New York Times concedes it, it must be true:

In Minnesota, which adopted a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces in October, revenue from all charity gambling dropped nearly 13 percent in the last quarter of 2007, compared to the same quarter the year before, according to state officials. More than half of the drop — the equivalent of about $100 million annually — was attributed to the new law, they said.

Charlie Lindstrom, who runs the bingo nights at an American Legion post in Fergus Falls, Minn., said some of his former customers now drove to casinos on Indian reservations, where they can puff away, or across the border to Fargo, N.D., where veterans’ organizations are exempt from that state’s smoking ban.

On a good night, Mr. Lindstrom said, bingo at the post used to attract 50 to 75 players. Nowadays it is more like 30 or 40.


No shacks for smokers

Legislators in MN are considering a new provision that would allow bars to build separate “smoke shacks” where smokers can congregate. Employees wouldn’t be allowed to serve drinks in the shacks. Non-smoking customers wouldn’t have to go into them. And given the expense of building a separate structure, its doubtful that all that many bars would choose to build them. Yet even this is not enough to satisfy ban proponents:

Those who opposed a statewide smoking ban can’t seem to take no for an answer when it comes to weakening the ban.

This year, they’re trying again. They want to allow bar owners to build so-called “smoke shacks” outside of bars and restaurants that would allow smokers to presumably stay warm while they light up. Several Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, presented the smoking shack amendment for amending onto a budget balancing bill shortly before midnight on April 3…

Proponents of the amendment say they want to provide relief to bar owners who’ve been hurt by the smoking ban. But many of those owners already have created patios and other smoking-permitted places for their businesses. Those proponents also should consider the fiscal implications of this exception to the smoking ban. Do the profits of some bar owners outweigh the savings in smoking-related health-care costs to taxpayers?

Somehow I don’t see outdoor patios as terribly appealing places to smoke in the Minnesota winter. The opposition to this extremely reasonable bill nicely illustrates just how much the anti-smoking movement is motivated by the paternalist desire to control others rather than by actual concern for the health of service workers and customers.


Those kids and their barley wines

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen an underage kid enjoying a rich, malty barley wine ale. No one? Didn’t think so. But a bill in Vermont that would raise the alcohol limit on beers sold in grocery stores is being held up by legislators who think that teens aiming to get drunk would choose expensive craft brews over the usual cheap beer and mass market wine:

State officials, however, are actively fighting passage of H.94 because they worry that consumers, particularly underage drinkers, will imbibe the more potent craft brews as they would mass-produced, low-alcohol content beers. This potentiality, they say, poses a threat to public health and safety…

Michael Hogan, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, opposes the bill. He is concerned that most people, particularly teenagers, are unaware of “the potency of these products,” which he says would be increasing from a low of 5 percent to as high as 16 percent.

Is Hogan so insanely devoted to his mission that he actually believes this, or is this just a convenient excuse for maintaining the state liquor stores’ current monopoly on high-alcohol beers? Regardless, these brews are an acquired taste, especially for a neophyte beer drinker on a teenager’s budget. Allowing their sale in grocery stores is unlikely to have much of an impact on teenage drinking, but it would make things a lot easier for the adults who want to buy them and the many Vermont breweries who’d like to make them.

(That said, if we actually could get high schoolers hooked on Belgian-style trippels instead of Bud and Miller, the world would become a much better place for beer lovers.)


Another problem with calorie counts

The previous post about New York’s calorie posting rule has kicked off a surprisingly long discussion. Here’s a point we haven’t addressed: Are the counts at all reliable? The blog Midtown Lunch examines Chipotle’s posted calorie info and finds two problems. One is that, with highly customizable items like burritos, the restaurant can provide, at best, a wide range of hypothetical nutritional information. According to the Chipotle sign a burrito carries anywhere from 420-918 calories. How useful is that information? And what’s next, requiring the restaurant to post the calories involved in each specific ingredient?

The second problem is reliability. Doing some math, Midtown claims that the ranges posted in the restaurant and the information on Chipotle’s website are not comparable.

If Chipotle’s case is at all similar to what we’ll see from other restaurants, New York’s much-touted regulation won’t accomplish much. Is anyone helped by seeing that their lunch will vary within a 500 calorie range?

Update: Hell, if we’re talking about burritos, the nanny state, and discovering people’s true preferences, I have no excuse for not linking to my old Magic of Politics post.

[Via Slashfood.]