The Blood of Poets

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Even before I first tasted true Absinthe at a dinner party in Prague 15 years ago, I have marveled at it’s exotic and romantic reputation. For those of us who grew up American, it is “The Forbidden Drink”. The Green Fairy is said to make simple men run mad and to cause the gifted to practically explode with creative and/or degenerate impulses. Indeed, my soul tells me that the drink of Van Gogh and Rimbaud must be something EXTRAORDINARY. To this day I always keep a sealed bottle of good Absinthe in my home…just in case.

I can’t say my dozen or so encounters with the drink have made me any more creative or degenerate then I was before. It does make a wonderful conversation starter at parties and casts a certain intellectual, decadent light on any cocktail party, and as the article I am reposting here explains, will soon be much easier for my Yankish readers to obtain, regardless of America’s somewhat hysterical laws against it.

The following article by Paul Adams is being reposted from the always excellent wired.com with some very interesting information about what makes Absinthe Absinthe, and the arrival at last of a semi-decent domestic brand in the US.

Barely Legal: American Absinthe Passes the Taste Test

The absinthe revival, which has been on the move for more than a decade, just took a leap forward.

For years, American aficionados of the banned beverage that inspired such artists as Vincent Van Gogh and Marilyn Manson, have made do with quasi-legally imported European brands or, worse yet, near-substitutes made without wormwood, the critical ingredient that gives absinthe its distinctive, biting taste.

You need wormwood to make real absinthe, but the herb is a tricky one to work with — one of its key compounds, thujone, has long been considered the cause of the drink’s supposed side effects: hallucinations, artistic inspiration, degeneracy and homicidal mania. Thujone has been prohibited as a food and drink ingredient in the United States since 1912.

But Ted Breaux, a chemist from New Orleans and one of the prime movers in the absinthe revival, has developed Lucid, a real absinthe made with real wormwood that can be legally sold in the United States.

For several years, Breaux has been working with a French distillery, faithfully reproducing a number of classic absinthes based on chemical scans of the contents of vintage bottles. The scans accord with recent research and contradict the traditional theory that thujone is absinthe’s magic ingredient.

“When I tested bottles of vintage absinthe,” he says, “I was surprised to find they contained very little thujone.”

Many of the Eastern European imports, spirits with strange neon colors, advertise “ultra-high thujone” levels in some of their products, no doubt figuring that if thujone is grounds for banning, it must be a selling point.

Breaux has no respect for these colorful wannabes.

“If a maker or seller has to depend upon promoting myths and misinformation about thujone to sell a product, that is a fairly reliable indicator that said product is sorely lacking in quality and authenticity,” he says.

If authentic, handcrafted absinthes contain very little thujone, there’s no reason one couldn’t be marketed in the United States. By manipulating factors including the climate, season and regions from which he harvests his herbal ingredients (including wormwood), Breaux developed his concoction. Lucid Absinthe, marketed by Viridian Spirits, passed the U.S. regulatory test for thujone and arrived on American shelves in May at $60 a bottle.

Even though detractors say an absinthe without thujone is worthless, Lucid immediately sold out. Kamal Mukherjee of Borisal Liquor in Brooklyn, New York, sold 36 cases in one week.

Clearly, there’s a market for a true legal absinthe — but how does it taste? I sampled Lucid alongside a few of its competitors: Absente, which is made with southernwood rather than wormwood; Breaux’s own Verte Suisse 65; and two Czech absinthes named Absinthium 1792 and Oliva. As prescribed, I trickled ice water into each one. I omitted the customary sugar cube except where necessary. As the water mixed with each absinthe, the liquid clouded while its aroma blossomed and filled the room.

Absente has a pleasant bite, but also an artificial-tasting, one-note Good & Plenty sweetness. Lucid is considerably drier and more herbal-tasting. Lucid’s anise taste is prominent but not overwhelming — it harmonizes with the other elements of the flavor, resulting in a sophisticated complexity. But the Verte Suisse is on another level entirely, with soft notes of wood and earth, spice and flowers, and an evocative depth of flavor. If the absinthe of old was really like this, I can see why it had such a maniacal following.

After the Verte Suisse, almost anything would be a letdown, but the two Czech examples seemed particularly poor. Absinthium 1792 has the shocking aquamarine color of an oral-hygiene product, and it separates into an insalubrious-looking pair of opaque layers when it clouds. Its minty-fresh, sweet, alcoholy flavor is generic and inoffensive. The Oliva tastes less artificial but decidedly more toxic. Even after I dissolved two sugar cubes into my glass, the yellow-green liquor tasted acridly of wormwood and mint, with hardly any anise, and lingered drily on my tongue. It reminded me of the time I chewed a catnip-filled sock to see what all the tail-chasing fuss was about.

Did any of them produce hallucinations? No, although even the mellow Lucid gave me a headache within a few minutes. I’ll continue to sip my expensive, imported bottle of Verte Suisse ($170 including shipping) and bate my breath until there’s a premium American absinthe that comes close.

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3 Comments

  1. My favourite absinthe is still the one offered at my pub in Caledon Cay: Absinthe Moulin Vert by Casandra Jackson of CAS. ‘Tis herbal and delicate, no headaches! And quite hallucinogenic, provided the hour is very, very late. ;)

  2. I have grown quite fond of Absente, but rather than a lump of sugar use a small, clear chunk of ice on the cuiliere to create the flumes, plumes and noctilucent castles as it melts into the green. That sight is sweet enough.

  3. I never tried Absinthe, but would sure like to.


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