“Our mission is to recreate history, not rewrite it”
Behind the latest evolutions of the French law regarding absinthe, there is a name often quoted. Even though he is much more known for being the creator of one of the most acclaimed absinthes line, namely the Jade line, Theodore A. Breaux often takes part in scientific, educative and legal ventures in the interest of the green fairy. He accepted to answer our questions following the publication of an amendment to a French law proposal that would lead to the repeal of the 1915 ban on absinthe in France.
Gazette de l’absinthe : Hi Ted,
first of all, for some of our readers who may not know you, a brief reminder. Originaly a Lousiana-born bio-chemist, you are currently master distiller at the Combier distillery in Saumur, where you crafted fine spirits like Perique, a liqueur made from a fine tobacco, the recent Lucid absinthe you elaborated for the US market, and of course the acclaimed Jade Absinthe line.
There have been several legal issues with absinthe in France :
- The 1988 decreet
- Various evolutions on the application of the aforementioned decree (with the “versinthe” case) around 1999
- The time when the French customs wanted to label absinthe-related products as “anisés”, which would have limited the maximum proof to about 90
- The new 2009 decree, fixing the legal issue with the fenchone and pinocamphone levels
- and of course the amendment to the future law of simplification of the French law.
In which of them did you take part ? And what led you to take part in these fights ?
I have read that your legal counsel on these issues is M. de Senihles, from the Nixon Peabody law firm. How did you meet, and how did you get him interested in such kind of legal affairs ?
You may be aware that I was instrumental in the effort to overturn the U.S. ban on absinthe in March, 2007 together with Mr. Jared Gurfein (Viridian Spirits, NY) and sharp legal minds from Nixon Peabody. Mr. Arnaud de Senilhes was recommended as someone in France who would take an interest in this situation, and who would have a very good chance of getting this case presented to the right persons in the French government. Our success in the U.S. provided us with confidence in dealing with the French matter. When science is on one’s side, it makes for a strong argument.
How does it work between you and M. Franck Choisne (head of the Combier Distillery) regarding this kind of legal actions ? Are you accomplices in everything, or does each one of you have his special tasks and skills set ?
Mr. Choisne and I have common interests in these legal actions. We are both engaged in domestic and international business, and we do not like our business being affected by regulations we feel are unfair. He has his talents, and I have mine. His talents are beneficial to my interests, and mine are beneficial to his. He has done much to support my business, and I have done what I can to bring much deserved attention to his wonderful historic distillery.
Now, regarding the repeal of the 1915 law, I would like to understand the architecture of the “coup”. First of all, who, besides MM. Senhiles and Choisne was involved, and how ? We have heard of MM. David Nathan Maister and François Guy, is it correct to think they took part in this action ? I am thinking specifically about the open letter to absinthe producers you co-signed.
Well, of course I was directly involved, as this decree affected my craft more than anyone. I provided the science review that served as the foundation of the legal argument. Mr. Choisne provided complete administrative and professional support, and Mr. Senilhes provided the legal machine. Also, we have to give credit to Mr. Jared Gurfein (Viridian Spirits, NY) for his valuable assistance in this effort. After all, if French products are claimed to be compromised by competitors in other markets, this would affect anyone who represents French products, even in the U.S.
The swiss IGP was very instrumental in the achievement of an amendment proposal. Was it a key trigger, a point of leverage in an action that has been going for quite some time before, or … A master plan of some sort, involving the Swiss ?
We understand the reasons for the Swiss IGP filing, but this is the wrong way to do it for many reasons. We were surprised by this, and while we understand the Swiss want to keep inferior industrial products out of the Swiss market, it is unfair that the Swiss would be able to sell their products everywhere, while I would no longer be able to sell my products in Switzerland, despite the fact that my products meet all the criteria of the Swiss definition of absinthe. The Swiss need our help in their effort as much as we need their help in our efforts outside of Switzerland. For the Swiss to throw other artisan producers out with the garbage is like Belgian beer producers to file an IGP to reserve “beer” only for them and claim that German beers can no longer be labeled as “beer”. Absinthe cannot be tied to one small geographical region, simply because it was produced in several countries throughout history.
The Swiss IGP provided us with the opportunity to make a legal case to overturn the illegality problem of “absinthe” in France, where absinthe is no longer banned by content, only in name. This makes no sense. Mr. Senilhes was very efficient in seizing the moment, and this was done with the support of the FFS.
Our sources tell us that the amendment was proposed through the Federation Francaise des Spiritueux and with added pressure from Pernod Ricard. Did the giant actually answer to your wake up call (in other terms, did you “poke the beast”), or did you meet their legal teams on the way ? Or am I getting this completely wrong ?
I have no idea of P-R’s interest or involvement, so I cannot comment.
On to other topics : don’t you find it quite Ironic that it takes an American to change the French law regarding a part of the French culture and history ? How do you explain that ?
Is also ironic that my family name (Breaux) came originally from the Loire and Bordeaux, and another part of my family (Dubs) came from the Doubs area in Switzerland?
Perhaps it seems strange because I’m an American, but I believe in challenging something I feel is unfair and unjust. Where others may be content to find a way around an obstacle, I believe in removing it. For me to go around that obstacle would be to rewrite history, and this goes against my principles. This legal effort, although successful, has cost us much money and time. We have asked nothing from other French distillers in this fight, and we have received nothing. All we ask is for proper credit and a little appreciation for this gift.
And apart from that all, could you tell us about other actions you are leading to break the bad reputation of absinthe (eg. thujone.info ) ?
I began researching absinthe 17 years ago, and have invested unceasing effort and time into returning this tradition to its Franco-Swiss roots. I have witnessed this tradition being hijacked by profiteers from various countries, and pillaged by those who attempt to rewrite history in attempts to defraud consumers. Fortunately, with ongoing help from my peers in the industry who are also historians, we are turning the tide of misinformation. Distillation makes up only a small part of my professional life. Most of my travels are in the name of education, and I travel throughout the U.S. and other countries almost constantly to educate the spirits industry and consumers about absinthe.
To conclude, I suppose that things will not stop with the repeal of the ban. Some French absintheurs fear that this repeal would pave the way for the mass production/importation of “sub-products” (for example czechsinthe). Do you have plans to counter that ? Something in the lines of an AOC (along the lines of what François Guy is working on) ? Or do you think it may be a good thing ? And in case you would think about a regulation, how would you imagine it ? Something has harsh as the swiss IGP, or more “open minded” ? And in that case, how would you define that ?
There is an amusing American quote: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” What French absintheurs surely realize is there are industrial, inferior ‘absinthes’ being produced France and marketed as ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ in France and elsewhere, so the damage is already being done. An AOC for absinthe would an isolationist action that attempts to serve some while excluding others, and is similar to the Swiss IGP petition. It solves a problem for a few and creates a problem for everyone else. The first step to controlling the situation is to remove the illegality of the word “absinthe”. Already you have seen the progress made with that issue.
Next, those of us in the industry who have a passion for distilling absinthe must work together to petition for an EU-wide legal definition of absinthe that should be partly modeled on the Swiss definition to provide for the best chance of acceptance. This must consist of at least two parts, one part that is very basic to suit the industrial interests (which is unfortunate but necessary), and another part that adopts the Swiss definition for those of us who invest our time and energy in preserving our artisanal craft. This gives the best chance of regulatory acceptance. Products that meet the Swiss rules would be allowed to differentiate themselves by being permitted to use a phrase like “Absinthe Supérieure” on the label. Consumers deserve a way to know what they are buying, because right now, inferior, industrial ‘absinthes’ are offered at the same price as the better, more historically authentic artisanal marques. This is profitable for industrial interests, but bad for consumers and artisanal producers. Remember that the primary purpose of legal definitions and clarifications is to protect consumers. Without such a regulation, the European market will remain the minefield that it is for consumers, and Switzerland will remain the only safe zone.
Photos by Steve Williams, 2007