Bootleg Magic

03.10.14

The Absinthe-Minded Porteños of Buenos Aires

A scattered group of absinthe lovers are beginning to come together in the Paris of South America to make and drink the green fairy. There’s only one problem—it’s largely illegal.

Inside an old key-cutting shop on a quiet residential street in the Villa Urquiza neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Nico Fernández and Luis Murillo are intently watching a sixty-five liter copper still. Inside, a potent maceration of wormwood, herbs, and alcohol slowly bubbles its way up the neck of the still and then onwards through the long, copper pipeline to freedom. This is the distillery of Los Tigres de la Ira. They're making absinthe, and it's illegal. Like, really illegal.

With no signage on the front of the building and partially frosted glass windows, it's easy to walk right by without noticing the illicit distillery. But on the other side of the glass door, bootleg magic is being made. Fernández and Murillo, who both look to be in their early-thirties, are halfway through the forty-hour distillation process of their traditional Suisse verte-style absinthe. They take shifts tending to the still. It must never go unsupervised. The riveted copper seams have been sealed with a dried mixture of flour and water, and, should any seals give way to the rising steam, the boys must be quick to patch up the hole with more paste before too much precious vapor escapes. As the absinthe billows its way down into the lower coil, they must also constantly replace the bottle of ice water that hastens the cooling process. It's tedious work, but Fernández and Murillo seem to truly love it.

For locals in Buenos Aires (called Porteños), the intrigue of the infamous green spirit dates back over a hundred years. When the Spanish colonists arrived in South America, they preferred to settle in resource-rich Mexico and Peru, so Argentina, the hulk at the end of the world, remained only sparsely populated through the 1800s. After a series of bloody civil wars decreased the population even further, the powers-that-be decided the only way to save the country was to encourage outsiders to move in. When lawmakers penned Argentina’s very first constitution in 1853, they made sure to banish all barriers to immigration. And so, at the dawn of the 20th century, a wave of Italian, Spanish, Slavic, and Swiss immigrants poured into Argentina and set about reshaping the face of the country forever. The Europeans brought more with them than just a taste for fashion. They also brought labor unions, anarchism, socialism, and, of course, absinthe.

“Almost all of the bitters, whiskeys, or absinthes you see in Buenos Aires are illegal," he says. "They probably came here in somebody's backpack.”

It wasn't long before absinthe (which Porteños call “ajenjo”) found its way into the slums, where another cultural revolution was taking place: the tango. References to ajenjo can be found in the lyrics of tango songs that date as far back as the 1920s, when the dance had begun to gyrate its way from the streets and the bordellos of the slums into the middle-class barrios of Buenos Aires. In 1981, during Argentina's last military dictatorship, authorities finally caught wind of the green fairy's reputed sorcery and banned the drink, passing Articulo 1123 which stated: "We hereby prohibit the manufacture, possession and sale of spirits prepared with wormwood (absinthe) and of similar spirits that contain it or imitate. Similar spirits are those whose scent and predominant flavor are those of anise and which slowly reduce to 15° by the addition of four volumes of distilled water, drop by drop, and a cloudiness that does not disappear completely."

Because of the ban, bars that served absinthe grew increasingly paranoid. The only way to get a glass was to order it using the secret code word, “tanqueta,” which translates as “small tank.” The absinthe ban lasted until 2010, when Articulo 1123 was ever-so-quietly repealed. Due to the secrecy of the repeal, most Porteños are under the impression that absinthe is highly illegal to this day. And they’re not wrong—some of it still is. The regulation of absinthe now falls under the general Argentine food code, which, in 1988, was modified to state that all spirits must contain less than 54 percent alcohol. Anything higher is contraband. For the guys watching the copper still over at Los Tigres de la Ira, this creates a problem.

"Making absinthe with less than 54 percent alcohol degrades the quality of the herbs during the maceration process," says Fernández, the Chilean-born architect-cum-absintheur behind Los Tigres de la Ira. With a focus on quality and authenticity, Fernández and his business partner Murillo, chose to shirk the law when they began distilling in 2011 and decided to produce absinthe that is 72 percent alcohol. And I'm happy they did.

Just after 3 p.m., Murillo breaks out the fountain, the absinthe glasses, the ice water, the spoons, and the sugar cubes. First, we try their classic Suisse verte edition that is distilled using Pierre Duplais' much-favored recipe from his 1871 booze bible, A Treatise On The Manufacture And Distillation Of Alcoholic Liquors. In the glass, the pure absinthe is an alluring deep green until the ice water begins to drip over the sugar cube and into the liquid, creating the infamous cloudy louche effect (this emulsification is a reaction between the oils in the anise and the icy water—and it's a damn fine sight to behold). At first, the taste is bright and mostly of fennel, then it slides into anise, and then fades away with a minty finish. It's really a pleasure to drink, and with four-parts ice water, it's smooth and light. Fernández and Murillo share a glass, I drink one all to myself. I ask Murillo why he and Fernández aren't behind bars by now. "As long as we distill less than around two-hundred liters per month, the government doesn't seem to mind," he says. I tell him that, in my hometown of Toronto, they would have been crucified long ago.

Next, Murillo opens a bottle of their Special Edition, which they distill every six months on the solstice. For this variation, they include some additional herbs, one of which is chamomile, and age the absinthe for three months in an oak barrel. In the glass, the color is mellowed by the oak and is a mossier green. But where the color has mellowed, the flavor has exploded. Strong fennel and wormwood hit the back of my tongue along with a dryness from the barrel and hints of citrus from the chamomile. Murillo mentions that, of the six or seven bars in Buenos Aires that stock Los Tigres de la Ira absinthe, most of them carry both editions. Again, the guys share their glass of absinthe—perhaps because they must remain alert for the next twenty hours of distillation. Floating upon the wings of a mid-day absinthe buzz, I leave Fernández and Murillo in the old key-cutting shop, babysitting their sixty-five liter copper still.

In the interest of “thorough research” and “journalistic merit,” I “force” myself to visit one of the local bars that serves Los Tigres de la Ira absinthe to taste it in the wild. The Verne Club is a hip, steampunky cocktail club in Palermo Soho inspired by, you guessed it, Jules Verne. The inside of the bar, which is designed to make patrons feel as though they are inside Captain Nemo's Nautilus, is complete with rounded copper walls, port holes, Persian carpets, tufted leather couches, and metal gears inset beneath the glass on the bar (it's not nearly as kitschy as it sounds).

Federico Cuco, one of four owners at The Verne Club as well as its esteemed head-bartender, welcomes me just before the nighttime cocktail rush. As we walk to the bar, we pass a picture of Jules Verne hanging on the wall. "Hola, Julio," Cuco says casually. Displayed proudly on the bar top is a beautifully crafted, four-spout absinthe fountain filled with slowly melting ice. I feel as though I've come to the right place. Cuco presents all of the different brands of absinthe he stocks, among which are Suisse verts, blanchettes (clear absinthes), faux absinthes, and both editions of Los Tigres de la Ira.

"We have everything from high quality Vieux Pontarlier absinthe to fake NV absinthe from La Fée. We use the fake stuff in cocktails," Cuco says. "But preparing absinthe with a fountain is really the only way to enjoy it. Only five or six bars in Buenos Aires actually have a proper fountain," he explains. I order the Special Edition from Los Tigres de la Ira. After touching the glass of the fountain to ensure it's cold enough, Cuco prepares my drink with spoon and sugar. There is something about being in Captain Nemo's Nautilus that makes the absinthe taste even better.

I ask Cuco how The Verne Club gets illegal, over-proof alcohol like absinthe through the fine-toothed comb of Argentine customs. "Almost all of the bitters, whiskeys, or absinthes you see in Buenos Aires are illegal," he says. "They probably came here in somebody's backpack. We buy them off these illegal importers. Our receipts just say olive oil or Absolute Vodka or something."

Next, I order a glass of the Vieux Pontarlier. Created by pro-absintheur Peter Schaf, the 130 proof Suisse verte is distilled in the historic absinthe capital of Pontarlier, France using Burgundy grapes and local Pontarlier wormwood, which is considered to be among the finest on the planet. Like the Special Edition from Los Tigres de la Ira, Vieux Pontarlier is made using Pierre Duplais's pre-ban recipe from his 1871 opus. The opalescent, minty-green louche billows under the ice water droplets. The taste is intense, with hard-hitting wormwood flavor and lemony undertones. It very subtly numbs the tongue.

Still not convinced I have experienced enough of the absinthe culture in Buenos Aires, I “push myself” to just one more awesome bar known for its absinthe and cocktails. At the secret Harrison Speakeasy, I meet up with Leandro Milan, the ringleader of a Buenos Aires-based absinthe-admiration society called the Green Saints.

Seba Garcia, Harrison's head bartender, starts us off with a Belle Époque: the juice of one lime, one shot of Absinthe 35, and simple syrup shaken with ice and poured into chilled, vintage champagne coupes and garnished with orange peel. Absinthe 35 is distilled by L'Or in the Czech Republic. With 70 percent alcohol and the European Union maximum of 35mg of thujone (the active ingredient in wormwood), Absinthe 35 packs one hell of a punch. It's anise-free, so the flavor is pretty much all wormwood. It works perfectly in the cocktail.

"There are around twenty of us Green Saints," Milan says as we enjoy our Belle Époques. "We get together on Friday or Saturday nights and drink absinthe and talk about philosophy, history, or politics." The group, which is made up of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and psychiatrists, usually drinks homemade brews from Chile or the popular Hapsburg brand absinthe, which Milan illegally imports from London via mules in Paraguay because of its 72 percent alcohol level. Of course, to absinthe connoisseurs like Fernández and Murillo from Los Tigres de la Ira, Hapsburg absinthe is nothing more than liquorice-flavored vodka. It's made with herb essences and artificial colors. It's what Cuco from The Verne Club would call “fake.”

Reaching the bottom of our glasses, we make our way back to Garcia who prepares us Hemingway's famous Death in the Afternoon: a small scoop of granulated sugar in the bottom of a chilled champagne flute and half a shot of Los Tigres de la Ira's Suisse verte absinthe topped with iced Chandon. I ask Milan, who has been bringing bottles of Hapsburg into Argentina for three years now, what sort of consequences he would face if he was caught. "It's never happened," he says, "but I think the police would just break the bottles."

After saying goodbye to Milan, Garcia insists on making me one final cocktail. I ask what the name of the cocktail is. "It doesn't have a name," he says coyly. In a shaker he muddles fresh cucumber and simple syrup. He adds two dashes of Peychaud's bitters, one shot of Los Tigres de la Ira's Suisse verte, some lemon juice, and an egg white. After shaking, he pours the opaque, green liquid through a strainer and into a chilled champagne coupe. The egg white creates a thick, foamy head. Together, we decide that the drink should be called a Cucumber Superlative.

While a distinct absinthe community has yet to crystallize, isolated pockets of enthusiasts are popping up in Buenos Aires: distillers, drinkers, and mixers. And one thing is sure: nobody really knows what the laws are regarding absinthe here in the Paris of South America. And nobody seems to care. Like many things in Buenos Aires, absinthe seems to fall into a sort of legal grey area. No harm, no foul. People exchange black market currencies on the street in broad daylight. People also drive their motorcycles without helmets. And people drink absinthe. Who cares? It's Latin America—there are bigger fish to fry.