rnrnIf you have six glasses of absinthe before you on an early evening in a tastefully retro-tacky bar in Los Angeles, you are either attending a rare comparative tasting of several of these unique distillates, or you are plainly dissolute, so steeped in moral turpitude that you should perhaps consider checking in to a sanatorium. Either way, lucky you.rnrnAt a recent gathering organized by local wine merchant George Cossette, absinthe distiller and advocate Ted Breaux gathered about 30 depraved souls for a comparative tasting of Breaux’s signature beverage, a once illegal spirit he helped resurrect a decade ago from the oddest mixture of infamy and obscurity that any beverage has endured for several centuries.rnrnIf Matt Damon wore glasses and worked at a lab, he’d look a little like Breaux. In fact Breaux is a scientist, and as such comes predisposed to potions; he’s from New Orleans, too, which may make him predisposed to inebriating potions. No doubt he was influenced by the name of one of the French Quarter’s oldest bars, the Old Absinthe House — a name he’d never given much thought to until a friend gave him some absinthe to try in 1993. It transfixed him completely; Breaux looked up absinthe in his Merck manual, a Bible of sorts for chemists, where he learned of its reputation as an abject rotter of minds, prone to inducing hallucinations, convulsions, epileptiform seizures, madness, dissipation and death. Intrigued, he was soon scouring books and encyclopedic articles on the subject, traveling to France to taste and collect illicit or ancient bottlings; he wrote papers on the subject, and tried, in his lab, to deconstruct old versions and revive old formulas.rn
Absinthe’s storied history
rnHere are a few things he learned: Absinthe was invented and originally peddled by a Frenchman with the unlikely name of Pierre Ordinaire in 1792, a physician based in Jura, near the Swiss French border (the region was the seat of absinthe production for several decades). Its composition typically involved combining three ingredients: anise, fennel and an aromatic weed called grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium), the source of the spirit’s lingering, incalculable bitterness. (Even in modern iterations drinking absinthe straight, without cutting it with water, ice, sugar or some combination, is almost a physical impossibility.) Wormwood was also the source of absinthe’s infamy, since it contained a substance known as thujone, mistakenly thought to be the source of its maddening, hallucinatory effects.rnrnAfter years of research, Breaux pieced together a hyperbole-free history of absinthe’s mind-altering properties. Absinthe came of age in the latter half of the 19th century, buoyed by its exoticism and Bohemian street cred (it was endorsed in verse by poets like Rimbaud and Valery), by its so-called medicinal benefits (French soldiers at war in Algeria used it, in ever-increasing amounts, to “purify” the water in the field, among other things) and, perhaps most importantly, by the sudden paucity of wine and grape-based spirits in France, owing to decimation of the country’s vineyards by the root louse phylloxera.rn
Were additives to blame?
rnLike all potent spirits, it was occasionally abused. Unlike other spirits, it was also polluted by harmful additives like copper sulfate and antimony chloride, used to accentuate its color and the spirit’s clouding in the glass, in effect poisoning many of its imbibers. Before long absinthe intoxication was thought to be worse by several orders of magnitude than simple alcohol intoxication, so much so that a new word, absinthism, was coined to distinguish its particular degenerative properties.rnrnThe ingredients of absinthe do seem to contribute a euphoric topnote to the routine alcohol kick, but that doesn’t really account for its near-global eradication by 1915. (Setting aside the addition of poisons, absinthe was, according to Breaux, the victim of a smear campaign, mostly the work of French vignerons, whose phylloxera-ravaged market was temporarily routed by the popularity of this Bohemian craze.) The spirit virtually disappeared until Breaux and other producers revived its artisanal production in the late ’90s, convinced U.S. officials to overturn the ban in 2007, whereupon it has gone on to achieve a sort of goth hipness in bars of ill-repute from Echo Park to Avenue B. Breaux now makes three different bottlings under the brand Jade Liqueurs in a revived distillery in Combier, France: Esprit Edouard 72°, C.F. Berger 65°, JL 1901 68°, and Nouvelle Orléans 68° — the latter named, of course, for Breaux’s beloved hometown. The absinthes Breaux makes may be the most authentic in a series of variants now being produced across Europe. Certainly no one is as obsessed.rnrnAbsinthe has reacquired a number of modern accoutrements for its enjoyment, including a spoon-like sieve lain over the lip of the glass, upon which one places a sugar cube. One then trickles water over the cube, its sweetness captured in the spirit. The addition of water turns it ever so slightly green (leading to inebriated sightings of green fairies and other such phantasms) and slickly cloudy — that clouding is known as the”‘louche,” a word also used to describe characters of ill-repute — clearly, this is a spirit that can’t catch a break.rnrnAs for the flavors, the six spirits before me — Kubler, Obsello, Pernot’s “Vieux Pontarlier,” Vieux Carré, Marteau and Jade’s “Nouvelle Orléans” — hailed from five countries, and differed subtly on ingredients, style and proof. But they were unrelentingly intense – trying to parse their nuances was a little like distinguishing the differences between locomotives as they smashed into your body at high speeds. We were instructed to drop an ice cube or two into the glass, whereupon it slowly grew filmy and slick before clouding. There was a perceptible thickness as it struck the palate, which more or less obliterated the taste buds for several minutes, leaving you somewhat bowled over as you approached the next sip. In no time you were under the table, or at least your mouth was. Looked at a certain way, it was the essence of dissipation.rnrnAnd yet there was an undeniable slap-in-the-face exhilaration to the experience, a minty, piney, salty, peppery briskness embossing a texture grounded by bitterness, but lined with a thin halo of herbal sweetness; in the end absinthe is marked by that tension between the bitter and the sweet — it does not surprise me that one has to conjure fairies to get at the heart of this contradiction, inflicted upon your taste buds with a sledgehammer. In moderation, it is a spirit worthy of gambling with your occasional dissolution.rnrn
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.rnrnPhoto: Absinthe and sugar. Credit: istockphoto.com/ Eric Litton