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.
[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 In 1972 the ban on absinthe was superceded by a more scientifically precise definition.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.)
[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
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.)
[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.]