Absinthe Made His Heart Grow Fonder
While Washington wonks toil away crafting industry circulars and other quintessential government documents on a daily basis, it's no surprise that most paperwork gets lost in a sea of bureaucracy, pursued only by insiders interested to that particular, often esoteric debate.
So it comes as no shock when, on Oct. 16, there was not much public fanfare surrounding "Use of the Term Absinthe for Distilled Spirits," Industry Circular Number 2007-5, generated from the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
But behind that three-page document is a story of a small business and its year-long effort to do something that hadn't been done in the United States in nearly 100 years: Import absinthe, a green liqueur popularized, romanticized and demonized in 19th century Europe and banned in the United States in 1912.
Jared Gurfein, the founder of Manhasset, N.Y.-based Viridian Spirits, was a 36-year-old corporate lawyer for Jones Day whose disgust for his long hours prompted him to quit his job and raise millions of dollars from friends to start his business and try to overcome regulatory hurdles.
Like most entrepreneurs, he had an "A Ha! moment" that spurred him to embark on an expensive and risky venture.
In his case, it was an all-night project in 2006. He left his house and the company of his wife and one-year-old daughter on Superbowl Sunday at 11 a.m. to go to the office. He didn't return until the next morning at 1 a.m.
He recalls calling college friend Jon Bonchick later that day and asked him for an idea to start a business. Bonchick, whose family had been in the U.S. spirits industry for three generations and is now a partner in Viridian, suggested Gurfein introduce a new drink to the United States. Adding fuel to Gurfein's thoughts, he recently had seen the movies "Moulin Rouge" and "EuroTrip," both of which contain scenes about absinthe.
So Gurfein decided to try his hand at importing absinthe despite the liquor's dark past.
Often known as the "Green Fairy," examples of its cultural history include an absinthe-drinking character, ginned up by French author Emile Zola, who "stripped himself stark naked in the Rue Saint-Martin and died doing the polka." The drink also was banned in Switzerland after it was deemed the cause of a triple murder-suicide a century ago. But absinthe fan Oscar Wilde once asked "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?"
History also has shown that the drink largely was lambasted by the competing wine industry and the temperance movement.
U.S. regulators were concerned over an ingredient in absinthe called thujone for its alleged hallucinogenic side effects. The Food and Drug Administration had banned the chemical found in the wormwood herb and the alcohol bureau had to take that into consideration, according to Art Resnick, a spokesman for the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Over the past decades, many other entrepreneurs tried unsuccessfully to convince federal regulators that absinthe should be legalized in the United States. Fans of the beverage got around the ban by smuggling bottles into the country from places like Eastern Europe or ordering imported bottles online.
To conquer that challenge, Viridian worked with chemist and absinthe expert Ted Breaux, who has shared his knowledge of vintage absinthe on the Food Network and the History Channel, to formulate a recipe sold under the Lucid brand that would pass the FDA's tests.
"As a practical matter, alcohol with less than 10 parts per million is thujone-free," said Resnick.
Typical pre-ban absinthe was as low as five parts per million, according to tests by Breaux on 19th century bottles of absinthe.
Gurfein said it took legal fees "in the high six figures" to overcome U.S. regulators' fears of naked polka-dancing fatalities and allow him to sell the 124-proof Lucid in the United States. He did much of the legal work himself and wrote briefs to present to the government to bolster his argument for importing absinthe. He also hired power lawyer Vince O'Brien of Nixon Peabody to help.
Getting the formula approved took about two months and the labeling on the $60 bottle took another six. New alcoholic beverages generally take an average of up to 20 days to get approved with the bureau, according to Resnick.
Gurfein characterized the process as frustrating and bureaucratic at times. "We made it clear that we were respectful of the process, but we certainly showed persistence," he said. "At the end of the day, I was extremely gratified at the approach [the bureau] took. This is the last bureau anyone would have been expected to be open minded about anything, but a number of people enjoyed the materials [we sent them], showed genuine interest in getting it and some were fans of Breaux's."
The beverage ultimately is labeled as a "distilled spirit" because the bureau does not recognize absinthe as a class or type of alcohol like "vodka" or "bourbon." At one point, the bureau did not want the bottle to be labeled "absinthe," but Viridian and the government compromised on "absinthe superieure" to distinguish it from earlier absinthes.
The government was "very insistent that we were not going to market or create drugs in a bottle and were concerned about the labeling," said Gurfein. Viridian worked with a French company to design the label, which was inspired by France's Le Chat Noir 19th century cabaret.
"We also had to combat some of the marketing of absinthes in Europe -- some of the best absinthes in the world are there, but others are just high proof spirits with green dye and aromatherapy oils that tout the mythology of drug hallucinations," Gurfein said. "The [U.S. government] was aware of that and it left a bad taste in [the bureau's] mouth."
While the three-employee Viridian was waiting for regulatory approval on Lucid, Breaux worked on fine-tuning the production process. Breaux, a New Orleans native, moved to France and now uses antique copper stills at a site in Saumur, France to produce absinthe.
Gurfein attributes his firm's success where others failed as presenting "a good case with a tremendous amount of research. We were very articulate and very tactic in how we approached it."
But perhaps the secret ingredient in the recipe was Breaux, he said. Gurfein also went so far as to prove that the type of writ banning absinthe in 1912 was no longer valid.
Now that Viridian has paved the way, the bureau has approved the sale of four absinthe drinks in the United States - two from France, one from Switzerland and one based in California.
"I welcome competitors, but our business is a risky proposition," said Gurfein. "We spend a lot of money to make our product, it's distilled by hand and we are dealing with herbs that haven't been grown in large quantities for 100 years. It's not an easy task to forecast demand."
Viridian must negotiate with each state to allow sales of Lucid there. Louisiana and New York are the biggest imbibers. While the product is not available in the Washington, D.C. area, he called Maryland and Washington "priorities," adding "we're very very hopeful that Washington is not far off."
Gurfein jokingly noted that after his efforts to enlighten the federal government about the virtues of absinthe, "lucid" became one of his daughter's first words.
"But you better believe that she doesn't know what it is and won't for a long time," he added quickly.
She may not know what it tastes like for another 18 years or so, but that's a shorter wait than almost 100.
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