For the past three years it has been legal, once again, to sell absinthe in America. So far I have seen no noteworthy spike in violent crime, creativity, or especially wanton debauchery, all of which were purported results of regular absinthe drinking in its heyday, starting in the 1860s. On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where absinthe consumption rivaled that of France, an early-20th-century visitor reported seeing the bodies of absinthe-crazed young men rolling off the tin roofs near the Old Absinthe House. In France an absinthe drinker named Jean Lanfray killed his entire family, a highly publicized incident known as the "absinthe murders" and said to have been the chief reason France banned the spirit in 1915, three years after the Americans did.
As it happened, Lanfray was also a wine-swilling drunk, and the ban can be more accurately attributed to pressure from vintners concerned about the effect of absinthe's burgeoning popularity on their business (36 million liters of the stuff was consumed in 1910 alone). French pride came into play as well; generals happily blamed early losses during World War I on absinthe drinking among the troops.
The bad-boy writers and artists who claimed that absinthe enhanced their creativity—and who met less than auspicious ends—could not have helped matters much. Oscar Wilde described the sensation of tulips suddenly growing through the floor of a Paris watering hole and brushing against his shins; Rimbaud called absinthe his "beautiful madness." Ernest Hemingway invented a cocktail made with a shot of absinthe topped with chilled champagne. He called it "death in the afternoon"—and we all know what happened to him. The very act of adding water to an ounce of absinthe, the traditional way to serve it, is synonymous with morally questionable behavior. In the ritual called La Louche, chilled ice water from an absinthe fountain (a cylindrical glass container with spouts) or a topette (a small decanter) is poured into an absinthe glass over a slotted spoon containing a lump of sugar.
Despite its name, this dilution is not actually a bad thing. Absinthe is made by macerating herbs and spices, including anise and fennel, with the grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) that gives the drink its name. Wormwood contains a chemical widely blamed for absinthe-induced mad behavior, but it seems to me that the more likely culprit is the alcohol content, which can be as high as 70 percent (or 140 proof)—Jack Daniel's is 40 percent alcohol.
This go-round, absinthe is far more trendy than dangerous—its reintroduction in the middle of America's prolonged cocktail renaissance means it is often an ingredient rather than the main event. It is, in fact, a cocktail that is causing the only real controversy. Last year, after weeks of debate, the Louisiana Legislature voted the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans. It took 10 separate votes to settle the matter, but the question remains unanswered: which Sazerac? The original, said to be the world's first cocktail, was made by Antoine Peychaud with cognac, absinthe, and bitters. The cognac long ago morphed into rye, and the locally made Herbsaint replaced the absinthe after the ban. In the 1950s the original Herbsaint was replaced by a slightly sweeter, less complex version. Now, in addition to absinthe, the original Herbsaint is back on the market. In barrooms across town, tastings are staged and the debate rages.
I'm staying out of it, preferring my absinthe straight, especially if it's the new, small-batch version from the brilliant guys at Germain-Robin (available at caddellwilliams.com). Made from a brandy base with lots of lemon accents, it has a relatively modest alcohol content of 48.5 percent. Which is why, unlike Wilde, I have yet to see tulips growing up my legs.