Absinthe has long been rumored to be illegal in the United States, yet brands like Lucid and St. George openly sell their absinthe products in liquor stores across the nation. So why all the hubbub about absinthe?
The liquor traditionally made from wormwood has a murky legal history in the United States and abroad, which has led absinthe producers to only recently begin marketing to Americans.
Acknowledging this background, is absinthe legal?
Yes, but Only Thujone-Free
In 2007, the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) released a notice allowing distillers and importers to use the term "absinthe" as long as its contents were in line with the FDA's rules.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what additives -- even natural ones -- may go into products purchased for eating and drinking. Wormwood, the traditional key ingredient of absinthe, is but one of a family plants (in the genus Artemisia) which also includes tarragon.
Unlike tarragon, however, the FDA places limits on how wormwood can be used in food and drink, mandating wormwood consumables be "thujone-free." (Thujone is a chemical compound found in wormwood that acts on certain receptors in the brain.)
Thujone-free is a bit of a term of art, however, and the federal regulations defer to the Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) section on detecting thujone. Care of WoodwoodSociety.org, this method has a margin of error of 10 ppm (parts per million) of thujone. In layman's terms, this test will judge an absinthe to be "thujone-free" if the concentration of thujone is 10 ppm or less.
Like most other enthusiasts, absinthe aficionados hold strong and differing opinions on whether absinthe with this low level of thujone is absinthe at all. While this 10 ppm level of thujone in absinthe may differ from European standards, many agree that legal "thujone-free" absinthe is pretty much the real thing.
Can You Import Absinthe?
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is tasked with enforcing federal regulations on absinthe which comes across U.S. borders. If you're a diehard fan of European absinthe and you want to bring some back with you from overseas, remember that the CBP may seize any:
- Absinthe which is not "thujone free";
- Product where "absinthe" is the brand name; and
- Bottle with "artwork and/or graphics" that depicts "images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects."
If you order overseas absinthe online, it may just as easily be seized when CBP inspects it.
So absinthe is mostly legal in the United States, but still highly regulated.