Early Monday morning, Philadelphia Distilling Company master distiller and co-founder Robert Cassell showed up for work expecting to begin the tedious process of distilling Vieux Carre, PDC’s absinthe that debuted in 2008. The only problem? No wormwood, the controversial herb used in absinthe and one that some say causes hallucinations but almost certainly doesn’t. Cassell normally gets the herb from a farm in Switzerland. But not this week. “I asked my assistant where the wormwood was, but he said it hadn’t arrived yet,” explains Cassell. “I said, WHAT? It was supposed to be here last week!” And without wormwood, there could be no Vieux Carre.
Cassell’s two boxes of dried wormwood were (and still are) in New York at JFK International Airport, where officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection have delayed their shipment to PDC headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia. The distiller says that he normally doesn’t have a problem importing the herb but that this time around, there are paperwork issues.
“This is my second order of the year,” he says. “I got another order just a month ago. And I placed this order as normal, same grower, same harvest, same shipper. But they keep requesting more and more documents and information. They say they need a better English translation of what it is. They want to know what I’m going to use it for, what my ‘purposeful intent’ is. It’s a slew of stuff that is double over what we usually have to supply.”
Cassell went on to say that he was given no explanation for the change in procedure and adds that he actually had to fill out two separate sets of paperwork, one for each identical box. “I’m just lucky that I found out when I did,” he points out. “48 more hours and they would have sent it back to Switzerland. And then I’d really be screwed.”
Since he couldn’t start production on the absinthe, Cassell spent Monday going through resumes (note to the un- or underemployed: they’re looking for someone with brewing experience that wants to learn distillation), speccing out a hammer mill (it’s used to mill the grains used in distillation, and Cassell is having one built by “a guy in Lititz, Pennsylvania”) and blending vodka. He hopes to get to work on the absinthe later this week, assuming that the federal government operates in an efficient and expeditious manner.
Yeah, good luck with that.
A press officer for the Customs office in New York was not immediately available for comment.