Absinthe-Minded

Paul Blow

Now that absinthe is legal again, I predict we’ll see two things. First, a lot of people buying into the hype. And, second, a lot of people sampling it and saying, “Ew, it tastes like licorice. I hate licorice.” Behind the bar at Cantina, I recently saw both trends in action. A guy ordered absinthe but called it by its 19th-century name, saying, “Two shots of la fée verte, my good man.” I scowled (I was in a cranky mood anyway) and filled his order. He took the drinks over to the girl he was with—and she practically spit hers out.

For now, it’s a novelty, fueled by spirit nerds and people convinced that absinthe will make them hallucinate. Once the excitement dies down, I think it will recede into a fairly small category in the drinking world. Absinthe’s popularity 150 years ago has been attributed to its so-called hallucinogenic properties, but it has also remained popular because, when well made, it is absolutely delicious; few more complex spirits exist. Even so, I had mixed feelings about its legalization. For one, it makes the small collection of European bottles that I’ve fastidiously smuggled home over the last few years a little less exciting. But it also means I don’t need to treat them like something precious, since they’ll now be easier to replace.

The legalization also allows for the production of quality absinthe by some tremendously eager and clever distillers. One example is Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, whose absinthe, 10 years underground in the making, was released on December 21, 2007. The St. George version is infused with two kinds of wormwood, star anise, and fennel; then it’s distilled and artfully infused again with lemon balm, hyssop, stinging nettles, tarragon, mint, and meadowsweet. Its aromas are complex and layered. After dilution with a little water, turning the green spirit cloudy (called louching), it makes a beautiful drink to sip on, no sugar required.

While absinthe will not cause hallucinations or mental illness, there is something to be said for an absinthe high. I discovered this a couple of years ago, when a friend came over for lunch and was admiring my collection from Europe (mostly purchased, by the way, at Paris’s tiny Vert d’Absinthe, one of the coolest shops in the world), and we decided to sample some. After a few tastes, my friend left, but I could not stop myself from going back to the bottle, pouring nip after nip until evening. It really is like a buzz—though you feel the effects of the alcohol, your mind stays strangely clear and focused, with even a mild sense of euphoria. It’s no wonder artists, writers, and painters took to the stuff.

I love the St. George for its complexity and grace, but the other now-legal versions are worth owning as well. Kübler, a Swiss product, is an absinthe blanche, meaning its color is clear, not tinted an herbal green. Its flavors are right on, though one-dimensional. Lucid, made in France under the auspices of absinthe messiah Ted Breaux, is tasty stuff. While not overly complicated, it hits all the perfect notes and makes for a very good drink—one of those afternoon absinthes that you keep pouring. The St. George is the most intense of the three. It captures more of the wormwood’s signature bitterness, though at a level that remains pleasant.

Has absinthe reached oversaturation? Maybe not until Mansinthe, made in Switzerland by Marilyn Manson, floods the market.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.