Absinthe: Forbidden no more, but still dripping with mystique

The lovely louche of Lucid Absinthe

How many things have you done just because you were forbidden to do them? Have you ever inhaled? Have you ever fooled around with a married person who isn’t wearing a ring you gave them? Oh, you’re that guy. The one who would have eaten the apple. I bet you wish absinthe were still illegal so you could justify dancing with the green fairy every night.

It’s still a fascinating drink, even if it isn’t forbidden. More than a century ago, the magical elixir was believed by the likes of many—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Vincent van Gogh—to inspire creativity and bring a sense of clarity and mental acuity. Absinthe was legally prohibitted in 1912 because it was believe to have hallucinogenic effects from thujone, a byproduct of the distillation of its main ingredient, wormwood. There is even a ritual of adding ice cold water to absinthe called la louche, which turns the liquor milky and unlocks the flavors of the herbs.

But in March 2007 the almost century-old injunction against absinthe was overturned when chemist and absinthe enthusiast, Ted Breaux debunked the idea that absinthe was laden with mind-altering concentrations of thujone armed with scientific proof that the spirit was no more dangerous than any other booze.

Breaux also created the first absinthe legally imported into the United States, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure and recently shared his views about the forbidden spirit’s new found acceptance in the United States.

Lucid Absinthe getting la louche at Peche

What Are You Drinking?: Why was absinthe banned in the first place?

Breaux: “The accusations levied against absinthe in the 19th century were concocted in an attempt to demonize the entire category, mostly for reasons of economic competition. The only absinthes that were truly deserving of a bad reputation a century ago were cheap, inferior versions that were industrially prepared from chemical adulterants.”

What Are You Drinking?: How did you become interested in absinthe?

Breaux: “I became interested in absinthe in 1993, when a colleague of mine mentioned it in a passing comment. Like most New Orleanians, I knew The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon St., and never put much thought into it. Upon delving into the subject, I was astounded by the dubious information that surrounded it. It seemed odd to me that the subject of so much speculation could be so poorly understood.”

What Are You Drinking?: What was your inspiration for making Lucid Absinthe?

Breaux: “Lucid emerged as an answer to the challenge to distill absinthe on a scale that had not been done since 1915. With our success in overturning the U.S. ban on absinthe, we needed a truly hand-crafted absinthe that would set a standard for quality and authenticity while satisfying the entire U.S. market. Lucid is that product.”

What Are You Drinking?: Does Lucid take its name from the effects of thujone?

Rob Pate, owner Peche

Breaux: “Lucid derives its name from a common observation amongst experienced absinthe connoisseurs that drinking absinthe gives one an impression of mental acuity or lucidity, despite the expected effects from the alcohol. Modern science has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that any such perceived sensations from absinthe are not due to thujone. Notions to the contrary are but old wives tale at this point in time.”

What Are You Drinking?: How did you determine the right amount of thujone to include in Lucid? Was that based on determining thujone levels in your tests of antique, pre-prohibition bottles of absinthe?

What Are You Drinking?: “We distill Lucid entirely from whole herbs, including historically accurate amounts of Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood), and strictly adhere to 19th century distillation methods. This alone determines the content of the final product. While the practice of cheap manufacturing remains widespread today, one will not find any indication of food coloring, sugar, or any other additives within the fine print on our labels. We neither waste our time nor yours with such fakery. We distill herbs.”

What Are You Drinking?: Why is Lucid distilled in France rather than in the U.S.?

Breaux: “Lucid is distilled in France partly because I was distilling absinthe at the Combier distillery in France long before we re-legalized it in the U.S. However, nowhere in the U.S. can I find an intact distillery designed by Gustave Eiffel, with original 130 year-old absinthe distilling equipment present and functional like at Combier. The Combier is unique in that regard, and has been featured on the show Modern Marvels on The History Channel. Furthermore, certain materials I use are virtually impossible to source in the U.S. Relocating to the U.S. would create more problems than it solves.”

Muscles and Springdale Farms tomatos at Peche

What Are You Drinking?: Do you have any tips for preparation if I don’t have a slotted silver spoon and an absinthe fountain for the louche?

Breaux: “With a quality absinthe, sugar was always optional. Most experienced absinthe connoisseurs, omitted it. Always use iced water, pour it slowly, and add just enough to render the absinthe completely cloudy typically makes the best drink. The louche that emerges when ice water is added to absinthe is due to certain herbal essences being soluble in alcohol, but insoluble in water. Genuine absinthe is a very concentrated product, and must be bottled at relatively high proof. Diluting concentrated absinthe with cold water causes its herbal content to precipitate in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, which evolved into the French absinthe ritual.”

Breaux’s descriptions of absinthe made me want a glass almost as badly as I did when it was forbidden. In Austin you can find Lucid and a wide selection of other fine absinthes at The Austin Wine Merchant, Specs and other respectable shops.

Vieux Pontarlies Absinthe

Or you could go to Peché Austin, which has a selection of 14 or more brands of absinthe and the set-ups to serve it correctly. Owner, Rob Pate, is a walking encyclopedia of pre-prohibition craft cocktails and an absinthe aficionado. He can tell you anything you might want to know about its history, the taste profile of French versus Swiss versus U.S. varieties and recommend good ones to try.

I went in for one of the all-day happy hours, which they have on Sundays and Mondays, serving $5 cocktails and half-off menu items.  Chef Jason Dodge brought out first of the season tomatoes from Springdale Farms, and muscles with fries and house made mustard and ketchup. Rob dropped by and recommended two absinthes that are new to the menu.

First I tried Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe Française Superiéure. This quintessentially French absinthe is made with grape-based spirits. It has a light emerald with milky louche, a creamy anise aroma, with a fruity anise flavor that is sweet enough to drink without added sugar. Even though it packs a walloping 65 percent alcohol, it’s elegant and smooth as a kitten’s cheek.

Next I had Mansinthe, a brand of absinthe developed and marketed by shock rocker Marilyn Manson.  Mansinthe is yellow green with a milky louche that gets watery at the edge. It is a grain based spirit that smells floral and fruity with black licorice. The flavor is as bold and jarring as Manson’s music with racy alcohol and fennel. After downing a glass, I had the inexplicable urge to scream the opening lyrics from the Manson song, “Cake and Sodomy.” That must be the absinthe effect.

Mansithe

Even though absinthe is perfectly legal, isn’t hallucinogenic and may not even make you artistic, it’s still wrapped in mystique. Whether you pick up the first legal absinthe in the U.S., Lucid, or make your way through the menu at Peché, it is an adventure to see if you experience the absinthe effect.

A version of this article appeared on CultureMap.

Deussen Global Communications, Inc. provided a sample of Lucid Absinthe and Bread and Butter PR arranged for samples of Vieux Pontarlier and Mansithe provided by Peche.

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

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