In the heart of the French Quarter, at the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville, sits the stuff that legends are made of -- The Old Absinthe House.
Many celebrities have been welcomed through our doors in the nearly two centuries since its opening -- including Oscar Wilde, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Jenny Lind, Enrico Caruso, General Robert E Lee, Franklin Roosevelt, Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra. Indeed, the walls throughout this incredible building are covered in the framed photographs of several of our famous patrons.
The building endures the name of Jean Lafitte's because of the rumored meeting of the Pirate Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson as they planned the victory of the battle of New Orleans on the second floor (now the newly-renovated Jean Lafitte's Bistro). In fact, many of those who work here will be happy to share their Jean Lafitte Ghost Stories with you!
Built in 1806, this building was erected by Pedro Front and Francisco Juncadelia of Barcelona to house their importing firm. For the next forty years, trade continued in the bartering of food, tobacco and Spanish liquor ... a sort of early "corner grocery."
In 1815, the ground floor was converted into a saloon known as "Aleix's Coffee House" and was run by the nephews of Senora Juncadelia. This coffee house was later rechristened "The Absinthe Room" when mixologist Cayetano Ferrer created the famous Absinthe House Frappe here in 1874.(more about this now illegal liquor)
To this day, The Old Absinthe House still has the decorative marble fountains that were used to drip cool water over sugar cubes into glasses of Absinthe.
The original Old Absinthe House bar was to be destroyed at the start of Prohibition - as a powerful message to proprietors and others that Absinthe was to be abolished from the United States and would not be tolerated.
Fortunately, the bar was removed from the Absinthe House and moved under cover of darkness to a warehouse on Bourbon street in order to save it. (This warehouse became known as "The Absinthe House Bar" until the actual bar was returned to its home in early 2004. It is now known as the Mango, Mango daiquiri shop.)
The bar is again part of this historical building after a 3 million dollar renovation returning it to its turn-of-the-century splendor. It is now operated by Tony Moran, himself the son of a New Orleans legend -- "Diamond Jim" Moran. The building now houses Tony Moran's Restaurant and Jean Lafitte Bistro .. and the front room is still the tavern known as Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House!
".....But our business is with the heart of things; we must go beyond the crude phenomena of nature if we are to dwell in the spirit. Art is the soul of life and the Old Absinthe House is the heart and soul of the old quarter of New Orleans."
For those not familiar with Absinthe, it is a liquor made from, among other things, wormwood. It is said to have a bitter, licorice flavor and is greenish/chartreuse in color. Originally brought to popularity in Europe, Absinthe found quite a following here in New Orleans ... the little Paris of the New World. Of course, when in New Orleans, the Absinthe House was the favorite spot for those who wished to imbibe the spirit.
Absinthe was a favorite drink of many, many famous people, particularly artists and writers who found inspiration in their Absinthe-induced stupor. It is said that Edgar Allen Poe's writings were essentially under the influence of nearly fatal mixtures of absinthe and brandy. It was said that Poe transformed himself into the "enchanted spaces of the unreal."
As it turns out, Absinthe was indeed a dangerous substance, as the wormwood used for making it had narcotic properties. The consumption of Absinthe was associated with hallucinations, delirium, madness and even death. It is further rumored that Jack the Ripper, an unknown killer of a number of prostitutes in 1888, went mad through his addiction of Absinthe. Consequently, it was outlawed in the United States in 1912.
Since Absinthe is no longer legally manufactured in the United States, there are several legal substitutes for it. Some of these are Ojen, Pernod Fils, Anisette and Herbsaint. Herbsaint, which is produced by a company here in New Orleans, features a picture of the Old Absinthe House building on their label. Naturally, it is the Absinthe substitute that we use most often.