WINE & SPIRITS
MAY YOUR INNER POET AND ARTIST REJOICE! ABSINTHE IS BACK
If you haven't been hiding under a teetotaling rock you may already be rejoicing (praise the Green Fairy!) that absinthe is back. The bygone drink of poets and painters, no spirit can claim a more evocative past—conjuring images of mischief and madness, of the Paris of Rimbaud, Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec. Absinthe is dark and dangerous, requiring patience and paraphernalia. Place a sugar cube on a slotted spoon over a thimble of absinthe. Add in water drop by drop, watch the chemical reaction—a cloudy louche as hypnotic as a lava lamp.
For the last few years, a handful of big players have been working behind the scenes to bring the long-maligned spirit back to the U.S., where it was banned in 1912. One of the first to fight for its return was Michel Roux of Crillon Importers, the man behind Absolut Vodka's early success. His brand new to market Grande Absente is an intense lime green liqueur concocted using a century-old recipe and bottled in a handcrafted glass bottle near the Swiss border in the Alps of Haute Provence. Currently, the strongest absinthe in the country, at 138 proof, the label warns to "drink with extreme caution."
A single whiff of Grande Absente is enough to jolt you back in time to la Belle Epoque. Continue the journey with a long, slow sip. The heady combination of botanicals—wormwood (once reputed to be a hallucinogen), mugwort (said to be an aphrodisiac), anise and peppermint—lingers long on the palate. The impression is similar to that of Pastis but with a more complex bitter finish.
The ban, originally pushed by the temperance movement, remained on the books until last year. It targeted thujone, a chemical in wormwood that has since been proven to have no psychotropic effects. Two European producers who'd been lobbying against this arcane law were the first to hit the U.S. market last year, beating Roux to the punch. French-made Lucid was quickly followed by clear absinthe blanche Kubler from Switzerland.
But even before the Europeans reached our shores, an American distiller had been producing his own homegrown absinthe (for friends and family) right here in this country. Lance Winters, the master distiller behind Hanger One vodka, has spent the last decade perfecting the recipe for what recently became the first commercially available American-made absinthe in nearly a century. His St. George Absinthe Verte is a minty, grassy, intriguing brew with flavors so rich and complex they don't need sugar at all (he advises against adding the traditional cube).
The demand and taste for absinthe is building slowly among American drinkers. The flavor across the board—like a supercharged Ouzo or Pastis—is clearly an acquired taste. Some bottles are heavier on the botanicals with hints of star anise and tarragon, others are more vegetal, and others still are more sweet like Sambuca. Once you've figured out which one you prefer, you'll want to consume it in small doses only—they are all extremely potent. Drink absinthe for the lore, for a taste of history and for a powerful start—tortured Bear Stearns poets, you know who you are—to your Hamptons weekend.