The Null Device

Reverse-engineering absinthe

Between the time absinthe was banned in the early 20th century and when it was (accidentally) legalised in the EU in 1988, the details of how to make it were lost. That is, until a microbiologists from New Orleans reverse-engineered it, using samples from old bottles and a mass spectrometer::
Breaux explains how the testing works. He takes a bottle of the liqueur, inserts a syringe through the cork (absinthe oxidizes like wine once the bottle is open), and extracts a few milliliters. He transfers the sample into a vial, which is lifted by a robotic arm into the gas chromatography tower. There it is separated into its components. Then the mass spectrometer identifies them and measures their relative quantities.
Breaux wasn't the only one rediscovering the long-banned beverage. In Europe, food regulations adopted by the EU in 1988 had neglected to mention absinthe, and when they superseded national laws, the drink was effectively re-legalized. New distilleries were popping up all over Europe, selling what Breaux dismisses as "mouthwash and vodka in a bottle, with some aromatherapy oil." Absinthe had disappeared so completely for so long that no one knew how to make it anymore.
At the EASI lab, Breaux ran tests on the pre-ban absinthe samples, as well as on samples spiked with thujone (from the very bottle I had sniffed). This allowed him to isolate the toxic compound. He spent his free time studying the test results, and late one night in June 2000 he had his answer. "I was stunned. Everything that I had been told was complete nonsense." In the antique absinthes he had collected, the thujone content was an order of magnitude smaller than Arnold's predictions. In many instances, it was a homeopathically minuscule 5 parts per million.
After debunking the widespread belief about thujone being the key ingredient differentiating absinthe from ordinary alcoholic beverages, Ted Breaux went on to use his knowledge to create a variety of absinthe named Nouvelle-Orléans, which went on to win awards. Despite its name, Nouvelle-Orléans is made in France, as absinthe is still illegal in the US (and, by the sound of it, as difficult to get hold of as marihuana).
"It's like an herbal speedball," he says. "Some of the compounds are excitatory, some are sedative. That's the real reason artists liked it. Drink two or three glasses and you can feel the effects of the alcohol, but your mind stays clear - you can still work."

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