'Green Fairy' flits back to legal U.S. status

When the first legal absinthe in a century went on sale in the U.S. a few weeks ago, it kicked off a demand for the controversial liquor all across the country.

It was quite a scene in Alameda, CA, where St. George Spirits, an artisinal distiller operating out of a former naval warehouse in San Francisco Bay, was given the OK to sell its version of absinthe by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. When it did so, on Dec. 11, customers lined up for a wait of two or more hours to get into the facility to sample the
120-proof spirit and purchase it at $75 a bottle or $300 a case.

Master distiller Lance Winters, 42, created the absinthe -- something he's been tinkering with for years -- for boss Jorg Rupf, a renowned maker of fruit brandies and Hangar One vodka in his St. George facility.

Winters' recipe includes a grape-based brandy blended with such herbs as wormwood, tarragon, basil, mint, anise and fennel.

St. George does not have the field to itself. Three foreign manufacturers have begun exporting absinthe to the U.S. -- Kubler (Switzerland), Absinto Camargo (Brazil) and Lucid (France). Plus, it is likely other domestic distillers will join the wave to restore absinthe to consumer consciousness.

The licorice-flavored spirit that began as a medicine had been blamed for bad judgment, poor health, even outright madness. Nevertheless, it was the drink beloved of 19th century Parisian cafe society, enjoyed by such writers and artists as Baudelaire, Lautrec, Picasso, Degas and Manet. In fact, in those times the cocktail hour was referred to as l'heure verte -- the Green Hour -- in honor of absinthe.

There are those who theorize that the anti-absinthe forces were funded by the wine industry, which was losing ground in the marketplace to la Fee Verte, the "Green Fairy,'' as the drink was known. Any link, no matter how tenuous, between evildoers and absinthe was loudly proclaimed until enough of the public grew fearful of its continued availability to demand a ban around the time of World War I.

Absinthe began its comeback several years ago in England, where entrepreneurs discovered no legal ban remained in effect prohibiting sale or consumption of absinthe.

Classical absinthe is made by steeping dried herbs in ethyl alcohol, then distilling the liquor. The main herbs are nothing unusual -- anise and star anise, peppermint, wormwood, fennel, perhaps a few others, depending upon which recipe one prefers.

Wormwood is the catalyst for a chemical change during the process that, combined with the very high alcohol content (usually in excess of 120 proof, or 60%, compared to the 80 proof strength of most spirits), gives the drink its potency through release of the chemical thujone.


Pour 1 1/2 ounces of absinthe into an old-fashioned tumbler, then place a tea strainer containing one sugar cube on top of the glass. Pack a bit of crushed or cracked ice on top of the sugar.

When the ice melts, it will drip into the absinthe, taking the sugar with it and turning the green liquid milky.

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1 comment:

Ari said...

Overall good, although I'm curious where the wormwood as a catalyst came from. Grande wormwood is one of a couple ingredients that contain thujone but little of the over talked about chemical actually makes it into the liquor (up to 10 mg/l in the US). It is very doubtful it adds anything to the potency of the drink.

The drinking instructions are interesting but miss part of the point. The ratio of water to absinthe is important and it's best to pour or drip ice cold water into the absinthe until the right ratio is reached, generally 3 to 5 parts water to 1 part absinthe. It's also good to remember that with a high proof 1.5 ounces of absinthe can be the same as one and a half shots of a standard spirit.