The legendary Savoy Cocktail Book published in the thirties provides recipes for more than one hundred absinthe cocktails. The drinks are varied in all but one respect: They’re strong as hell. So strong, in fact, that traditional absinthe, which contains the chemical thujone found in wormwood, has been illegal in America since 1972 (thanks Section 801A of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of August.) That legislation makes the resurgence of the green stuff less expected. Sure, domestic brands don’t produce liquor that produces visions, but they’re still making great stuff.
“We are all searching for new options to impress our palates,” says Cliff Mejia, bartender at New York City’s Analogue. “Absinthe holds very powerful and distinct flavors that we use in cocktails, and, most importantly, its history evokes mystery and excitement.”
The myths surrounding Absinthe are largely the result of an aggressive smear campaign designed to slow the growth of the category, which was on fire at the dawn of the 20th century. The custom of drinking Absinthe had become so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the 5 p.m. happy hour was called l'heure verte ("the green hour"). “By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million liters of Absinthe per year, as compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion liters of wine,” says Ted Beaux, Lucid Absinthe's Master Distiller. As a result, the winemakers association, among other groups, began a campaign of misinformation that tied consuming Absinthe to claims of insanity, criminal activity and hallucinations.
They weren’t lying – get drunk some time and see what happens – but they sure as hell weren’t telling the truth.
What made it easy to libel the green fairy was the fact that, unlike Cognac, champagne, and the like, there was no law that defined Absinthe – nothing regulating the production and quality. “This reality spawned inferior versions of the drink that consisted of nothing more than cheap alcohol mixed with industrial flavors and poisonous dyes,” says Beaux. Bad absinthes did measurable damage to problem drinkers and got politicians yammering. The original ban – a less defined statute – was enacted in 1912 on the grounds that absinthe was causing convulsions. It probably was, but not the good stuff.
In fact, a later study of old Absinthe bottle found nothing that could have been deleterious to anyone’s health if not consumed in bulk.
Here are the best American bottles out there:
Pacific Distillery's Pacifique Absinthe Verte Supérieure
Made using a traditional French recipe and traditional tools – hammered copper pot, heat – in California, this bottle is cocktail but overwhelming if you want to go one on one.
Philadelphia Distilling's Vieux Carré Absinthe Superiéure
A tribute to New Orleans culture made in Philly? Sounds awful, isn’t. The bottle may be more carefully crafted than the spirit, but this one of the few American drams that goes down smooth straight-ish (add some sugar you maniac).
St. George Absinthe Verte
Simple. Strong. Impressively flavorful and worryingly colored. Our favorite.
Made by Marilyn Manson, who – to his credit – has always been good at covers (“Sweet Dreams” anyone), Mansinthe is easy and somewhat embarrassing to drink. Buy some, but keep it in a decanter or something.
Photos by Mansinthe