Absinthe: Return of the Green Fairy
I am the instigator of crime
I am ruin and sorrow
I am shame
I am dishonor
I am death
I am absinthe
POEMS LIKE THIS excerpt from temperance literature were common in Europe in the early 1900s, just before absinthe was almost universally banned. The restrictions were first put in place in Switzerland, where the drink had been created, then eventually spread to France, where it was beloved by the masses. What had originally been developed as a medicinal elixir, crafted and prescribed by physicians to soothe stomach ailments, had fallen to a level of collective despise.
The transformation from restorative to toxin—from cheerful libation to societal plague—took only a century. It took one more century—and the growth of distilling, both in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere, renewed interest and modern science—to resurrect the storied spirit of the Green Fairy.
Grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), the key ingredient in absinthe, is also its namesake. The ancient Egyptians were the first to experiment with it; by the time the Greek and Roman empires reached their apex, absinthium was a well-documented aid for a range of ailments. Modern absinthe was created by a French expatriate who recognized that distillation drew the flavorful aspects from the herbs without extracting the bitter characteristics. Wormwood is the essential ingredient, of course, but anise, fennel, hyssop and melissa (lemon balm) also are commonly used.
It didn’t take long for this flavorful and potent elixir—easily 130 proof in some cases—to gain popularity, and it made an easy jump from the medicinal realm to the recreational domain. Spurred by the industrial revolution, absinthe was embraced by the working class, then poets, writers, artists and “bohemians” alike. French poet Charles Baudelaire was a known imbiber, as was Oscar Wilde, who penned notes describing his experiences. It was regularly depicted and consumed by painters from Degas to Manet to van Gogh, whose partial ear removal is attributed to an absinthe session. The obsession swept through most of Europe and England, eventually taking hold on this side of the ocean, most intensely in New Orleans, where absinthe cocktails such as the Sazerac and Cocktail a la Louisiane were spawned.
Despite the popularity of the cocktails, the most common way of enjoying the drink was to dilute it with water and perhaps sugar. In addition to lowering the alcohol level, the addition of water begins the louche (clouding) of the drink when the herbal oils, trapped through distillation, begin to emulsify, which releases aromatic notes that otherwise would be indiscernible. Right into the early twentieth century, the ritual of pouring water over a sugar cube nesting in a special spoon over the glass was, no doubt, enjoyed as much as the pleasure derived from sipping.
However, the fascination with absinthe was short-lived—absinthe became, in a way, a victim of its own success. Imitations were developed, some of which used toxic ingredients to replicate the spirit’s color. Spurred by the temperance movement, fabricated reports of hallucinations, psychedelic experiences and even insanity were attributed to absinthe. Disregarding the fact that the general culture of the day tended toward heavy alcohol consumption, absinthe easily became the scapegoat for the decadence of a generation that drank to excess, clearly illustrated in the case of a Swiss workman, Jean Lanfray.
After having consumed several liters of wine and other spirits over the course of a day, Lanfray killed his family in a rage. The tragedy and subsequent trial were infamously dubbed the “Absinthe Murder” when psychologists described his actions as classic absinthe-induced madness. (In fact, Lanfray had consumed just two ounces of absinthe during his hard-drinking day.) Within five years, the Green Fairy, as absinthe had been named, was banned in Switzerland and, shortly thereafter, on a nearly global scale.
Fast-forward a century—absinthe is once again poised to have its moment in the spotlight. Thanks to modern analysis techniques and a renewed interest, absinthe became available again in Europe and, in 2007, here in the U.S., as well. Much of the credit goes to T. A. Breaux, who realized the laws regarding its ban in this country focused on thujone, a compound extracted from wormwood. Through analysis of ancient recipes, Breaux was able to prove that thujone levels in absinthe were well under the legal maximum, and he was thus allowed to import and sell his brand in this country. This opened the door for distillers here to begin experimenting with their own versions of absinthe.
Do The Absinthe Drip
1 ounce absinthe
1 sugar cube
5 ounces ice cold water
Absinthe spoon (optional)
Absinthe glass (optional)
The ratio of absinthe to water is based on an absinthe bottled at roughly 68 percent alcohol; use less water if the absinthe is lower proof. Also, use more or less water depending on your personal preference. Start with less; add more to taste. Wildly extravagant absinthe glasses are available, though a rocks glass is fine.
Place the absinthe in a glass. Place the sugar cube (if using) on an absinthe spoon (or a small tea strainer) positioned over the glass. Slowly pour or drip the water over the cube (or straight into the absinthe if you forego the sugar).
Roughly a year after the Delaware River flooded the western Catskills’ village of Walton (Delaware County), Cheryl Lins began her pursuit to open a distillery in a downtown storefront. After working her way through zoning issues, purchasing an inexpensive still and filing the proper documents, nothing happened. After waiting several months, she finally “had to write the governor” (David Paterson at the time), and shortly thereafter, in February 2009, she received her license to operate and began to process whiskey at Delaware Phoenix Distillery. After testing multiple formulas, she decided to release two absinthes, based on classic, “pre-ban” recipes—Walton Waters, which projects masculinity through the structured anise notes, and Meadow of Love, which wafts a floral femininity that begs for repeated nosing. Both have received widespread praise from professionals and the press.
Lins came to absinthe in her mature years; Juan Garza, on the other hand, was fascinated with the drink before he reached drinking age. “English classes, literature and typical things, people bringing up Oscar Wilde, poets referring to absinthe—it was a word I had heard but no one could give me an answer about,” he recalls. He began researching and studying, eventually making his way to Europe where he learned to distill it using classic equipment and to better understand the intricacy of absinthe production. Garza eventually joined Tuthilltown Spirits, in Gardiner, as Research & Development Distiller.
Garza and Tuthilltown’s Chief Distiller Joel Elder are crafting a duo of yet-unnamed absinthes they refer to simply as White 58° and Green 72°. White, redolent with fennel and licorice notes, is lower in alcohol than some other absinthes; Green is layered and complex, with anise and fennel notes interplaying with lemon balm and wormwood. The first release will be clear absinthe, a style frequently referred to as La Bleue. (Popular in Switzerland, uncolored absinthes became a convenient way to disguise the spirit when it was banned.)
Jason Steinberg, owner of Saint George Bistro, a classically French restaurant in Hastings-on-Hudson, serves absinthe in the traditional manner—he’s even devoted space on the bar for an absinthe fountain. He has tasted the beta versions of both Tuthilltown absinthes and says he is pleased with the quality. “It’s almost blue,” he says with surprise while louching the White. “It’s much drier and lighter in flavor than the classics we use from France.” The Green, though, “tastes like your flagship absinthe—a classic. The anise, the wormwood is under that, and the fennel is there but it’s not sweet.”
The challenge for distillers is to create quality absinthe that will offer enthusiasts a consistent experience. This, of course, starts with the ingredients—wormwood, anise, hyssop, melissa and fennel, among others. While all these ingredients are available at markets, getting consistently high-quality ingredients is critical. “When you have a sensitivity to organoleptics as opposed to just commodity,” Elder remarks, while Garza finishes the thought, “you learn what those herbs can and can’t do.”
Both Delaware Phoenix and Tuthilltown source locally and from around the world: wormwood grown to spec from New York and Virginia, fennel from Italy, anise from Spain. (Despite going to lengths to assure the quality of the ingredients, one batch of herbs may be different from another, thus requiring tweaks by the distiller.) Restaurateurs, too, are concerned about consumers’ experience of absinthe. “Customers rush in with a head full of bad information and misconceptions,” says Cassie Fellet, owner of Rock & Rye Tavern, in New Paltz. “Few are prepared for the flavor intensity or alcohol content of even diluted absinthe. I would much rather introduce them to it slowly.” So Fellet incorporates the green elixir into cocktails. “I've never had a customer dislike either a Corpse Reviver #2 or a Sazerac,” she says.
All this is good news, Steinberg says—when consumers are introduced to quality absinthe, properly prepared or in a cocktail, they respond positively. “It’s fun for people—they’ve never seen this before,” he notes. “We didn’t expect to sell much absinthe, but it’s really taken off. As soon as someone sees one being made, everyone wants one. We’re moving through a lot of absinthe—it’s a lot of fun.”
With at least four locally produced absinthes available this winter, there’s much to be excited about, but there is more to be done. An improved “herb infrastructure,” for instance, could help distillers develop unique and more focused expressions; and allowing these absinthes to rest for a period before consumption would more clearly let them develop and demonstrate their individual characters.
Finally, there’s the ongoing process of educating consumers, most of whom “don’t know what good absinthe is,” Garza notes. “They don’t know how sweet and approachable it can be. She’s an old beauty we’re all learning over again.”