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Jul 11, 201309:18 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

Are Moonshine and Absinthe Legal? Really?

Don Dudenbostel, 2011

The history of Americans’ relationship with drinking alcohol-based beverages throughout our nation’s existence has been one of four approaches, often simultaneous with each other. We have attempted Tolerance, a peaceful coexistence among the segments of the population that desired to use the product and those who preferred they did not, but were willing to accept a neighbor’s right to make their own choices.


We’ve given Prohibition a go. Banning the liquid almost completely, maybe with the best of intentions, but failing miserably and giving rise to a savage criminal element that is firmly entrenched in our midst even to this day, over 80 years after the repeal of "The Noble Experiment."


We have implemented strict laws and regulations regarding distribution and sales. When can outlets sell alcohol beverages? Which types of outlets can sell? Can alcohol from one jurisdiction travel to another without restriction?


And then lastly we have continued to inflict tax, sometimes at escalating levels. The thought on taxation is two-fold: 1) If you want to participate in drinking alcoholic beverages, it’s going to cost you, and that money will help operate the government; and 2) high taxes on “sin” may deter you from imbibing, and so, indirectly, your government has done you a great service. That last approach seems to have lost favor with the American people over the past 20 years and so high taxes on alcoholic beverages, alongside gasoline and tobacco products, today are more directly related to fulfilling the monetary needs of government rather than bothering with the pseudo-social cost. 


At any rate, back in the bad old days of Prohibition, and even before, there were two products that were “illegal,” which meant everybody wanted some. Moonshine is a classic American response to government avoidance and being close to the raw materials. Absinthe simply has a checkered history, with artistic, often false, depictions of what it can do to a body. Those tales just about did the beverage in.


Today, both are legal with multiple labels being available to a thirsty and curious public.


Moonshine was made, and still is for the most part, in Appalachia, high in the rolling hills of Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee. The name likely comes from an English term, moonraker, which means smuggler. The liquid itself is very sharp in taste and smell due to high-alcohol levels, usually in excess of 50 percent, and the liquid is clear because there are no barrels involved. The end product of the distillation goes directly from the still to the bottle, making for a quick return on investment of equipment and time.  


Legal moonshine is really the only way to interface with the product. You just never know what’s in the other stuff that a friend of a good friend of an auto mechanic in Georgia has made and boy-it’s-powerful-try-it. Being a good sport is one thing. This goes beyond that and can result in all sorts of bad outcomes.


Moonshine to be trusted includes CatDaddy Spiced, Ole Smoky, Midnight Moon and Tim Smith Moonshine. A number of moonshine packages are of the old Ball Mason Jar style, which adds somewhat of a throwback air of originality. Cute but not likely the same manufacturer that gave rise to the legend of Thunder Road and the development of the stock car racing circuit.


Absinthe’s history is a bit more genteel, with beginnings in Switzerland in the late 18th century. Also a highly alcoholic, up to 74 percent alcohol by volume, distilled spirit, absinthe, when enjoyed by itself, has a whole ritual of fresh, cool water, through slotted spoon, a cube of sugar, all done so slowly. It was quite the beverage of Parisian and New Orleans café society, although back then it appears their version was a bit more civilized than our version.


Absinthe was beloved by writers and artists of the late 19th century, with incredible tales of hallucinations, apparitions, out-of-body experiences and lopping off body parts while the artist was still using them, all supposedly due to the byproduct of wormwood, an herb from which absinthe is made and one of its active ingredients, thujone. No one ever thought that the incredibly high level of alcohol in absinthe caused these normally stable individuals to flip-out. Those crazy actions were blamed on the thujone. For an Enlightened Age, they sure did not add up 2 + 2 very well.


Anyway, because most of the absinthe-consuming nations thought they were outlawing the stuff (turns out they weren’t), most people thought it was illegal and absinthe became impossible to find except in a few outlier countries like Portugal and Australia.


It was really a New Orleanian, Ted Breaux, a chemist with Shell Oil in Norco, who became curious about this taboo beverage, and in his research, found that all those many years of no absinthe was for naught. He petitioned the U.S. Government for approval of Lucid, his own brand, and then almost 200 other distillers followed his example. It’s safe to say that there are plenty of absinthe labels on the market today.


The old way to enjoy Absinthe, in the manner Belle Époque café society did, actually has fallen out of favor. The spirit is now used in a wide variety of cocktails, and even as a baking ingredient. The Sazerac, official cocktail of New Orleans as declared by our City Council, makes excellent use of the alcohol and anise qualities of absinthe. Ya’ don’t need much to make a real difference.


And so, with absinthe and moonshine, what was once completely illegal has become respectable. I will refrain from other patently obvious correlations. It is not my place to suggest one thing or another. It’s all I can do to correctly get out of bed in the morning. 



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Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans


In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.


Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and weekly columnist, Happy Hour, for www.MyNewOrleans.com; creator and editor of his own website, www.winetalknola.com; all in addition to his daily hosting duties on the radio program, The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every weekday, 3- 5 p.m, and streamed live on www.wgso.com.


Over the years, Tim has proved to be an informed interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.


Tim’s love of wine actually came about many years ago from his then wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.


They were instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major national and international well-regarded festival of its type. They both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now over twenty years old.


Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, Florida Wine Festival Competition, the State of Michigan Wine Competition, the U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.


Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.


Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.


It’s a good gig. 




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