Absinthe: A Status Check

Paul Blow
Combier Blanchette Absinthe

It's only been three years since the legalization of absinthe in the United States. But now that the hype that accompanied its reintroduction into the U.S. market is dying down (lines around the block to buy the first bottles), the product is starting to mature. Some great American versions are available (Leopold Bros, St. George), and the cream of the crop from Europe is finally starting to arrive. But nothing is more tasty than the remarkable story of how we got absinthe back.

Ted Breaux is the father of modern American absinthe, though he's only 44. Breaux produces many fine absinthes, including Lucid. He thinks the future of the spirit lies not in sipping, though, but in cocktails. "Absinthe makes so many drinks pop," he says.

Breaux's story is remarkable. In 1993 he was an environmental microbiologist in his hometown of New Orleans, when a colleague mentioned absinthe in passing. "Like many native New Orleanians," Breaux says, "I'd seen the word but never put too much thought into it." He asked the colleague to elaborate, and the reply was, "It's that green liquor that makes people crazy." Curious, Breaux looked absinthe up in The Merck Index ("the bible of chemistry"), which urged caution: "ingestion of Absinthe can cause tremors, convulsions, death."

The subject became lodged in his mind. "I approached all this from the angle of chemistry. The thing that befuddled me was that here we have this mystery—and there's obviously a lot of myth, lore, and exaggeration—but scientifically no one had solved this riddle to any scientific satisfaction."

Almost by coincidence in 1996 and ’97, he acquired a couple of bottles of sealed, 100-year-old absinthe. "It was like obtaining the Rosetta stone," he says, and he took samples with a needle through the corks to run through a mass spectrometer. It wasn't what he found that surprised him, but what he didn't find. Thujone, a major compound of wormwood, had long been assumed to be the source of absinthe's poison. Breaux, however, could find very little, if any, thujone in the samples he took. Over the years he tested more old bottles and achieved similar results.

"Where was the thujone? It wasn't there. Anyway, thujone is not a hallucinogenic substance. It's one of many similar monoterpenes that are found in most plants; there's nothing magic or weird or unusually poisonous about it. And in the old days they could neither prove nor refute the claim, but they assumed it was true, just like we did until 2000."

How, then, did absinthe get its reputation? According to Breaux, the problem is that there's no legal definition: Almost anything can call itself absinthe. In the 1870s—days of little regulation—there were some nasty impostors on the market. "Back then, most consumers were very brand conscious with things like absinthe to ensure not just quality, but safety," says Breaux. "That's how the Pernod brand got to be so big, because basically it was an artisanally crafted product that people could trust."

In the late 19th century absinthe was wildly popular. Poor alcoholics drinking cheap, industrial, ersatz absinthes began to experience some very powerful detrimental effects. "When you drink lots of something laden with stuff like copper sulfate," says Breaux, "it can cause all sorts of physical problems. And the big competitors of absinthe, namely the wine industry, which was recovering from devastation from phylloxera, took the opportunity to condemn absinthe, cleverly overlooking the fact that millions of people drank absinthe with no ill effects whatsoever."

In January 2004, while figuring out what do with his potentially explosive information, Breaux began distilling absinthe in France at a century-old distillery in the Loire Valley. And to me, this part of the story is the most remarkable: Breaux began to help some older spirit companies like Combier revive long-dead absinthe brands by reverse-engineering the recipes. With a chemist's rigor, Breaux had already broken down antique absinthes with a mass spectrometer in search of thujone. Why not try to determine the amounts of other herb-based compounds as well? Over years of painstaking, tedious trial and error, Breaux derived recipes from some of France's most sophisticated brands. (Many of the original recipes were lost, but he's had the opportunity to check some of his work against recovered recipes and has found that he's been mostly quite accurate.) He markets these under the umbrella of Jade Liqueurs.

These revived absinthe brands have been on sale for a few years in Europe and are only now coming to America. Jade Liqueurs' Nouvelle-Orléans is already available here, with some of its sister products arriving in coming months, including my favorite, the delicious Combier Blanchette. These products are complex, delicate, and ridiculously tasty. They should be diluted. I like to add water carefully until the entire solution has louched (gone cloudy). An ice cube is nice too.

Lucid became the first new absinthe to arrive since legalization in 2007 and is made by Breaux for Viridian Spirits, which also funded the legal effort to get the ban lifted. Probably because of its somewhat schlocky and pandering packaging, Lucid was initially blown off by bartenders as being inauthentic. It's anything but, as Breaux makes it in the same ancient distillery where he makes the Jade Liqueurs series. The difference is that Lucid is less expensive, made in larger quantities, and unaged, whereas the Jades and the Blanchette rest for two to three years before bottling (they settle, integrate, and become more harmonious). Either way, it's good to have a few bottles around. Every true absinthe is different, each with its own charms. Just watch out for the bad stuff—there's still no legal definition.

The Stars Fell on Alabama, an absinthe cocktail from the book So Red the Nose (1935)
In a tumbler combine:
1.5 ounces unaged corn whiskey (a.k.a. White Dog)
1 dash each of Peychaud's bitters, angostura bitters, simple syrup, orange flower water, and absinthe.
Add a couple of ice cubes and stir briefly.

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.