The Truth About a Once-Forbidden Spirit

1971_absinthe-vieux-pontarlier

After being banned in the United States for nearly a century, absinthe has come roaring back to the bar scene in recent years.

The beverage, sometimes called “the green fairy,” was the preferred high-proof drink among artists and writers in 19th century Europe.

“The rise of absinthe’s popularity coincided with the rising expense of purchasing wine, due to the Great French Wine Blight,” says Joe Pawelski, co-founder of Colorado-based Overland Distillery. “Though wine had been the drink of choice, economic complications caused consumers to turn to the cheaper alternative, absinthe,” he explains.

But not everyone was a fan. According to “Hideous Absinthe,” one French doctor characterized absinthe “as being distinguished by sudden delirium, epileptic attacks, vertigo, hallucinatory delirium more active and impulsive than with alcohol alone, and sometimes unconsciousness.” Such claims were apparently bolstered by the fact that absinthe, which was infused with wormwood, contained a chemical called thujone, which was believed at the time to cause mind-altering effects.

Pawelski says there’s more to the story.

“Those industries and parties wanting to dampen absinthe’s growing strength of popularity launched smear campaigns citing absinthe’s supposed link to mayhem. When crimes were committed, absinthe was blamed. In short, it was proposed that absinthe made people crazy by altering their normal behaviors.”

In 1912, the U.S. banned the beverage and it wasn’t until 2007 that an absinthe recipe was developed to comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations.

Jared Gurfein, founder of Viridian Spirits, teamed up with chemist Ted Breaux to develop the recipe that saw the ban lifted. Under new regulations approved by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, items with a verified thujone content of less than 10 milligrams per kilogram were accepted.

Meeting those requirements, Lucid Absinthe was recognized in 2007 as the first brand to be legally sold in the United States. March 5th became known as National Absinthe Day among social drinkers looking to channel their bohemian ancestors.

So can this once forbidden fruit cause one to run wild after a sip? Not exactly.

Dale DeGroff reveals in “The Essential Cocktail” that “contemporary chemists have proven wormwood and absinthe could not have been guilty of the crimes with which they were charged; more likely, the drinking problems in France were caused by the utter lack of regulation in the industry — and hence the dangerous byproducts that could be found in many distilled spirits—combined with absinthe’s very high proof.”

Anne-Louise Marquis, a New York City-based bartender and brand ambassador for Pernod Absinthe, says its myth is more fairy tale.

“All the talk about it being hallucinogenic is false,” says Marquis. “Thujone, the neurotoxic chemical in wormwood that everyone was convinced was causing insanity, actually appears in such small quantity that the FDA calls absinthe ‘thujone-free.’ There is more thujone in three leaves of sage than a whole bottle of absinthe,” she adds. “The equal or greater amount of it appears in other spirits such as chartreuse and vermouth. The alcohol will get to you before thujone ever will.”

Despite absinthe not being as potent as history once claimed, the spirit does continue to inspire bartenders looking to create the perfect drink.

“It’s such a fun and fanciful category,” says Kara Newman, Sprits Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. “Over the past few years, we’ve had access to more absinthe bottlings than ever before, and they run the gamut from light, almost fennel-like flavors to big, bold licorice notes like Good & Plenty candies.”

“And my favorite reason? The growing array of absinthe-spiked cocktails,” adds Newman. “Absinthe provides an elusive flavor in drinks that’s impossible to replicate. What did we do before absinthe came back?”

Thinking of giving absinthe a try?

“Recognize that absinthe with its characteristic anise flavor may be an acquired taste,” says John Mayer, Beverage Director for Local 149 in Boston. “If you don’t want to acquire this, no worries. Then you’ll know that absinthe isn’t for you. But if you choose to stick with a truly great bottle of absinthe, the reward is high, just not ‘a high.’”

In honor of National Absinthe Day, we’re celebrating with a Tuxedo No. 2, found at Maison Premiere in New York City.

Tuxedo No. 2 (Turf Club)

Ingredients

  • 3 dash orange bitters
  • .25 Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
  • .5 Luxardo Maraschino
  • .75 dry vermouth
  • 1.25 Plymouth Gin

Method: serve in a coupe glass with a discarded lemon twist.

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