Night with the Green Fairy

When I was in New York last month I stopped into a liquor store to pick up a bottle of Lucid, the first genuine absinthe approved for sale in the U.S. in nearly a century. With unusual restraint I held onto the bottle through the holidays and for several weeks after, waiting until I could have a few friends over to try it out. A few days ago we finally got around to cracking it open — about a week after it became available in DC.

Absinthe
[Pale green Lucid, before the louche]

The story of how absinthe came to be banned, degraded, and finally reborn, is long and winding. The short version is this: In 1912, on the basis of myths about its tendency to drive people mad, prohibitionists succeeded in getting absinthe banned by name in the United States. In 1972 the ban on absinthe was superceded by a more scientifically precise definition. The new rule forbade products containing thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, in quantities greater than 10 ppm.

For decades it was assumed that this requirement effectively prohibited absinthe. In fact, it has been shown that at least some traditional recipes come in well below the legal limit. Once this was realized, talented distillers began once again to develop products for the American market, navigating byzantine government requirements every step of the way. (The launch of one brand has been delayed by the Treasury Department’s disapproval of a monkey on the label. Government regulators actually make a living considering such things.) Now, finally, Americans have access to a few artisan absinthes instead of just lousy smuggled knock-offs and extremely bitter “kits.”

Absinthe is very high in alcohol; Lucid weighs in at a serious 124 proof. This is one good reason to dilute it with ice water. The other is that the water transforms the drink, bringing out insolubles from the herbs that soothe the liquor’s soul and give it much more complexity. This is the louche that turns it from a clear green to milky white. Before adding water, Lucid is hot and powerfully anise-flavored. After, it’s smoother, with notes of licorice candy and herbs. Stirring a sugar cube into the glass is another option. About half of our group preferred it that way. (Lighting the cube on fire is a contemporary bar trick and not generally recommended.)

Absinthe tasting
[Jason Talley listens intently to his absinthe-driven hallucination of Radley Balko]

Drinking absinthe straight isn’t for everybody all the time. A great way to use it is in the Sazerac, one of the classic cocktails with which bartenders endlessly tinker. Here’s a typical recipe:

2 oz. rye whiskey
Several dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Rinse of absinthe
sugar cube
lemon zest

Chill one cocktail glass with ice water. In a pint glass, muddle the sugar with the bitters. Add ice, add the rye, and shake. Pour out the water from the first glass and rinse it with absinthe. Strain the rye mixture into the glass, wipe the rim with lemon zest, and serve. It’s a fantastic drink. (Early recipes called for cognac instead of rye. I like the spice of the latter, but try both.)

Absinthe
[Bonus photo: Fire with absinthe might be lame, but there's nothing lame about capping the night with Jeff Morgenthaler's Angostura-Scorched Pisco Sour. "Flare" bartending?]

For more background on absinthe, see the cover story in the latest Imbibe, this New York Times article, or the Wormwood Society. Absinthe spoons and other accessories are available at La Maison d’Absinthe.

[Credit to Radley and Courtney for the photos.]

Comments

  1. Frank says:

    If only it were that simple :-( Absinthe without thujone is like a Ferrari without an engine….looks nice but it isn’t real. You can’t get the real stuff in the USA.

    **”It will be like drinking decaffeinated coffee,” says Pierre-André Delachaux, a history professor. “I will keep on drinking illegal absinthe until the supply dries up, then I’ll switch to whisky.”**

    Genuine Val de Travers expert speaking at the time the Swiss ban was lifted about thujone.

    **But the biggest controversy surrounding the liquor–once dubbed “one of the worst enemies of man”–is about not its resurgence but rather its authenticity. Enthusiasts claim the thujone-free brands, which contain less than 10 parts per million (p.p.m.) of the chemical, are made with the same relatively small amounts of thujone as the old brews. But scientists wrote in the British Medical Journal that absinthe bottled before 1900 packed up to 260 p.p.m. of thujone–which may not sound like much, but consider that only 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water is enough to scare regulators. “They are playing pretend,” study co-author Wilfred Arnold says of the liquor’s new cheerleaders. “It is nothing like the old stuff.”**

    Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007 Time Magazine

    That’s Professor Wilfred Arnold , Biochemist, University of Kansas.

  2. Jacob Grier says:

    Frank, I was wondering how long it would take you to post. I thought about noting that there is some dissent, but from everything I’ve seen so far it is based on old extrapolation, not chemical analyses of actual bottles or samples. It’s a very minority view.

    If I am mistaken, I welcome a correction. Anyone wanting to follow the debate further can read the comments here:
    http://imbibemagazine.blogspot.com/2008/01/seeing-green.html

  3. Frank says:

    Hello Jacob,

    Gwydion Stone and the author of that “paper” that he quotes, are both involved in the manufacture and distribution of abinthe.

    You are entitled to your opinion. I choose not to believe those that are selling absinthe in a “zero thujone” market like the USA. They use all kinds of tactics to vilify those that question them. None of them have any qualifications to comment on the subject whatsoever.

    Gwydion Stone owns a webste and makes absinthe by proxy in Switzeralnd which he sells online.

    David Nathan Maister is the leading online absinthe baron – nothing more.

    Alan Moss? Don’t make me laugh.

    I’ll stick with the academics on this:

    “They are playing pretend,” study co-author Wilfred Arnold says of the liquor’s new cheerleaders. “It is nothing like the old stuff.

    You can also play along if you wish, it’s a well organised and financed PR campaign. It’s your decision what you choose to believe. Do you also think the moon is made of cheese?

  4. Jacob

    Great post. Jealous that you got to mix with the Lucid, I’ve only gotten to try a few tastes!

    Flare bartending! Great one! Seriously, don’t ever call it that again ;)

    Just kidding. Glad you could break out the flamethrower!

    Jeff

  5. Jacob Grier says:

    I was cringing when I wrote that… :)

  6. Ben says:

    “Soothe the liquor’s soul”?

    Jacob, Jacob, Jacob….when did you become the kind of person that writes about the soul of an alcoholic beverage? :)

  7. Looks weird indeed… much much lighter than what I am used to seeing

  8. Jacob Grier says:

    Baby steps, Ben. First liquor, then, maybe, humans.

  9. Mike says:

    No offense, but Lucid? Really? That’s like exploring the complexities of 19th century Italian cuisine by sampling Chef Boyardee and nodding your head in approval.

  10. Jacob Grier says:

    No offense, but did you check the date of the post? At the time it was the only absinthe available in US stores.

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