Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder (with video)

by Mary Tutwiler

A century-old ban on the spirit in the U.S. is over. Here's why:

Sometimes life is a lot like art. Take last night. I was sitting at the bar at Pamplona with a friend, sipping on absinthe and he asked me how the anise flavored spirit, beloved by poets and painters, and banned as a hallucinogenic poison in the U.S. since 1912, had gotten back in circulation.

"There was this guy from New Orleans," I began, "but I can't remember his name."
"His name is Ted Breaux," a woman called out from the darkness at the end of the bar.
"Oh, yeah," I replied, and began to launch into a lecture.
"You want to meet him?" the woman asked.
Turns out the rock star of the spirits world was sitting right next to me.
This is the story he told:

Ted Breaux

"I'm originally from New Orleans, but my family was transferred to Lafayette when I was a kid, I graduated from Lafayette High in 1984, and got my master's from UL in microbiology.

The whole absinthe thing started for me in 1993 when I found myself in New Orleans. It's amazing that the absinthe culture had been so indelibly marked in New Orleans. When I went to the Old Absinthe House, [on Bourbon Street] and saw the green and white marble fountains on the bar, that's really when I transitioned from reading something in a book to really being able to put my hands on it and know that it happened.

I was very curious about the allegations that absinthe contains something deleterious or poisonous, because that's what I was doing, I was identifying contamination. I'm an environmental chemist, which means I'm a little bit of an organic and an analytical and physical chemist; I do a little bit of everything. I wanted to know what compound was in absinthe that caused these allegedly deleterious effects.

Basically, I knew the only way I was going to be able to study absinthe was to have it, and there wasn't any around anywhere, so I knew that I was going to have to learn how to distill it. I started running experiments back then. The missing link, the rosetta stone, was in 1996-97 when I happened to run across not one, but two bottles of vintage absinthe that were sealed and unopened. Notable brands. That's what really opened the door to be able to connect the beginning with the end. To fill in the missing link.

The absinthes I was tasting were [bottled] between 1900 and 1915, pre ban. They were wonderful. I knew the spirit had 100 years of age on it, which, in the case of absinthe, is beneficial. It was a delightful, stimulating, refreshing, herbal anise drink, with beautiful caramelized honeyed flavors.

In 2000, I was the first person to ever take samples of vintage absinthe and to subject them to modern scientific analysis. I was looking for something in these vintage absinthes that was poisonous or deleterious or hallucinogenic, and I found nothing. That revelation told me that basically all these rumors about absinthe were grossly exaggerated or untrue altogether.
Then I began to realize that the smear campaign made against absinthe over a century ago was fueled by the wine industry. So it was economically motivated and politically motivated as well. The temperance league in Europe found themselves allied with the wine industry. In France, wine back then wasn't viewed as alcohol; it was viewed as food. It was thought to be completely healthy, as was anything from grapes. They were unlikely bedfellows in the smear campaign against absinthe.

The European Union standardized all the food and beverage laws in 1988, which effectively superseded all the old laws, making absinthe legal again but problem is there's no legal definition. You can put anything in a bottle and call it absinthe, unfortunately. That's what more than 90 percent of European producers did, they knew that they could put any flavored vodka in a bottle, put some green dye in it, jack up the price and sell it to unwitting tourists who had no point of reference.

I had been afforded the rare opportunity to sample vintage absinthe by that point in time, and I knew these products going around in Europe were absolutely terrible. They had no connection to absinthe whatever. I started to amass all this scientific analysis, and I realized I had enough information to effectively reverse engineer these very brands I was studying. I set out to make the wrong right and that's what took me to France.

It took me a while to find a distillery that had 100-year-old equipment, with absinthe stills in it. The distillery is a museum. [The historic Combier distillery in Saumur, France, uses apparatus designed by Gustav Eiffel in the mid-1800s.]"

Once Breaux mastered the distillation problem, he began to find a market for his artisinal absinthe. He could sell his spirit all over the world, except in his own country. Absinthe was legally banned in the U.S.

"Others have tried [to get through the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco] with inferior products and were turned down. I was approached by a group of entrepreneur types with an appreciation of absinthe, and they asked if I wanted to work with them to see if we could get the laws changed.

The way that you submit a beverage for approval in the U.S. is you submit a sample. They send it to their labs and test it. It's a pass-fail sort of thing. At that point, they don't even have to know what it is. So we sent a sample, and they didn't find anything wrong with it, so it passed.
The next step is to send in the label. When they saw the label had absinthe on it, they were, Oh, no, no, no, you can't do that.' Our response was, What would you like us to call it? The product is genuine, and you've already approved it.' We had them. It took a while; we had to convince them that we were a respectable bunch and we weren't marketing absinthe as some sort of drug, which it isn't. I'd already been on the History Channel and CBS morning news. They [AFT] took that into account. They realized most of the myths and allegations about absinthe really were that, and they could not be substantiated through modern science. Eventually, they approved us, in March 2007, which effectively overturned a 95-year-old ban.

When I walked into Pamplona last night, I was really surprised. I saw two absinthe fountains on the bar, and that's something I see in mixology bars in New York or San Francisco. And yeah, they had a surprising variety of absinthes on the menu. I found the manager and bartender were knowledgeable and helpful and very enthusiastic.

Absinthe is a very cultured item. It's a niche item. It's very cool to have it. It's really great when you can promote something new that's really quite old. There's been a renaissance in pre Prohibition cocktails, which almost everyone recognizes as the pinnacle of cocktail culture. And absinthe is a part of that. It's something that people find fascinating.

Whether we drink beer or wine or tequila, technically, legally they're all alcohol, but anybody who's had all three knows they take you to different places. One thing about genuine absinthe: Those who imbibe it universally agree that after a couple of drinks, that they feel somewhat mentally stimulated. They can feel the effects of alcohol on the body, but the mind stays sharp at least for a while. It seems to be uniquely attributable to absinthe. Clarity or lucidity. That's why we chose the name Lucid."