New Zealand Police Whip Up Moral Prohibitionist Panic In Absinthe Crack-down.
L’absinthe… quelle horreur
It was only matter of time before someone in authority somewhere started to target absinthe specifically , invoking moral righteousness, demonising the drink and choosing to ignore individual responsibility for irresponsible consumption.
Teenagers in New Zealand have recently engaged in less-than-responsible drinking activities and were consequently hospitalised for their efforts. Following this, a certain Sergeant John Harris of New Zealand’s Finest is now openly gunning for a nationwide ban on absinthe, with two provincial alcohol licencing trusts - unusual commercial entities in NZ that have pseudo-regulatory authority and a commercial monopoly on alcohol distribution in their respective jurisdictions - have now banned absinthe. Immediately, out came the stories in New Zealand media about Van Gough cutting off his ear and a propensity for absinthe-fuelled hallucinations. Some media commentators have had the sense to indicate that the product should be consumed diluted, and even stating that there appears little evidence in New Zealand of teenagers routinely ending up comatose because of absinthe intoxication.
Fortunately, any truly functional ban of absinthe in New Zealand would require a formal proposal and public consultation process as an amendment to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. This is both a blessing and a potential curse. While there are due regulatory mechanisms which allow an individual or group the opportunity to argue inherent health risks of a substance, this is in the face of an apparent failure of control regarding the responsible service and consumption of alcohol. Asa result, it does run the risk of a provincial New Zealand-based issue metastasizing into a much larger trans-national one.
But… lest I seem to only be taking pot shots at the misinformed media and overzealous constabulary, let me add a pointed comment. Certain manufacturers and distributors of absinthe (or, shall we say ‘absinth’) are actively contributing to the problem by:
- manufacturing and promoting products that are not dilutable in water or able to be drunk in traditional methods;
- actively promoting the product be drunk in straight shots, like Jagermeister or Schnapps;
- encouraging the increasingly dangerous practice of lighting ‘absinth’ prior to consumption;
- mixing ‘absinth’ in energy drinks (either at the bar or pre-sold in a can), an inherently dangerous practice whereby the consumer begins to lose judgement as to their own state of intoxication. Recent research out of the US identifies this mixing as having a much higher risk of serious health and social consequences (O’Brien et al, (2008) ‘Caffeinated cocktails: energy drink consumption, high-risk drinking, and alcohol-related consequences among college students’, Aced Emerg Med, 15(5), 453-60).
- making false and misleading representations about ‘hallucinogenic’ potential of ‘absinth’ and peddling discredited myths such as the similarities between thujone and THC.
Most of these products are the Czech-style ‘absinth’ products and, as such, are not what we would classify as absinthe, despite the name, and are really just a glorified wormwood-flavoured schnapps, or at best are wormwood bitters masquerading as something else entirely.
Absinthe-snobs? You bet we are.
Many an industry can become its own worst enemy unless peers within that industry start to publicly speak out when a disjunction is identified. Binge drinking is a hot political issue in Australia and New Zealand, and the way companies promote their products can be akin to slitting their own commercial throats in the long term, and penalise responsible drinkers into the future. Much of the gighly-reputable Australian wine industry, for instance, are shaking their heads at the decisions of some retail chains to stock and promotie clean skin wines for around $2-3AUS a bottle - growing a local market for ‘two buck chuck’.
If we do find find ourselves at the pointy end of increasingly restrictive regulation and volumetric taxation in Australia and New Zealand, it will be through no small contribution of these ‘absinth cowboys’ in the market who would like to ride on the mystique, cultural heritage and reputation of a product wholly dissimilar from the one they themselves tout, promote the worst type of myths as verifiable, experiential fact and provide poor quality, artificially-coloured moonshine with no regard to tradition or the responsible consumption of alcohol.
Bar owners, bartenders and cocktail mixologists fulfil an important role. Such individuals should encourage responsible, traditional drinking practices, and even foster the appreciation of the product a customer is imbibing, much as you would with a single malt, an artisinal gin or terroir-characterised wine. This may mean that they need to put pressure back on the trade, or the venue, to provide higher-quality products and the associated material culture, such as glassware, fountain and spoons. In an ideal world, those at the fornt-line would have the temerity to put the pressure back on the wholesale trade and say that the cheap, green swill currently flooding the marketplace under the name ‘absinth’ and variations thereupon is not good enough, and is ertainly not absinthe as it is historically recognised.
But gentle absinthe.com.au reader, you too have an important role to play as an ambassador for the product. We like to think that much of our readership is savvy to the heritage, traditions and benchmarks of absinthe. If you are in a bar and see only ‘absinth’ up the back, glowing silently on the shelf, question the bar staff on their knowledge, query why they do not have an authentic absinthe product on their shelves, exploit opportunities to inform them on what you understand absinthe should be, and what you would expect if you were to purchase it. If you find a place that does serve absinthe properly, take the time to strike up a conversation with your fellow patrons if they question why you aren’t ‘lighting up’. Absinthe drinkers today are, on the whole, relatively responsible drinkers, so the better public face we present, the better it is for the absinthe industry as a whole, both commeercial and social.
A Libertine life is not bereft of certain responsibilities, responsibilities which distinguish us as educated and informed free-thinkers, rather than just another socially-ignorant anarchist. Its time to get vocal.