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The Historical Maze of Australian Absinthe Prohibition


The Absinthe.com.au Team were recently contacted by a legend from the Australian wine industry, Peter Wall AM, a former Wine & Vineyard Director of the famed Yalumba winery.  Peter was able to provide some additional history into the machinations behind the legal status of Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in the old versions Australian New Zealand Food Code.

In the versions of the Code from the mid 1980’s onwards, Wormwood was a controlled –  rather than a prohibited – herb and controlled by thujone content.  How it came to this status is a key part of Peters tale.

You may be interested to know how the lifting of the Australian ban on the use of wormwood was initiated.

30 years ago I was deeply involved in the manufacture of Martini & Rossi (M&R) Vermouth here in Australia for the great vermouth maker in Turin. At this time there was a general ban on the use of wormwood in alcoholic beverages in the English speaking world, although its use in many European countries had gradually relaxed from the 1920’s.

I was also a member (later chair) of the wine industry’s Technical Committee.

With the help of the late, but legendary, Dr. Giorgio Rampone (the then M&R Technical director) we began a campaign here in Australia to rationalise the regulations for use in wine of GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) botanicals, among them Artemisia absinthium. I was also involved in the technical negotiations for the EU Australian Bilateral Wine Agreement and served as an Australian delegate to the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin in Paris. These positions allowed me to pursue the opening-up of these ‘strange’ bans on many fronts. Gradually the opposition relaxed and finally we came to the present more rational regulation of all the botanicals which contain alkaloids, not only in wine, but alcoholic beverages generally. I’m not claiming a unique place in the history of this rationalisation, however, I do recall I was a very lone voice when I first raised the issue in the late 1970’s. Whenever I now have a sip of absinthe in Australia, I recall my early efforts with added pleasure.

Peter has kindly provided correspondence from the period to government, arguing how Italian wine law dictated that, by definition, Vermouth must contain wormwood, and argued for a position of international harmonisation on managing the risk rather than arbitrary prohibition.

These were much the same arguments we made (or rather re-made taking into account Peter’s precedent) when FSANZ sought to later prohibit wormwood a second time in later amendments to the Code in 2000-2002.

You will notice dear Absintheur, I make reference to a potential second prohibition of absinthe in Australia – and Peter’s historical recollection confirming an existing prohibition during the 1970-1980’s (and prior) during his period of lobbying.  This is seemingly at odds with a belief we previously held, and have documented in Wikipedia, that absinthe as an alcoholic drink was never specifically prohibited in Australia, only the import of ‘absinthe essence’ based on the legislative orders of the early 20th century. We were wrong.

New documentary evidence has emerged that confirms Australia did indeed specifically prohibit Absinthe, that led to the necessity of Peter Walls’ original efforts to lift the ban on the use of wormwood and will be the subject of a follow up article.

Posted by Jonathan on Dec 26th 2010 | Filed in Culture,Food,History,Interviews,News,People,Regulations | Comments (0)