When was your first experience with absinthe? Perhaps, as with me, it was in college, with a bottle avoy
muggled in from Europe. Your expectations to hallucinate were not met. Rather, you thought, “This is just another alcohol.”
And it was not a particularly good alcohol. Due to production bans, most Americans have not tasted quality absinthe. Nor have they enjoyed craft cocktails containing the sweet, dry, strong spirit made from botanicals and herbs.
Absinthe production was barred in America and Europe from the early 1900s. Thankfully, these bans were lifted about a decade ago, allowing the spirit to gradually appear again in quality form within cocktail menus and connoisseur’s collections.
Last week I sampled absinthe with one of its saviors — Ted Breaux. He studied its origins, and then successfully fought governments for legalization. Today, he produces the Lucid and Jade absinthe brands using recipes that helped establish the spirit more than a century ago.
SW: Why was absinthe widely banned?
TB: Just how the gin craze of the 1700s led to the making of bad, adulterated gin, so too did the same thing happen to absinthe during its rise in France in the 1800s. The production of absinthe requires a lot of stills and labor. People were making cheap absinthe with copper sulfate to turn the spirit green.
Meanwhile, the wine industry was decimated by blight in the 1880s. This allowed absinthe to replace wine as the common drink in France. Some consumers were drinking the cheap, adulterated stuff, and it landed some of them in the hospital. (Which is where the stigma comes from.) The wine industry, not wanting to lose too much ground — and ironically working with the Temperance League — used this against the absinthe industry.
At that time, more than 95% of the world’s absinthe came from one rural area on the France/Switzerland border. The wine industry was able to get absinthe banned in Switzerland in 1910 and France in 1914. That essentially removed it from the global marketplace. (America banned it in 1912.)
SW: How did you become involved in the absinthe revival?
TB: My background is as a research scientist. I came to acquire two full bottles of pre-ban absinthe, Pernod Fils and Edouard Pernod. I sampled these using a hypodermic needle that penetrated through the corks. I tasted those in ’96, when few people alive had tasted vintage absinthe. I found that you could put those bottles on the shelf and sell them today. With this knowledge, I could either write a good book — or keep the details to myself and try to recreate the spirits.
I discovered Combier Distillery in Saumur, France, a functional distillery that had made absinthe pre-ban. I struck a deal with the distillery and started producing absinthe. But I couldn’t even sell it in our own country!
Around that time, I met some entrepreneurs in New York. They had the idea to try to get the absinthe ban overturned in America. We put together a scientific argument that the government could not refute. And we stressed that we wanted to establish a quality of standard, to do away with the stigma of poor quality and the spirit causing hallucinations. The national government agreed. On March 7, 2007, absinthe was again allowed in the U.S.
Technically, it was still illegal in France. I went to the French Ministry of Health and asked them, ‘What’s the scientific basis of the law?’ They struck the ban in 2011.
We still have a lot of work to do overcoming the stigma. We have to educate people. Since 2007, my job has been 15% distillation and 85% education.