Absinthe has suffered as much as any category from attempts to define it

Absinthe has suffered as much as any category from attempts to define it

Category definitions are an on-going minefield in parts of the spirits industry. Gin, rum and Tequila have all suffered from muddled thinking. But none compare to what absinthe has experienced. Here, Richard Woodard wages war on the red tape wretchedness that surrounds the category 

The global spirits industry is very good at a large number of things – brand-building, marketing, even NPD on a good day. But, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of category definition, its record is as patchy as a bad spray tan.

I’ve waffled on at length in the past about the frankly pathetic attempt at defining gin in the EU. Roughly paraphrasing: if you think you can taste juniper, it’s ok - which has led to all manner of liberty-taking with flavoured vodkas-by-another-name attempting to ride the perceived gin popularity wave.

London Gin? Probably never seen the inside of the M25. Think of it as being a bit like Cheddar cheese, a name with far more style than geographical substance. The brand calling itself The London Gin even had to change its name, despite being distilled in the capital, because it’s pale blue. Really.

Tequila’s a bit rubbish as well. Always assuming that your average punter has heard of agave in the first place, how many will realise that most of the mass-market mixto stuff is nearly half neutral grain spirit?

And now we come to absinthe.

Prohibited until the past few years in Switzerland, the US and France, the Green Fairy has got itself into such a muddle of an identity crisis that, at this rate, it might as well have stayed banned.

It’s a complicated tale, but let’s begin with the latest development. At the end of September, Switzerland and Jamaica signed a bilateral agreement on the mutual protection of the respective countries’ geographical indications (GIs).

This is common practice, similar to the recent deal done between Brazil and the US which recognised cachaça’s identity (as distinct from “Brazilian rum”) in return for similar protection in Brazil for Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

But, as trade association Spirits Europe notes, there’s some devil at work in the detail of the Swiss/Jamaican hook-up. The agreement’s annex namechecks lots of Swiss GI products – chocolate, watches, cheese, probably even cuckoo clocks for all I know – and absinthe. Not Absinthe du Val de Travers (the cradle of the drink and the GI specifically used in a previous deal with Russia), but absinthe. Full stop.

Put aside for a moment – hard as it may be – the somewhat unlikely prospect of absinthe bars springing up all over Kingston and Montego Bay. Yes, we all know that Jamaica isn’t quite Target Market Number One for absinthe brand owners. But the point is that, unless they’re Swiss, they won’t be able to sell absinthe there in the first place. And, if Switzerland repeats the trick, other countries could follow.

It’s a sorry mess, and one which – without wishing to sound like the quintessential little Englander – we can firmly blame on the European Commission, which passed up the chance to ratify a legal definition for absinthe earlier this year.

The source of the trouble is that historic ban, enforced until recently in many EU countries, which led to absinthe being left out of the EU Spirits Regulations when they were drawn up in 1989 and revised in 2008.

The lack of a legal framework created absinthe anarchy in those markets where it was still legal, enabling unscrupulous and opportunistic distillers to abuse the absinthe name with products that bore little or no resemblance to the original.

The EU could – and should – have brought this to a halt in March by approving a draft definition, essentially a compromise with broad support across much of the continent and backed by Spirits Europe. But they didn’t, apparently concerned that the recipe put forward was a bit too “French” and would exclude some European producers.

It’s a classic fudge that only common sense-impaired Eurocrats could devise: protect questionable commercial interests in defiance of the category consensus. And the poor bloody consumer? Let them work it out for themselves.

This is what bugs me the most – the arrant disregard for the very people whom the regulations are there to protect. Yes, I know absinthe as a category is, in relative terms, minuscule, with its total global volumes equivalent to a mid-table single malt.

But, go back to the general point and the nonsense surrounding flabbily defined gin, borderline-misleading Tequila (and don’t even get me started on the lottery of rum age statements). With the fear of upsetting powerful commercial interests comes unsavoury compromise and potential consumer confusion.

Poor bloody absinthe. It’s a lot to put up with for a drink which has spent most of the past century combating wrongful accusations that it is to blame for mass murder, seizures and insanity.

So, once and for all, let’s set the record straight: contrary to all the old urban myths, drinking absinthe emphatically does NOT make you mad.

But trying to sell the stuff might send you completely round the bend.