Thank you Agent Gillmore! Without you, I’d be absent my Absinthe.
Absinthe, long a banned beverage in this country, is now legal to bring into, and make within, the United States. But try telling that to the U.S. Customs Service border agents at the Pacific Highway crossing between British Columbia and Washington, and you are likely to have your absinthe absented from your possession . . . unless you are lucky enough to have agent Gillmore helping you.
Absinthe is all the rage right now. Since it has been made legal again all manner of craft distillers are experimenting with their versions of Absinthe.
On a recent trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, I bought a bottle of Taboo Absinthe made by Okanagan Spirits, an innovative and interesting producer of eaux de vie, grappa, liqueurs, and Absinthe in the wine-centric Okanagan Valley interior. I believe their Absinthe may be the third produced in North America, after California’s St. George Absinthe and Portland’s Trillium.
I had sought the Taboo Absinthe on previous trips with no luck, and was excited to get a bottle to bring home this time, even at the $55 Canadian, which at the time was just about the same in U.S. dollars (the rate has dropped again in only the last two weeks thanks to the economic crisis). It never occurred to me that I’d have a problem getting it back into the U.S.
After enduring an hour-long wait in the lineup of cars attempting to cross the border before I got to the crossing station, I was eager to be on my way—not the least of which was due to the buildup of pressure caused by two earlier coffees.
When I pulled up to the border booth the agent asked why I had been in Canada, how long I was there, the name of the person I had been visiting, and if I had brought anything back with me. While these questions were definitely a bit more than I was used to, I answered them all, including the fact that I had bought a bottle of booze. One bottle. I was entitled to two, but I had only bought one.
“Let me see it,” the agent said . . . which was the first time in dozens of crossings at either of the two border stations along I-5 that I had ever been asked to show what I had purchased. I passed over the BC Liquor Store bag containing my presciently named Taboo Absinthe.
“This is Absinthe. It is illegal. You can’t bring this into the United States,” the agent said curtly.
“Well,” I replied, somewhat surprised, “I understood that the law had been changed. I know it is legal to have absinthe in the U.S. since I can buy it at my liquor store in Portland.”
“This is absinthe. It is illegal. You can’t bring this into the United States,” he repeated.
He then proceeded to write out my license number, passport number, and who knows what else onto a bright orange sticky form which he slapped to my windshield and said as he pointed yonder, “Go over there.”
I drove to an adjacent building and parked. I took the form, my offending bottle of Absinthe, my passport, and my somewhat strained urinary system into a completely filled waiting room festooned with signs proclaiming the total lack of bathroom facilities.
Great. The irony of the name “Taboo” no longer seemed cute.
I waited as the line moved at a glacial pace. I wondered why the point of no bathrooms. Would malefactors waiting in line get so overcome with the need to pee that they’d break down and admit their crimes? Some 45 minutes later, I finally stood in front of Agent Gillmore, an unsmiling fellow with an unsettling resemblance to Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator.
“This is Absinthe. It is illegal. You can’t bring this into the United States,” he said. Had he been listening in on my encounter with the first agent, or are they all trained to speak that line? How many Absinthe smugglers did they encounter in a given day?
Calmly I said that, of course, he was the ultimate authority and he could do whatever he wanted, but that I published a magazine on food and wine and it was my understanding that the law had been changed and I knew for a fact that Absinthe was being made in the U.S. and I would be happy to give him the name of two producers so that he might check with them or their websites as to the veracity of my claim but that, of course, I could possibly be incorrect and didn’t want him to think me too insistent . . .
He took the bottle and inspected it. He passed it to a neighboring agent who inspected it equally intently.
“See,” he turned to me, “it says here ‘wormwood,’ and that is illegal, and it is a product of Canada not the U.S. It is illegal.”
I said that, yes, it was made in Canada by a company in the Okanagan Valley, as a matter of fact, and that it was the third one legally made in North America and that yes, it did contain wormwood, but that it had been established that wormwood was not a hallucinogen and that I understood the law had been changed and that Absinthe was now legal to both bring into the U.S. and actually to be made here . . . and that I’d be happy to give him the name of two producers . . .
They looked through their computer and came up with some Federal website that confirmed their stance that it was illegal.
Politely, but firmly and with what I hoped was engaging friendliness, I wondered how it was that Absinthe could be made in the U.S. if it wasn’t legal.
Agent Gillmore picked up the bottle and said he’d be back in a minute. He disappeared for ten minutes and came back, unsmiling. He put the bottle down on his desk and frowned at it. Wherever he had gone with it, he hadn’t returned with results that satisfied him. He picked up his phone and punched in a number. It was busy.
I smiled and said I was sorry to put him through this (I’m sorry to put him through this?) but that I had written about Absinthe in my magazine and all I wanted to do was bring back one bottle of this liquid that I understood to now be legal, so that I could sample it and write about it for my readers, and that I really appreciated his attempts to find out if I would be able to do that or not.
He gave the first crack of a smile and said “we wouldn’t want to get in the way of a gourmet,” and then took the bottle up again and disappeared somewhere else.
Six or seven minutes later he came back, picked up the phone, punched in a number and said “This is Agent Gillmore at Pacific Highway. I have a bottle of Absinthe here and the citizen claims it is legal to bring it in now.”
There was a long pause.
He glanced up at me.
And then another long pause.
Finally I heard Agent Gillmore say into the phone “It would be nice if someone told us about it!”
He hung up, picked up the bottle and shoved it at me. “You can be on your way.” He turned to the other agent and said “He’s right. It’s legal. They’re going to send out a memo.”
I thanked him profusely, apologized for putting him through all this, told him how much I appreciated all his efforts, and mentioned that if they ever did a movie about U.S. Customs Agents I knew which actor would play him.
“Yeah, it would have to be Russell Crowe.”
“Russell Crowe!?” he said with obvious disgust. “People usually say I look like Kevin Spacey, but never Russell Crowe.”
I was thankful that I hadn’t made my attempt at friendly camaraderie earlier in my ordeal, since he was so clearly perturbed at my comparison to Russell Crowe.
I took my bottle and hightailed it out of the building . . . and sped toward the first exit I could find off the freeway to finally get rid of my morning coffee.