New Orleans, a city where little is frowned upon by the authorities, seems to have an air of prohibition. This is where I learned to embrace the wonderful art of absinthe. A random discussion about the wine industry led to a local shop owner recommending I visit Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter. Here I received an introduction to this recently legalized beverage and a history lesson from a rather knowledgeable patron (a partner in The Absinthe Museum of America). The story of absinthe is full of romance, intrigue and rumors, and a wonderful nickname, “The Green Fairy” or La Fée Vert in French.
Absinthe became popular in the late 1880s as the drink of choice for the great artisans of the era (Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Édouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and later, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others). The timing of absinthe’s discovery and popularity coincided with the great vineyard blight, Phylloxera, which devastated the European wine industry. Such timing was integral to the prohibition of absinthe on several continents—politics and economics always play a part in alcohol sales and distribution, along with a bit of rumor and hysteria. Absinthe was banned in the US from 1912-2007 and 1915-2011 in France. The ban was due to claims of absinthe causing insanity (the Wormwood used to make it contains the toxin thujone). Dr. Pierre Ordinaire created the recipe as a remedy for gastric pain, labor pain and cramps. The recipe was purchased by a relative of the Pernod family, who then produced it commercially until the ban. In small doses, thujone can be therapeutic. In large doses, it can cause some pretty serious health problems.
Some of the magic with wine as a pastime and/or addiction are the rituals and history surrounding the libation—what the names mean, the places the wines are produced, the different grapes and styles, pulling the cork, decanting and aging. Absinthe also comes with plenty of history, styles and rituals. The recent resurgence of absinthe is courtesy of Ted Breaux, a New Orleans native with a background in chemistry and bar hopping in the French Quarter. Ted reverse-engineered antique absinthe and determined there shouldn’t be a ban on it at all; the historically demonized product actually fell within US alcohol legislation. Ted started producing his own absinthe using the same recipe as “antique” absinthe. The first one he called Lucid Absinthe Supérieure. Today, this is produced in the Combier Distillery, the historic home of absinthe in Saumur, France. Absinthe has a unique flavor of anise, similar in aroma to sambuca, ouzo or Pernod, but is more delicate and nuanced on the palate.
A traditional preparation involves pouring ice-cold water over a sugar cube into a glass with a shot of absinthe. This process brings out the herbal aromas and turns the liquid a milky green. I prefer to pour the Absinthe over the sugar, then light the sugar on fire allowing the water to extinguish the flame. Though this is not the classic preparation, it is much more exciting and gives a caramel note. Some “modern” absinthe brands to look for in New York are Kübler, Émile Pernot, St. George, Lucid, Absente and Pernod Absinthe. Keep in mind that absinthe is very high in alcohol content and should be mixed with water or anything that will lower the alcohol. You will find absinthe from a minimum of 55% to as much as 70% alcohol by volume, or 90-140 proof. Most wine is between 12.5% and 16%, as are most mixed drinks. Just a small warning.