Absinthe's Atonement: The devil in the bottle seeks to redress its sordid––if melodramatic––past
Legendary for its ability to reveal the universe’s secrets to some while leaving others catatonic, absinthe––the “green fairy of the Moulin Rouge”––was recently set free in America after a century incarcerated in the caves of illegality and disrepute.
Throughout history, absinthe has been credited with inspiring a range of famous creative acts from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell to Van Gogh’s severed ear. Today, artistic types still seek their muse in the wispy emerald sprite. Johnny Depp is a longtime fan. Marilyn Manson drinks absinthe exclusively. But to most people, it remains an enigma. Owen Dunne, former manager of Absinthe Brasserie in San Francisco and now co-owner of Odessa and Pravda in downtown Wilmington, finds absinthe’s parole intriguing.
From a local business standpoint, though, he shrugs indifferently. “Absinthe is definitely a hard sell, requiring an informed bartender willing to turn his customers on to new products,” Dunne said. “But at least with absinthe, there is a huge amount of history to work with.“
I asked 10 random people to share their mind’s first association with absinthe. About three-fourths of the responses evoked a scene similar to a sepulcher, where a circle of chanting cloaks brewed an incantation of opiates below a virgin sacrificed on a stone altar.
With such a haunting public perception, is there any surprise absinthe been banned up until recently? Yet the truth, according to New Orleans biologist/chemist Ted Breaux, has been “greatly exaggerated.“
I met Breaux last summer in New Orleans during the Tales of the Cocktail, an annual event celebrating the history of cocktail culture. Resembling more line-backer than scientist, Breaux explained the myth behind absinthe’s mind-altering and hallucinogenic effects. While 19th-century scientists rightly identified the main culprit as thujone, a neurotoxin found in wormwood, modern chemical analysis now proves previous thujone estimates were aggressive. Breaux’s findings indicate a person would die of alcohol poisoning long before consuming enough absinthe to get a substantial dose of thujone. “It is also interesting to note,” he said, “common sage contains up to 10 times more thujone than wormwood.“
In 1996, intrigued after a colleague’s casual mention of “a green liquid that made people crazy,” Breaux began locating bottles of pre-ban absinthe, most from New Orleans estate sales. Using a syringe to extract samples through the century-old corks, he then used a reverse-engineering process to identify the elements. His conclusion includes well-known ingredients: grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), florence fennel and green anise. Other herbs (hyssop, angelica root, coriander, etc.) were steeped after the initial distillation for further refinement and color.
What began as dabbling in chemistry has led to a full-on production of vintage absinthe within an historic French distillery. With the recent backing of Viridian Spirits in New York, Breaux created Lucid, Absinthe Superieure, and on May 1, the first shipment of genuine absinthe in 95 years was legally received in the U.S.
Lucid, created via original Pernod Fils equipment engineered by Gustave Eiffel, is Breaux’s most recent ripple throughout the world of absinthe aficionados.
While currently only available in New York City and the Hamptons, Lucid is an approved item available to North Carolina markets. Whether or not it will be carried in local ABC stores, according to Mike Herring, state administrator of ABC, will be determined by local ABC boards’ projected demand. New Hanover ABC board representative, Billie Conner, reports my inquiry as the first into Lucid’s availability. Like most obscure brands, according to Conner, once production allows for its availability in North Carolina, Lucid will initially be available on a special-order basis.
Why has history been so unkind to absinthe? The truth behind the tarnished reputation begins with artisinal absinthe production’s inability to keep up with the public’s crushing demand. During the late 1800s, a beetle infestation completely devastated French terrior.
Once all but the most expansive wine cellars ran empty, absinthe production peaked at 36 million liters a year. But while spirits such as cognac were kept under strict quality control, the same scrutiny over absinthe was never practiced. Sensing an opportunity, profiteers filled the demand by passing off adulterated versions as the real thing.
“What was once a highly refined product affordable only by Bohemia elite,” Breaux says, “was essentially ruined by manufacturers of cheap imitations infused with toxic chemicals and perfumed dyes.” At the same time, the French government, attempting to reign in the drunken epidemic, initiated a campaign to demonize absinthe. Breaux is fond of his slide collection of anti-absinthe propaganda depicting it as a “social menace” better suited for an enclave of witches than something safely consumed by the public.
The tipping point came in 1905 when a Swiss farmer killed his wife and children after a long day in which he consumed more than a dozen drinks, two of which were absinthe. Nonetheless, the trial became known as The Absinthe Murders. By 1910, absinthe was illegal in Switzerland. In 1912, the U.S. capitulated. In 1915, France followed suit, solidifying absinthe’s place as an icon of freedom among subversives.
Now, 100 years later, the producers of Lucid seek to capitalize on absinthe’s mystique, first by paying homage to the famous 1881 Montemartre cabaret Le Chat Noir playbill’s signature glowing eyes inscribed on the bottle.
Around the area, most bartenders remain baffled by what exactly makes “genuine absinthe.” The recurring question seems to be, how does the current popular substitute, Absente, differ? Marketed as a “refined version,” Absente employs Southern or “petite” wormwood instead of grande wormwood, which has been used for centuries as a cure-all. It’s also the main controversial ingredient in Lucid.
While Lucid is slated to retail just below $60 a bottle (approximately $11 per pour), many question the impact it will have replacing contemporary imitations like Absente, sold at roughly one-third the price. At 124 proof, Lucid has a higher alcohol content than Absente (110 proof).
“We would welcome (Lucid),” said Marcus Womer, proprietor of Worm Woods in downtown Wilmington. Resembling more of a traditional American pub, Worm Woods seems an unlikely place to specialize in what many consider an elitist European cocktail. Worm Woods being coincidentally similar to his last name, Womer initially named his establishment without absinthe in mind, yet quickly sought to fill the demand his customers showed in the enigmatic liquor.
After sipping my second Absente (Worm Woods’ house limit), I headed home to compare notes with one of Breaux’s authentic reproductions purchased for 50 euro via www.jadeliquors.com.
I poured about an ounce of Breaux’s version of the famous Belle Epoque variety Edouard 72 into a heavy, stemmed glass. Playing back my audio notes from our interview in New Orleans, I remembered Breaux imitating a person placing a sugar cube atop a slotted spoon (his resembling an aspen leaf). I slowly drizzled icy water into the cup until diluted 3:1, resulting in a milky opalescence blossoming the component herbs.
My first reaction was surprise at the smoothness. A hint of mint. The familiar astringent grasp on the back of the tongue. Bold, with a nose not unlike black licorice. And warm like liquid fire glazing my throat. Absente, in comparison, was like KoolAid.
“Depending on the palate, a good quality absinthe may not require sugar,” Breaux’s voice projected from my tape-recorder. “Yet under no circumstance should you set it on fire. Absinthe aficionados consider that fictitious Hollywood invention a ruinous and wasteful practice.“
I sipped slowly, as thoughts of shedding my current life for one in which I was meant to finally finish my novel enveloped my mind. Entranced by the world’s possibilities, I turned off the tape, downed the last of my cup, pulled the dusty manuscript from the bottom of the pile on my desk and went to work.