I don’t think there is a more misunderstood liquor than absinthe. To this day, if you ask people about it, you’ll get questions like, “Isn’t that the stuff that makes you hallucinate?” or “Doesn’t it make you go insane?” Yet, in all the research that has been done in recent years there is no evidence for any of these assertions. So how did absinthe become so reviled that it was banned for almost 100 years?
Absinthe had been drunk in Europe for several hundred years before it’s explosion in popularity. The primary reason for a shift was the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century that virtually destroyed the wine industry in Europe. What little wine could be produced was very expensive and out of reach of the “common man”. As a result, the wine drinkers of the lower classes turned to absinthe as it was cheaper, stronger, and was reported to heighten the senses. The shift to absinthe was especially pronounced in France where an entire cafe culture developed around the consumption of absinthe. The cocktail hour in these establishments was referred to as L’Huere Vert or The Green Hour. Drinking absinthe was such a cultural phenomenon that many of the artists of the day, including Picasso, Degas, and Manet, created pieces to capture the experience.
As with any popular product, imitators sprang up to take advantage of the exploding market for this liquor. Traditionally, absinthe was created with high-quality herbs (anise seeds, fennel, absinthe, etc.) as part of its distillation process and that’s what created its light green tint. As opportunist looked for ways to make more money, they turned to various chemicals including copper sulfate to create a similar and extremely cheap, but ultimately deadly product. It is thought that the future ties between hallucinations, insanity, and death from absinthe can be attributed to the rise in these products.
Fast-forwarding a couple of decades, the wine industry begins to recover and they expect their former customers to return. But, absinthe’s hold on the palates of much of Europe holds strong. So what did they do? They began a campaign to outlaw absinthe all together. They created a disease called Absinthism that showed itself with an addiction to absinthe and ultimately insanity and possibly death. In addition, many alcohol-related tragedies were blamed on absinthe even if little or none was involved. And so, by 1914, absinthe was outlawed and left shrouded in much myth and misunderstanding.
How does all of this tie to an evening in a dark corner of the Atlanta speakeasy, Prohibition? It was here that Katruska and I met Ted A. Breaux the gentleman behind Jade Liqueurs and an absinthe expert at a Lucid tasting event. He was there to provide the history of absinthe, dispel it’s many myths, and most importantly host a tasting of several brands of absinthe. Mr. Breaux’s journey to discover the truth behind absinthe began when he gained access to two pre-ban bottles of absinthe. Based on his research with these bottles, he was able to recreate one of the original formulas for absinthe. And after many years of petitioning various government organizations, we are able again to taste these fine liquors.
For the evening’s tasting each group was given an absinthe fountain containing ice cold water and several absinthe glasses. At points in Mr. Breaux’s comments, we were provided samples of both Lucid and Nouvelle Orleans. Each sample was poured into a glass up to the glass line indicating how much absinthe should be used. Then water was slowly added from the fountain until the mixture is completely clouded which occurs because the herbs in absinthe are soluble in alcohol, but not in water. Use of sugar with the mixture is completely up to the palate of the drinker, but we found that sugar adds nothing of substance other than a cloying sweetness.
The Lucid sample was light green and had a lovely herbaceousness with the scent of fennel being the most pronounced. Once water was added, the flavor opened up and a certain creaminess across the palate was added to the drink. While the Lucid was fine, Mr. Breaux’s ultra-premium absinthe Nouvelle Orleans (named in honor of his hometown) was especially delicious. It has a higher alcohol content, so neat it is complex but rather harsh on the palate. Once water was added though, it became a lovely combination of anise, fennel, and cream. In the French tradition, we tried the Nouvelle Orleans with the sugar, but doing so obliterated the delicate nature of the absinthe and water. Based on this initial comparison, the Nouvelle Orleans is a much superior for drinking in the traditional absinthe fountain manner while the Lucid would be better for mixing in cocktails.
So, we wouldn’t be Our Libatious Nature if we didn’t provide a few cocktail options for you. Below are a few of Ted’s favorites and we feel sure he knows what he’s talking about.
Morning Glory Fizz
1 dash lemon or 2 dashes lime juice
1/2 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 egg white
2 dashes absinthe
1 glass scotch whisky
Shake well, strain into a long timber and fill with soda water.
– The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, 1930
Stars Fell on Alabama
1 dash Peychaud bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange flower water
1 lump sugar
6 drops absinthe
1 jigger Old Alabama corn whiskey
Ice and stir briskly.
– So Red the Nose or Breath in the Afternoon by Sterling North & Carl Kroch, 1935