It’s 1999 in Prague, and I’m sitting in the central square as the Bohemian sun sets, already a few 50-cent Budvar pints deep. Rumor has it that if I go into that basement bar over there, I will find some absinthe, the green booze that lubricated the minds of the 19th and 20th centuries’ most revered poets, writers, and artists. As an aspiring writer-and one who has thoroughly drowned out any remaining qualms about drinking a liquor once banned for its reputed brain-killing effects-it only makes sense that I walk through that door, down those stairs into the thumping disco, and slide up to the bar.
People are already ordering absinthe in front of me, so I turn to the Czech couple on my right, and say, “I hear this stuff makes you hallucinate.”
“I don’t know about that,” the man says in decent English, “but you can’t feel your legs after a while.”
“How many shots does that take?” I ask.
Over the next few hours, I proceed to have about six, mixing up my methods in what I’m told is the traditional way-soaking a sugar cube, lighting it on fire, and dropping it into the bitter green liquid-and what I prefer: straight, without letting that flame bruise the booze. (Hemingway wouldn’t have taken the time to light the silly cube, I vaguely recall thinking.)
Later that night, after incessantly harassing the deejay to play more Bob Marley, watching an absinthed friend dance on the tables, and getting rather lost in the medieval city’s mazy alleyways, I relieve myself off one of Prague’s more famous bridges, into the Vltava River (or so I’m told). The next morning, my head is pounding, my mouth tastes like rotten shrubbery, and I pledge to avoid the dreaded absinthe for the rest of the trip. No wonder they banned that shit, I say.
It takes me nearly a decade to learn that my first absinthe experience was nothing at all like the green fairy-drinking of yesteryears-what I consumed was most likely not even absinthe, that silly flame method was invented by distributors in the 1990s, and the buzz was nothing more than what you’d get from drinking moonshine. In the years since, I’ve watched liquors calling themselves absinthe slip into the United States via smuggled items from European travels, online purchases made by enterprising friends, and, recently, on the shelves of Santa Barbara liquor stores. So is the green fairy suddenly flying free?
Not exactly, but the restrictions that were placed upon the high-alcohol, anise-flavored, wormwood-laced liquor when the American government followed Europe’s lead by banning absinthe in 1912 are a little looser these days. Although no laws were repealed or rewritten, last year the federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau-again taking cues from Europe, which recently relaxed its draconian absinthe laws-clarified its stance on absinthe. In short, you can sell absinthe in America under two conditions: one, that your product contains less than 10 parts per million thujone, the drug in wormwood that was once erroneously believed to be the source of absinthe-related hallucinations and madness; and two, that your federally approved label does not claim to be straight absinthe, so it must be modified into something like “Absinthe Verte” or “Absinthe Superior.”
That clarification, which has let at least three brands of wormwood-enhanced liquor into the American market, is thanks in large part to the work of Ted Breaux, the New Orleans microbiologist and chemist who’s behind the drink Lucid, which he calls “the first genuine absinthe to be approved for distribution in the United States since 1912.” A collector of vintage absinthes for years, Breaux successfully reverse-engineered traditional absinthe varieties in France and attracted the eye of a group of New York investors. Together with some simultaneous overseas pressure by the Swiss absinthe maker K¼bler, they convinced the American government to clarify its position, and in March 2007, Lucid-which Breaux makes in a historic distillery in France’s Loire Valle-hit the streets, selling for about $65 a 750ml bottle. (K¼bler was finally approved in May 2007.)
“The notion that thujone is hallucinogenic is a complete myth,” says Breaux, who spends as much time drowning absinthe myths as he does making the stuff. “It’s been scientifically proven that there is no correlation between thujone content and quality.” Indeed, most of the old absinthes did not have much thujone anyway, so the drug-which is officially classified as a convulsant-was really just a scapegoat used by the temperance movement and competing wine industries of the early 20th century to ban absinthe in France and beyond.
Breaux believes it’s more likely that absinthe’s bad reputation developed because low quality producers were flooding the market with green-colored moonshine during the drink’s heyday, and the health problems stemmed from the cheap hooch. Coincidentally, the same thing is happening today-hence my poor Prague experience-and Breaux is on a rampage to stop it.
“About 90 percent of the brands on the market today are concocted from artificial colors and industrial oils and sugar,” he says, explaining that impostors don’t “louche,” or cloud up, when water is added. “That is not absinthe. Anything made that way did not pass as quality absinthe in the 1800s. Those that make those products are out to make a profit and exploit the ignorance of the consumer.”
Similarly, Breaux claims that the flaming sugar cube trick was created in the 1990s to “distract the consumer from the fact that it’s really a product of dismal quality. That was never done in the 1800s. There’s not one shred of evidence that anyone did that. Would you sit down to have a glass of 18-year Macallan and put flaming sugar in it?”
He lets his legal, legitimate absinthe do the hard work, though. “We hope the momentum that Lucid has in its market will give consumers relatively high standards of expectation,” says Breaux. “So inevitably, when these profiteers’ products follow, if they eventually get here, they will be recognized for what they are, which is garbage, and dismissed as such. We feel that’s good.”
While Lucid and K¼bler are being made the traditional way in Europe-Breaux believes that’s where the authentic ingredients are, even quipping, “If you were in Mongolia, it would be hard to make merlot”-there’s also a Californian player in the absinthe scene. This is Alameda’s St. George Spirits, which produces a brandy-base blend of wormwood (harvested from Washington State and/or Davis, California), star anise, tarragon, fennel, stinging nettles, mint, hyssop, lemon balm, basil, and meadowsweet as their “Absinthe Verte.” The distillery, which also makes Hangar One Vodka, a whiskey, and liqueurs, had its label officially rejected 10 times by the feds and went through 33 redesigns before getting approved late last year. It finally hit the shelves on December 21, and it sold out in six hours. The second batch went on sale Super Bowl Sunday, and all 1,000 bottles were gone by closing time.
“It’s the holy grail, the pinnacle of the distiller’s art form,” says Lance Winters, who developed St. George’s recipe. “You’ve got so many amazingly loud voices and you’re trying to get them to sing in harmony in one product. When you do it, it gives you chills.”
Absinthe also gives quite a distinct buzz. After drinking even just one prepared in the proper way (see sidebar), you’ll feel a little funny, but have a clear head. (Hence, Breaux explains, the name “Lucid.”) “You are more aware of things as you’re getting drunk,” says Winters. “You do become inebriated, but the focus is much sharper.”
Good thing too, because you’ll need that focus to track down your own bottle of this fast-disappearing liquor. Or just be patient, because while the green fairy’s not yet totally free, there’s sure to be a lot more absinthe flying around in the years to come.
How to Serve Absinthe
Pour one ounce of true absinthe in glass. Put sugar cube on perforated spoon over glass. Pour four to five ounces of ice cold water very slowly over cube as it dissolves. Watch the drink “louche.” Enjoy.