This year marks the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the ban on absinthe in the US. During a recent visit, to the Old Absinthe House we sat down with Ted Breaux, noted absinthe historian and master distiller, Lucid and Jade absinthes, whose research was chiefly responsible for repealing the ban.
Why has absinthe begun to become a popular spirit option?
Absinthe owes its increasing popularity to the explosion in interest in pre-prohibition mixology and classic cocktails. Absinthe has been an ingredient in many classic cocktails almost as long as there have been cocktails. In fact, the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) lists more than 100 cocktail recipes that called for absinthe. Moreover, as bartenders and mixologists look to natural ingredients and those that add complex flavors, authentic absinthe, which is distilled directly from whole botanicals, is a versatile option.
Why do you think absinthe has such mystery surrounding it?
The myths surrounding absinthe were largely the result of lack of information and an aggressive smear campaign designed to slow the growth of the category, which was on fire at the dawn of the 20th century. The custom of drinking absinthe had become so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the 5 p.m. happy hour was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million liters of absinthe per year, as compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion liters of wine. As a result, the winemakers association, among other groups, began a campaign of misinformation that tied consuming absinthe to claims of insanity, criminal activity and hallucinations – all designed to discourage consumption.
Why was absinthe outlawed for so long?
At the root of the problem was the fact that unlike Cognac, champagne, etc., there was no law that defined absinthe – nothing to regulate the production and quality. This reality spawned inferior versions of the drink that consisted of nothing more than cheap alcohol mixed with industrial flavors and poisonous dyes. These bad absinthes affected mostly poor alcoholics and did much to damage the reputation of the drink. This muddied the waters concerning the health and safety of the spirit that persisted for decades after the ban, which was officially adopted by the United States in 1912.
I’m a chemist by background, and I was fascinated by the lore of absinthe. Many theorized that absinthe’s namesake ingredient, Artemisia absinthium (grande wormwood) was harmful, and that the drink possessed significant concentrations of thujone, a convulsant. Being unsatisfied with speculation, I was the first to undertake a chemical analysis of samples drawn from full, sealed antique bottles of the spirit to determine if there was any truth to these theories. I
found nothing in these bottles that was deleterious to health, aside of course from the alcohol. We shared our findings with the US TTB, and the ban was repealed in 2007. Since then, I’ve co-authored two scientific studies published in peer reviewed journals that demonstrate conclusively that the best, most authentic brands of absinthe from the Belle Époque were no more harmful than any other spirit, which debunked the old myths beyond doubt.
How should an absinthe novice approach the spirit?
Lucid stands on its own as a main spirit, and it also adds an herbaceous ‘pop’ to many classic and contemporary cocktails. You can check our website www.drinklucid.com for recipes. Some of our favorites include the Bloody Fairy – a Bloody Mary that uses Lucid Absinthe instead of vodka.
1 oz. Lucid Absinthe 4 oz. spicy Bloody Mary mix 4 dashes of Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, ground pepper, garlic salt, celery salt
In a pint glass add ice, Lucid Absinthe, Bloody Mary mix, Worcestershire sauce, and other spices. Shake and serve. Garnish with an olive, pepperoncini and lime wedge.
Or, try a classic the Sazerac –
¼ oz. Lucid Absinthe 2 oz. rye – we like Pendleton 1910 Canadian Rye Whiskey 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters ½ oz. simple syrup Lemon peel for garnish
Add all liquid ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass with ice. Rim the glass with the lemon peel, twist over the surface and garnish.
Is there anything else our guests would want to know?
Even though genuine 19th-century absinthe is once again legal in the US, not all products sold as absinthe are genuine. This is possible because a legal definition has not yet been adopted. As a result, one can pretty much bottle anything, add artificial dyes, and label it “absinthe.” Knowing the difference can be a matter of reading the fine print on the label. Authentic absinthes never contained sugar – it wasn’t an ‘herbal liqueur’ like some cheaper products. Also, terms like “FD&C Yellow #5” hiding in the fine print reveal the use of food coloring, clearly not an ingredient found in artisanal absinthes any more than red food coloring should be found in red wine. Fortunately, the quality of market selection in the USA is easier to navigate than the minefield of inferior products that exists in Europe. Over the past few years however, the
category as a whole has improved and grown thanks to the availability of accurate information and the appreciation of craft distilled spirits.