Transcript: Mar 4, 2008 Part 2

Kirsten: And I would like to thank, I’m totally blanking on this song.

Justin: Another song. I didn’t get the preview but apparently its on the compilation CD.

Kirsten: It is going to be on the new compilation CD and I’d like to – I can’t find the name right now. I’m sorry, it’s my problem.

Justin: But we thanked you for joining us…

Kirsten: Grant?

Justin: Grant?

Kirsten: I think it’s Grant. I don’t remember. Anyway yes,

Justin: We’ll shout you out many times into the future.

Kirsten: We have Ted Breaux on the line. Let’s bring him in.

Justin: Good morning Mr. Breaux and welcome to This Week in Science.

Ted Breaux: Good morning.

Kirsten: Yes. Thanks for joining us. I’m really kind of sad that you can’t make it into the studio. I mean… [laugh]

Justin: Samples. What?

Ted Breaux: Well you know I tell you. Ordinarily I’d be sad too – I’d traveled so much in the past six months but it’s good to put my feet down and get myself together but yes, maybe next time.

Kirsten: Yes. [laugh]

Justin: Yes – yes – yes.

Kirsten: Maybe we can have one of those on air tastings next time. That’ll be great

Ted Breaux: Oh that’ll be great. I love those.

Kirsten: [laugh] So you have not just gotten – don’t you just have an interest in drinking absinthe? You have more of a scientific interest in the concoction. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is that brought you to scientifically investigating the spirit?

Ted Breaux: Well you know, in most people fallen into absinthes, they become interested and it’s from an approach from agriculture history, something like that. My intro into absinthes was from very different angle. And that was an angle of science.

As some 14 years ago, I was working in an environmental research lab as an environment research scientist. And a colleague of mine, this is in the New Orleans and a colleague of mine made up a passing comment about absinthe.

And being a New Orleanean you know, I had seen that word as many people had several times just never really put any thought into it. And I said yes, and I asked him “Absinthe. What exactly was that?” He said “You know it was that green liquor that made people crazy.”

Kirsten: [laugh]

Ted Breaux: So I’m a research scientist. My job is to research questions and find answers. And when I was presented with that it’s like wait a minute. That’s just – that’s not good enough of an answer. That’s not going to satisfy me. So you know what I did, I pick up the trusty old Merck index. We all know the chemists on the bridge bible there.

Kirsten: Yup.

Ted Breaux: And I said, “you know I wonder if that would be – because Merck has a listing for all sort of things that you wouldn’t expect. I looked it up and sure enough it was there.”

Kirsten: Absinthe?

Ted Breaux: And the definite – yes, absinthe was in the Merck Index and it gave this synopsis yada yada and at the bottom it said the note and it had this ominous warning. Ingestion of the liquor at green liquor absinthe can cause hallucinations, convulsion, and it may even said death I don’t know…

Kirsten: Oh my Gosh!

Ted Breaux: So upon seeing that, I was – now I really, really had questions that I need an answer not just that make sense to me. And are we still here?

Justin: Yes. Exactly.

Kirsten: Yes we are.

Ted Breaux: Okay – okay.

Justin: Can we pause just for sec. Just for a moment cause – now absinthe is a drink that was enjoyed a long time and is probably one of the greatest success stories of the prohibition ever.

Because it was – the actual drink has been eliminated from any part of the world to where you would actually have to go back in and look up the chemical compounds that made up it or the Merck index there on it. To even see what was that made out of, correct?

Ted Breaux: Well see that’s – and you’re absolutely right. There is a great void of information and what happen was – when I become interested in Absinthe, about the only resource that I could find on it was a book called “History in a Bottle” by Barnaby Conrad.

Book published ’88 which is a fantastic book. And definitely answered a lot of questions but certainly I had many, many more questions. I even contacted the author but he couldn’t help me. And so basically, at this point I – it’s like “wait a minute there’s a spirit here.”

First commercialized in 1805 because it was proclaimed as a digestive aid. It was a medicine that was sovereign for indigestion. Became popular as tipples in mid-1800’s and became the most popular spirit in France throughout the 1800 and early 1900’s.

So the thing is millions of people drank this beverage frequently even on a daily basis. I find it difficult that they would be doing that if they had to be concerned about hallucinations, convulsions and death.

Kirsten: Yes.

Ted Breaux: With those two pieces of that puzzle just don’t fit properly. For the time I realized that the only way that I’m going to be able to study this – I mean I’ve read some anecdotes and whatever you know and some things of very dubious quality and I decided- well I knew at that point – the only way that I’m going to be able to understand absinthe and unravel this mystery is I’m going to have to have it.

And at the time, it was virtually nothing available anywhere on the planet. And so I knew that not only am I going to have to have it but I’m going to have to learn how to make it the way that it was made in the 1800’s. And my twisted odyssey really began at that point. And let me tell you, twisted it has been…

Kirsten: Yes.

TED BREAUX: Because the thing is -there are many things have been theorized and hypothesize about absinthe. Because basically, when absinthe was banned in 1915, it virtually vanished. Anyone who made it back then has been dead for a long time. And it’s not like vintage bottles or vintage absinthe just grows on trees, they don’t.

And I knew that there were some missing pieces to that puzzle that I was going to have to interpolate and extrapolate. And thought I had done a reasonably good job. And then back around ’97, I happened to cross not one but two full completely sealed unopened bottles of vintage absinthe.

Kirsten: Oh wow. So that was like – it was like a buried treasure you just – you all of a sudden have the source. [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Yes. It was. That’s was the Holy Grail.

Justin: Now, if this was me. The story ends shortly after. It was good, I got to tell you. I was impressed. And that would be it. It’ll be gone again another hundred years.

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Well, what I had to do though is I had to say “you know, if I’ve got some of this. Then maybe this is going to help me”, well first of all it is going to help me understand a lot. And I just may garner – just maybe able to accumulate enough information to process to where I can make more.

Kirsten: And so this is the part where you actually got down into the deep and dirty science and started taking the absinthe apart piece by piece.

TED BREAUX: That’s right. I took a short hiatus. Cleared my head and fooled around with some more historical research and then around the summer of 2000, I think June of 2000. Was when I actually got enough courage to draw samples from those bottles? And I tested them because at that time I had to wait for an opportunity as well.

At that time I was in charge of my very own little in-coast 50 mass spectrometer. And I run samples through and I found that the content of these samples was different than wood. Than what others had speculated that it was. And I’m talking to very, very you know, seemingly good research – 20 years of research at that time. Speculation about the content and it just didn’t add up.

Kirsten: So what was the speculation? I know that the common idea is that absinthe – because it contains wormwood and that’s wormwood has become the culprit for all of the craziness that people have heap on to absinthe.

TED BREAUX: Well, you’re right. And back in the day when the wine industry, the tempered league sought to smear absinthe – starts to demonize. So what they did is they had to single something out. They couldn’t say “Oh absinthe is bad.” They had to single something out.

And basically the wormwood that you find in absinthe that you find in almost nothing else is Artemisia absinthium. So said, “hah, there’s our escape goat.” Well then you got to say “but what about this is bad?” We’ll they came up say “Well, it’s because it contains something called ‘thujone’.”

Justin: Oh that sounds bad.

Kirsten: Thujone.

TED BREAUX: Yes. Thujone a turpine. So basically, what happened back in the many, many decades later, 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s? They were all these theories made about thujone. And that’s because absinthium contains thujone. And absinthe contains thujone and it contained a lot of thujone. And it’s this and this and it caused that whatever and all sorts of interesting theories.

But the fact that matters is when we examine vintage bottles, and examined freshly distilled samples that we used to mimic absinthe of old. Basically we found that the thujone content wasn’t anything like what people thought and really it just drove one more nail onto the coffin of the theories that somehow that absinthe was banned for it. And that was very, very interesting.

In fact I was so surprised by the result there. Initially I was reluctant to say anything. In fact I sent of samples off had it tested by third party lab. Of course they corroborated my results. And in the following years I just actually up until the present other researchers around the world have been able to duplicate my work and found the same thing.

So we find it’s very interesting that science in the 1800’s which was relatively primitive as compared to today was actually used to demonized absinthe. And now the 21st century science has been used to vindicate that.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It was the mis-use of science the first time. Because as you mentioned, I mean I can picture for some reason – I can picture France’s wine industry as being a little bit aggressive to this invading spirit. Somehow that makes sense to me.

Kirsten: [laugh]

Justin: But what about the farmer though? The farmer, he drank – he had a shot of absinthe and like killed his family and a bunch of people?

Kirsten: It’s bad excuse.

TED BREAUX: I see, that was Jean Lanfrey murders in Switzerland in 1905. But what they neglected to tell you was that the guy before he had his glass of absinthe, he’d already consumed like two liters of wine, several glasses of brandy. I mean he creamed them all he had everything a man can do.

Kirsten: He was drinking everything.

Justin: But he had absinthe. Don’t you see the connection?

TED BREAUX: But he had absinthe. And that’s it, that’s what tipped the whole applecart there. That one glass of absinthe. You know the thing is funny because back in the old days when absinthe was so popular in the wine industry was decimated by (philochoros) you know, when the absinthe became usually popular replaced wine as the national drink of France really.

The fact of the matter is, at that time they were never any food and beverage quality controls. And so just as if you have today you have very, very cheap industrially made wines. You had very cheap industrially made absinthe at the time.

And there were no regulations and these cheap adulterated absinthes use things like copper sulfate to artificially induce a green color which ordinarily comes from whole herbs.

Cheap alcohol, things of that nature and these persons, these alcoholics with low socio-economic status were imbibing these cheap drinks. And it was these people that really had some health issues and the wine industry seized upon this. And used it politically and economically to their advantage.

Kirsten: Right. Cause things like copper, that’s a heavy metal that can really get into your bloodstream, affect your liver or kidneys even you’re mental processes.

TED BREAUX: Of course. And at that time no one really knew these things. I mean, the time if you look at the medical formulas on the charts of the centuries in 1900’s, you’ll see the use of a blue pill. You know, something that totally contains mercury as a digestive cleanser. You know so – I mean basically, yes.

Kirsten: Not so healthy on its own. [laugh] Anyway did you-

Justin: Wow.

TED BREAUX: Anyway so it’s quite a twisted story. Very interesting. Still being unraveled today.

Kirsten: Yes. So basically the process that you used to pick out the ingredients and kind of basically reverse engineer the recipe for absinthe. Is it just a bunch of mass spectrometry, spectroscopy, did I get the word out? Basically just looking to find out what might match with known ingredients and in what concentrations is that the basic process?

TED BREAUX: Well that would be a very, very simple thumbnails sketch. Mass spectrometry is very, very useful. And what it does is it tells us things about the content and allows us to put fingerprints to individual components that were used in its crafting. But then it goes further than that.

Because basically, absinthe is an agricultural product distilled from whole herbs. And just as is Merlot is grapes grown in Sonoma don’t taste like Merlot grown in Mongolia. We find that basically it comes down the very, very – it comes down the interesting specifics that transcend more than analytical chemistry that actually get into scientific agriculture.

We find herbs that had certain fingerprints if you will. That are expressed that are typical to the foot hills of the Alps and differ if grown elsewhere. So in order to actually recreate vintage absinthe, we have to know a lot about the materials; where they were grown; when they were harvested. How they were harvested, how they were prepared, stored, things like that. And of course, the almighty art of distillation itself which is yet another science. So just one-

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But now you’ve taken to that step?

TED BREAUX: Except for grape so much science was into it? What’s that?

Justin: But you’ve taken that step is what I mean. There was a research of sort of faux absinthes that came out and they were I think – I heard it described as mouth wash and vodka mixed together?

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Yes. Right – right. Window cleaner. Exactly.

Justin: Yes. But now it’s – after – since back engineering just the ingredients. You’ve actually taken the next step and done some actual brewing.

TED BREAUX: Oh absolutely. I’ve been distilling the absinthe commercially since 2004. Distilling in a research basis for many years in France. And basically, I’ve actually put the fruits of my effort and mass spectrometry to work.

And actually I distill absinthe using 130 year-old absinthe stills using original materials – sourced from the original regions. You just can’t – it just would be very, very hard pressed to make it any more authentic.

Kirsten: Right.

TED BREAUX: And yes, I’ve done that for years.

Kirsten: Are you still – I know you’ve got a paper coming out in the next few weeks here. Are any of those results being used to better your production process?

TED BREAUX: Well, not only does the result add to my dossier of results which always, always improves my understanding and allows me to see statistically more a wider sample base. But the result of what we’ve done basically are driving more nails into the coffin of the whole thujone theory.

And basically, this work that I’ve done lately is very, very important because what it does – basically what we’ve done is we’ve put together couple of other researchers and myself. Put together the most comprehensive published study on the – using mass spectrometry, using the analysis of vintage absinthe. Nothing on this scale’s ever done or will be ever done again.

And so it’s a most conclusive work on the content of vintage absinthe ever prepared. And it’s going to be published yes, in coming weeks, months in to words you know, obvious reasons.

Kirsten: How it goes, yes.

Justin: So this isn’t available in the United States, alright. This is…

Kirsten: The absinthe?

TED BREAUX: Actually yes I did. I have – I am the creator of the first genuine absinthe to be distributed in the United States since 1912.

Justin: Yes.

TED BREAUX: And that is the “Lucid” brand which is pretty much everywhere on the country now.

Justin: Oh awesome!

Kirsten: Yes, when did – I mean it was banned authentic absinthe with wormwood but thujone ingredients have been banned in the United States for years. When was that ban lifted? It wasn’t-

TED BREAUX: The ban was never lifted and really the verbiage that banned absinthe specifically has been – that’s been superseded by the — thru the creation of the FDA which happened you know, many, many years ago.

So absinthe is no longer banned specifically should as the way that the modern regs are worded. The TTB- the US government effectively has complete latitude as to what they allow in the country.

Kirsten: Right.

TED BREAUX: And so, basically we didn’t know laws were changed. The thing is thru education through science thru published studies, thru works of others and myself, we’re able to convince the federal government to take a different approach. To take a new approach consider science and reconsider their age old perception about absinthe which go back for more than 100 years.

Justin: How did you get them to do that? I’ve been to-

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Well I’ll tell you, I provided the ammunition, the guys at Veridian Spirits, the brand known as lucid. They provided the gun. It took a great deal of time, took a great deal of lobbying as you can imagine working with the government is not – never a straight forward process. And finally we we’re able to do that. So effectively, it made history.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It absolutely has. Now we’ve vindicated absinthe and the thujone compound. Is there anything, I mean aside from alcohol, when you say, it’s made from herbs you know, that sounds like it’s good for you. I mean, what’s in it and is it something over all – is there anything that specifically – the health benefits.

Justin: Talk about the health benefits. Can you cure indigestion?

Kirsten: How those all age old ideas of yes, it’s good for you. Do those stand up? Or is it like, nah alcohol kind of-

Justin: Can I use it as a hair cream to get my self less (of those) as possible?

TED BREAUX: [Laugh] or perfume. Actually absinthe was promoted in the early days as being healthy. And the things is absinthe – the creation of absinthe utilized the art of distillation to take these herbs into – I mean, basically to make absinthe it requires a tremendous amount of herbs and the distillate concentrates the essences of these herbs.

Essences that have been purported for centuries to have certain medicinal benefits. And absinthe was originally created as medicine. It was distributed to the French army in the 1840’s because it was thought to make unclean water, clean enough to consume. So it’s really interesting because all of these herbal constituents of absinthe have some sort of medicinal property.

Some are said to be stimulant to the mind. Others are said to be sedatives. So it’s really kind of – and of course ethanol. And absinthe traditionally contains a high concentration of ethanol. Ethanol is a very potent delivery agent.

So really, it’s interesting because the science of absinthe where it – how it affects the mind and body is still really not clearly understood. But a genuine absinthe that is often said by those who imbibe it and described the experience is something that if they feel it in their body but their mind stays remarkably clear.

And it is something that goes back to the 1800’s where the artists and poets felt that it made them more creative. It’s not like drinking beer, wine, tequila, which coincidentally are there.

Although all those three contain alcohol but yet drinking one or the other tends to put us in a different mood. So it’s really interesting because absinthe is unique in that regarded has its own unique flavor in that context as it’s-

Justin: As does “Mongolian Merlot.”

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Well, I often used that analogy because really quite frankly as far as I know it doesn’t exist.

Kirsten: Yes – yes; [laugh]

TED BREAUX: But if it did. It probably wouldn’t be recognizable among the wine connoisseurs or something. Now that’s, let’s say if they are familiar.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s been wonderful talking with you. We unfortunately are out of time. There is so much more to be learned about the spirit absinthe. And I hope that you’ll continue your search for understanding this amazing spirit. And I hope that we can get the chance to talk again.

TED BREAUX: I did my best to compress it to about 20 minutes but I really enjoyed participating in the show.

Kirsten: It was great.

Justin: Very lucid.

Kirsten: Very lucid. Yes.

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Alright.

Kirsten: Thank you very much and have a wonderful day Mr. Ted Breaux.

TED BREAUX: Thank you both.

Kirsten: And that is it for our show today. The science of absinthe.

Justin: And if you learned anything from today’s show remember…

Kirsten: That a whole bunch of people emailed and helped us out this week. Calidasa, Clinton Edwards, Jason Growth, Alessandra Triano, Pedro Weenu, Heckon Lund, Eric Cooper.

All sorts of people, thank you very much for helping us out. And what is it? What is it?

Justin: If you learned anything from today’s show it must be…

Kirsten: All in your head…