How a long slandered spirit found favor again at the bar
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a most non-ordinary man named Dr. Pierre Ordinaire who created a green fairy.
It wasn’t a tiny nymph with gossamer wings, but a magical green elixir rumored to cure almost anything. It worked wonders among his patients, some who were actually ill.
Alas, the good doctor grew older and saw his end was near, so he invited two sisters in his small Swiss village to share his secret. The sisters eagerly carried on the doctor’s works, until they too grew older and decided to sell the secret and enjoy its handsome profits, according to various accounts.
The purchaser was a Maj. Daniel-Henri Dubied, who, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened distillery Dubied Père et Fils and began mass production in 1798. It did very, very well, so they built a second in France called Maison Pernod Fils.
Thus “la fée verte” — the green fairy — was released to conquer the world, or at least hallucinate it.
While absinthe went on to become one of the most popular and sought after drinks of the 19th century, it also went on to become one of the most misunderstood, slandered and illegal drinks of the 20th century.
Not until the 1990s did it again become legal in Europe and not until 2007 in the United States. Legality brought prosperity, and absinthe distilleries began opening in this country, including the Derelict Airship Distillery in Bastrop, which put the first Texas-made bottles of absinthe on the market this past spring.
“Admittedly, you’d tell someone we were going to produce absinthe and the first thing they’d ask is, ‘Why in the hell do you want to do that?’” said Jessica Leigh Graves, who handles marketing and sales for Derelict and is also referred to as the distillery’s “walking absinthe encyclopedia.”
“It was actually a career change for Matt Mancuso (the distiller), who was looking for something to put his biology and chemistry talents to use. He was settling on alcohol manufacturing when, about the same time, absinthe was returning to the U.S. market, and that caught his attention.”
In Dickinson, the popular Marais restaurant has a cocktail menu featuring absinthe.
“The owners of Marais wanted to offer complete New Orleans-style cocktails with absinthe, and after I arrived, I just expanded on that,” adventuresome Bar Manager Nick Stephenson said. “We do get a lot of interest from it, especially because we set up the ice water towers on the bar and have the glasses, the spoons and bottles of absinthe out for everyone to see. It’s really become pretty popular.”
Marais has planned an absinthe-paired dinner for Nov. 8. The special guest is T.A. Breaux, a revered figure in the world of absinthe. Breaux is a research scientist, author and president and founder of Jade Liqueurs in Saumur, France.
Breaux spent nearly two decades researching the mysteries and myths surrounding absinthe and was instrumental in getting it legalized in the United States.
Absinthe is a distilled drink made with botanicals that include green anise, peppermint, coriander and leaves and flowers of grand wormwood. The scientific name for wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is the basis for its name. The grape-based alcohol content is a minimum of 90 proof and sometimes exceeds 130.
The drink can come in several naturally made colors, although green is the most common, coming from the herbs in a second distillation.
It was in the 1840s when French troops, having been given absinthe to prevent malaria, returned home ready to give up their uniforms but not their medication. The drink became so popular, that by the 1860s, 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte, or the green hour.
Few other places in this country embraced absinthe like New Orleans. One of the earliest absinthe cocktails, the Sazerac, was born there. The Old Absinthe House, still on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets, was selling absinthe in the first half of the 19th century.
By the 1880s, the French upper classes, in love with the drink but not with the idea of drinking like bohemians, invented a host of accoutrements called absinthiana to distinguish themselves.
Absinthiana include the absinthe glass — short, thick-stemmed and etched or marked in some way to indicate how much absinthe to pour. There’s a second marking above the first to show how much water to add. With each glass comes an expensively designed and decorated flat and perforated spoon with a notch in the handle so it can rest firmly on the edge of the glass.
Central to this are the absinthe fountains, large glass globes in a decorated lamp stand. At the base of the globe are anywhere from one to six spigots which, when opened, allow ice water to slowly drip through a sugar cube on the spoon into the absinthe in the glass.
For the independent drinker, there also is the brouilleur, a glass or metal bowl that sits directly on the absinthe glass. The water and ice are put in the bowl and allowed to drip through a hole onto a sugar cube in a built-in grill underneath.
Adding water both dilutes and enhances absinthe. Called la louche, the ritual of adding water turns the absinthe a milky color, and in doing so brings out a lot of the more subtle flavors and aromas that aren’t as prominent when drinking it straight. Subtle does not come to mind when drinking it straight.
“Each absinthe reacts differently, but the colder the water the better,” Graves explained.
So what was all the fuss about this well-loved drink? Even today, some people are wary of the fairy.
“I do get a number of customers asking about its hallucinogenic effects,” Stephenson said. “I just tell them, you drink a lot of anything that’s 115 proof, you’re going to see things and act crazy. Absinthe is definitely something you sip in moderation.”
Its actual fall from grace around 1910-1915 was more the result of bad press, scoundrels and timing.
For starters, fake absinthe created a scandal in the late 1850s when French vineyards were nearly wiped out by grape phylloxera. Some absinthe makers, hard-pressed to replace grape alcohol, began using random ingredients like turpentine. As many of their customers ended up dead, blind, maimed or mentally harmed, the green fairy’s reputation was a tad tarnished.
Absinthe makers got back to business as usual, but were cutting into wine consumption, so winemakers retaliated by starting an anti-absinthe campaign. In what today is referred to as “fake news,” they circulated wildly exaggerated stories about its ill effects and were soon joined by temperance groups who saw red when they heard green.
Wrote one critic in a widely circulated flyer: “Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant. It disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
The accused villain was a compound in the grand wormwood called thujone. It took more than half a century to figure out the amount of thujone in absinthe is actually almost non-detectable, but the campaign worked. Today, European laws allow no more than 35 parts per million and in the United States, it’s limited to 10 parts per million, similar to that of the 19th century. This amount can be labeled “thujone-free.”
This country prohibits the use of the word absinthe as a brand name or to stand alone on the label. It also states the packaging cannot “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects.” It does that more subtly by showing its proof.
“My rule on absinthe is to use it sparingly and to enjoy it leisurely.”
And everyone lives happily ever after.
The Marais Green Beast
1 ounce Copper & Kings Absinthe
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
3 fresh cucumber wheels
Peel a fresh cucumber and cut three slices (wheels) about ¼-inch thick. Muddle the absinthe, lime juice, simple syrup and two of the cucumber wheels in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with the third cucumber wheel.
Call 281.534.1986 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details about the Nov. 8 absinthe dinner at Marais with T.A. Breaux.