Jeff Hollinger on Absinthe

Jeff Hollinger is a co-author of The Art of the Bar–Cocktails Inspired by the Classics. Currently, he works as Manager of Restaurant Operations at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, in San Francisco. At Absinthe, he continues to contribute to the innovative cocktail program, teaches home bartending classes, answers questions about absinthe, and is continuously experimenting with new and inventive ingredients for seasonally based cocktails.

In the ten years that Absinthe Brasserie & Bar has been open, I don't think a single day has gone by when someone hasn't called the restaurant, sat down at a table, or bellied up to the bar and asked, "Do you actually serve absinthe?" Until recently, our answer followed the lines of, "No. Unfortunately, absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, making it illegal to produce, import, or sell."

If the person inquiring about absinthe was actually sitting in the restaurant, we would generally follow the "no" answer with a short history lesson about absinthe's role in café society during France's Belle Epoque era (think Paris in the late 1800s until World War I), provide a synopsis about the "illicit" chemical components found within a bottle of absinthe (specifically thujone), and finally, offer our hypothesis on the effects of consuming absinthe (are you going to be enlightened by dainty and beguiling green fairies, or are you going to lop your earlobe off at the suggestion of an evil green demon?).

As I said before, this was all the case—until recently. In May of 2007, absinthe once again became legal to produce, import, and sell in the United States. The change seems even more recent for those of us on the west coast, considering that it wasn't until October that the first shipments of legal absinthe arrived at our doors. That's right, absinthe is legal once again.

What is absinthe? Simply put, absinthe (often referred to as "the green fairy" or "la fée verte") is a distilled product made from a base spirit and various herbs. The base spirit and herbs can, and do, vary from brand to brand, but there are some similar elements. The most famous and controversial element is grande wormwood, scientifically known as Artemesia absinthium, which gives absinthe its bitter qualities (not to mention its name), and also releases an essence known as thujone, which until recently was thought to cause hallucinations. The other two most common elements found in all absinthes are anise and fennel, which lend to the spirit's licorice-like flavor and aromas.

Absinthe as we know it today was originally crafted sometime in the late 18th century. It is traditionally said that a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire, who was living in Couvet, Switzerland, after fleeing his country's revolution, developed the spirit in 1792. Like many of the distilled, herbal spirits created during that period, absinthe was intended as a cure-all liquid remedy. In time, the recipe made its way into the hands of Henri-Louis Pernod, who would eventually produce the spirit commercially in Pontarlier, France.

Absinthe gained much of its popularity when it was issued as a fever and dysentery preventative to French troops who were fighting in Algeria between 1844 and 1847. When the troops returned home to Paris, they had acquired a taste for the anise-flavored spirit, and by the end of the 19th century, the city would be embarking on a "great collective absinthe binge." Cafés filled with people between six and seven each evening, and Paris became host to l'heure verte (the green hour), during which time aromas of anise perfumed the city streets.

Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh (for the record, there is no reasonable proof that he cut his earlobe off as a result of being on an absinthe bender), Paul Marie Verlaine, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pablo Picasso, all absinthe drinkers, helped create the legend of the green fairy muse through their work.

By the early 20th century, the devilish qualities of absinthe were also legendary. It was thought that absinthe had the power to land an imbiber in an asylum because of its heavy alcohol content and the supposed mind-altering qualities of thujone. These suspicions grew stronger when, in 1905, a Swiss man murdered his wife and two small children, and unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life, all after consuming two glasses of absinthe. However, mention was never made that he consumed the absinthe in the morning before going to work in the vineyards, and throughout the day he also managed to consume at least two bottles of wine, several glasses of brandy, and an assortment of other booze, all before murdering his family. Nevertheless, the demon absinthe was blamed as the cause for his actions, and the stage was set for the eventual ban of absinthe in most countries around the world.

Now absinthe is back. How is that possible? Well, to be honest, it's a story that is appropriately hazy, as are many of absinthe's tales. But let's cut to the quick and simple. In 1912, absinthe and any food or beverages made with wormwood were banned outright by the Department of Agriculture. Then in 1972, the FDA changed the tune of the regulations by banning all products which contained a concentration of thujone higher than 10 parts per million (10 milligrams per kilogram). It had always been thought that traditional absinthes had a much higher concentration of thujone than the allowed 10 parts per million.

However, thanks to the research of people like Ted Breaux, a New Orleans-born chemist and absinthe producer/historian, it was discovered that the best vintage absinthes actually had thujone levels that fell closer to federal allowances. Armed with this information, as well as the recognition that a cult absinthe following had been brewing throughout Europe for nearly ten years, Lucid Absinthe was created (with the help and consultation of Ted Breaux) and presented to the FDA; in early 2007 it became the first legally approved absinthe in the United States in ninety-five years.

Since Lucid's approval, more absinthes have come on the market, the two most prominent being Kübler, a Swiss-style "blanche" absinthe, and St. George's Absinthe Verte. Over time there will definitely be more, but it is hard to say what we'll see next, considering that the laws regulating importation, sales, and labeling are incredibly convoluted, and approvals are given on a singular case-by-case basis.

Perhaps the most talked about and recognized cocktail seeing a rebirth coinciding with absinthe's return is the Sazerac. This New Orleans classic is a combination of rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud's bitters, and a pastis- or absinthe-rinsed glass. Bars all over the City are now featuring Sazeracs with absinthe.

However, if you come into Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, and order a Sazerac, it will still be made with Herbsaint, instead of absinthe. Why haven't we reverted to the "classic" absinthe? Well, in our eyes the Sazerac is a cocktail that has evolved over time. When it was first created it was made with Cognac, not rye, and there was no absinthe in the drink at all. However, when a phylloxera scare hit France, and Cognac prices skyrocketed, bartenders quickly changed their Sazerac recipes and used locally available (and affordable) rye instead.

Then, later on down the historical line, a creative bartender decided to add a couple of dashes of absinthe to his Sazerac recipe, and the addition caught on throughout New Orleans and beyond. Yet again, the Sazerac was forced to evolve in 1912, when absinthe was banned in the United States. In its place, Herbsaint, a style of pastis created in New Orleans, was developed specifically for use in the Sazerac. The switch to Herbsaint is the last in a series of changes that have ultimately defined the essence of the Sazerac's history, and it is this history that we've chosen to honor behind our bar.

Don't worry; we've still got a number of absinthe cocktails tucked away in our mixing glasses. In fact, one of our favorites is a virtually unknown drink called the Lawhill Cocktail. It is a beautiful combination of rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and Angostura bitters. The recipe is below just in case you're feeling inclined to get up and mix one for yourself. Better yet, why don't you come to the bar, enjoy an absinthe drip, and then follow it up with a Lawhill? Because, to answer the question one more time: yes, we do serve absinthe!

Lawhill Cocktail 1½ ounce Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye
¾ ounce Dry vermouth
¼ ounce Maraschino liqueur
¼ ounce Absinthe
1 dash Angostura bitters
Flamed orange peel, for garnish

In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine first five ingredients and stir for 20 to 30 seconds, or until well chilled. Strain the drink into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the flamed orange peel.