Jul 11, 201309:18 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Are Moonshine and Absinthe Legal? Really?
Don Dudenbostel, 2011
The history of Americans’ relationship with drinking alcohol-based beverages throughout our nation’s existence has been one of four approaches, often simultaneous with each other. We have attempted Tolerance, a peaceful coexistence among the segments of the population that desired to use the product and those who preferred they did not, but were willing to accept a neighbor’s right to make their own choices.
We’ve given Prohibition a go. Banning the liquid almost completely, maybe with the best of intentions, but failing miserably and giving rise to a savage criminal element that is firmly entrenched in our midst even to this day, over 80 years after the repeal of "The Noble Experiment."
We have implemented strict laws and regulations regarding distribution and sales. When can outlets sell alcohol beverages? Which types of outlets can sell? Can alcohol from one jurisdiction travel to another without restriction?
And then lastly we have continued to inflict tax, sometimes at escalating levels. The thought on taxation is two-fold: 1) If you want to participate in drinking alcoholic beverages, it’s going to cost you, and that money will help operate the government; and 2) high taxes on “sin” may deter you from imbibing, and so, indirectly, your government has done you a great service. That last approach seems to have lost favor with the American people over the past 20 years and so high taxes on alcoholic beverages, alongside gasoline and tobacco products, today are more directly related to fulfilling the monetary needs of government rather than bothering with the pseudo-social cost.
At any rate, back in the bad old days of Prohibition, and even before, there were two products that were “illegal,” which meant everybody wanted some. Moonshine is a classic American response to government avoidance and being close to the raw materials. Absinthe simply has a checkered history, with artistic, often false, depictions of what it can do to a body. Those tales just about did the beverage in.
Today, both are legal with multiple labels being available to a thirsty and curious public.
Moonshine was made, and still is for the most part, in Appalachia, high in the rolling hills of Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee. The name likely comes from an English term, moonraker, which means smuggler. The liquid itself is very sharp in taste and smell due to high-alcohol levels, usually in excess of 50 percent, and the liquid is clear because there are no barrels involved. The end product of the distillation goes directly from the still to the bottle, making for a quick return on investment of equipment and time.
Legal moonshine is really the only way to interface with the product. You just never know what’s in the other stuff that a friend of a good friend of an auto mechanic in Georgia has made and boy-it’s-powerful-try-it. Being a good sport is one thing. This goes beyond that and can result in all sorts of bad outcomes.
Moonshine to be trusted includes CatDaddy Spiced, Ole Smoky, Midnight Moon and Tim Smith Moonshine. A number of moonshine packages are of the old Ball Mason Jar style, which adds somewhat of a throwback air of originality. Cute but not likely the same manufacturer that gave rise to the legend of Thunder Road and the development of the stock car racing circuit.
Absinthe’s history is a bit more genteel, with beginnings in Switzerland in the late 18th century. Also a highly alcoholic, up to 74 percent alcohol by volume, distilled spirit, absinthe, when enjoyed by itself, has a whole ritual of fresh, cool water, through slotted spoon, a cube of sugar, all done so slowly. It was quite the beverage of Parisian and New Orleans café society, although back then it appears their version was a bit more civilized than our version.
Absinthe was beloved by writers and artists of the late 19th century, with incredible tales of hallucinations, apparitions, out-of-body experiences and lopping off body parts while the artist was still using them, all supposedly due to the byproduct of wormwood, an herb from which absinthe is made and one of its active ingredients, thujone. No one ever thought that the incredibly high level of alcohol in absinthe caused these normally stable individuals to flip-out. Those crazy actions were blamed on the thujone. For an Enlightened Age, they sure did not add up 2 + 2 very well.
Anyway, because most of the absinthe-consuming nations thought they were outlawing the stuff (turns out they weren’t), most people thought it was illegal and absinthe became impossible to find except in a few outlier countries like Portugal and Australia.
It was really a New Orleanian, Ted Breaux, a chemist with Shell Oil in Norco, who became curious about this taboo beverage, and in his research, found that all those many years of no absinthe was for naught. He petitioned the U.S. Government for approval of Lucid, his own brand, and then almost 200 other distillers followed his example. It’s safe to say that there are plenty of absinthe labels on the market today.
The old way to enjoy Absinthe, in the manner Belle Époque café society did, actually has fallen out of favor. The spirit is now used in a wide variety of cocktails, and even as a baking ingredient. The Sazerac, official cocktail of New Orleans as declared by our City Council, makes excellent use of the alcohol and anise qualities of absinthe. Ya’ don’t need much to make a real difference.
And so, with absinthe and moonshine, what was once completely illegal has become respectable. I will refrain from other patently obvious correlations. It is not my place to suggest one thing or another. It’s all I can do to correctly get out of bed in the morning.