It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I am trying to get a good louche going, the cloudy effect that occurs when cold water is slowly added to absinthe and its essential oils rouse from the liquid like a dancing fairy. A Green Fairy, perhaps.
I’m using Lucid, a small production absinthe made in France’s Loire Valley, and because I don’t have a fancy absinthe spoon or fountain, I’m making do with an ice scoop strainer and a water goblet, which is a miserable failure.
The water is dripping in too fast. I’m omitting the sugar, through which the water would ordinarily pass on its way into the glass in this French traditional method. But I suspect Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso—who loved the green spirit—would approve nonetheless.
I try a tea strainer instead, and that works a little better. The result of my experiment was surprising: an herbal and dynamic liquor with medium body and velvety mouthfeel that was also light mint in color, unlike the slime green versions I’d seen as a study abroad student in Prague. It was not gross.
“It definitely does not have to be gross,” confirms Brian Robinson, media liaison for The Wormwood Society Absinthe Association, a nonprofit absinthe education group, when I tell him about my experience. “People who say it’s gross either don’t like the taste of anise [licorice-like] or they have had something that was not really absinthe, though it may have been called absinthe.”
Not typically the enthusiast, my curiosity sparked with the season. March 5 was the day in 2007 when it became legal to import, manufacture and sell the majority of absinthes in the United States, thanks mostly to the efforts of T.A. Breaux, who distills small production absinthes under the Lucid and Jade Liqueurs brands. Until then, absinthe had experienced a 95 year ban, perhaps unfairly.
But absinthe lovers still have a long way to go to convince consumers the Green Fairy is worth a shot. Breaux is now working to get a legal classification of absinthe created in the U.S. and the European Union that would set quality and characteristic standards and protections, much like what bourbon and cognac enjoy. If his efforts are successful, it would help restore dignity and prestige to the category.
“It’s not easy, but it’s all about consumer protection,” Breaux explains.
True absinthe must be made with the holy trinity of herbs, the flavors of which must also be predominant: grand wormwood, green anise and fennel (absinthe also means grand wormwood in French).
Distillers can add other flavoring herbs, but absinthe should also be naturally colored and contain no artificial additives. Its finish should be dry and crisp; its mouthfeel should be silky. Real absinthe should be clear or varying tints of olive green.
Several factors contributed to absinthe’s vilification and eventual ban over the years, many of them poppycock in hindsight.
A Swiss woman by the name of Madame Henriod originally concocted absinthe from plants she found in the mountains in the late 18th century, according to Jessyka Birchard, brand director of Pernod Absinthe. The elixir was later adopted by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who marketed it as medicinal, and perfected by his two sisters following his death.
A businessman named Major Dubied came across the absinthe recipe and, after seeing the potential to brand it as a cure-all for medicinal properties, partnered with his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod to set up the absinthe distillery in Switzerland in 1797 (It later moved to France in 1805 and became Maison Pernod Fils, or House of Pernod and Sons).
Absinthe was at the height of its popularity during the Belle Epoque period around the late 19th century. Back in 1910, France was consuming 36 million liters of absinthe per year, and ‘The Green Hour’ was widely known as the early evening time to have an absinthe.
“Imagine that today, rather than getting drinks with colleagues after work or getting a bottle of wine while out to dinner at a restaurant, you’d get a bottle of absinthe or several absinthe cocktails instead,” Birchard says.
But shortly thereafter, the wine industry, which had been watching absinthe slowly take its market share, began a smear campaign that absinthe was a poison, despite medical professionals not buying into the hype.
Around the same time, Temperance advocates began to blame absinthe for widespread alcoholism, says Robinson. This wasn’t difficult to do since many terrible products amounting to industrial alcohol with dangerous additives and green dye had entered the market. Their cheapness was a draw for the down and out and made some people sick too, adds Breaux.
The story I’d always heard was absinthe’s nail in the coffin was of Jean Lanfray, the Frenchman who in 1905 murdered his wife and children in a Swiss village after drinking absinthe.
But before that, he drank loads of wine and brandy, too. The incident got international attention and incited panic around the spirit and its alleged hallucinogenic properties that caused Lanfray to murder his family.
Hallucinations, critics said, were caused by end stage alcoholism, and consequently in this horrific case, absinthe. The story is true, but the hallucinogenic part is not. Breaux, a research scientist, claims to be the first person to ever scientifically analyze antique absinthe samples and test them for hallucinogenic properties back in 2000. He didn’t find anything deleterious, and the Wormwood Society also dispels this myth.
Now there are dozens of exceptional absinthes on the market. Robinson has 300 varieties in his home bar and reviews absinthes regularly on the Wormwood Society’s website.
Plenty of craft distillers are now doing absinthe well in the U.S., such as Denver’s Leopold Brothers, Oregon’s Wild Card, and Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Distilling. Breaux estimates total absinthe sales to be about 30,000 cases in the U.S. annually, which is relatively tiny. Consider that vodka sales were about 67 million cases in 2014, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of America.
Once you’ve got the quality thing down, you’ve got to drink absinthe right, which means you’ve got to ignore all the ways we’ve been taught. It turns out you really shouldn’t attempt to light it on fire (Robinson says this was a marketing tactic in Easter European clubs to increase sales of knockoff brands). Or drink it as a shot (a surefire way to turn you off of the taste).
Really, it should be drunk neat in the traditional French method, with three parts water to one part absinthe, or in classic cocktails that call for it (the quintessential Savoy Cocktail Book features over 100 recipes with absinthe). The more you try it, the more accustomed your palate will become and the more you will enjoy it. And that’s important.
“Absinthe is a historically significant beverage and surprise, surprise, it actually tastes good,” Robinson says.
Try these cocktails from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930, reprinted 2013)
Corpse Reviver #21 part gin1 part lemon juice1 part orange liqueur (such as Cointreau)1 part Lillet (an aperitif)Dash of absinthe.
Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass.
Brunelle Cocktail1 oz absinthe2 tablespoons sugar3 oz lemon juiceShake all ingredients well with ice and strain into cocktail glass.