Everything You Didn’t Know You Needed to Know About Absinthe

10/23/2023

Kara Newman

wineenthusiast.com

Don Spiro / Photography by Brittany Newman

It was hard to say what year it was in the windowless upper floor of NYC’s KGB Bar: The vintage cocktail dresses and sharp-tailored suits suggested 1923; the anise-tinged absinthe pours presented on a green-fringed tray channeled 1823.

But no, it was 2023, where revelers turned out to enjoy burlesque and anise-spiked cocktails at an event hosted by the Green Fairy Society. Once a Belle Époque darling, today the legendary Green Fairy—a popular nickname for absinthe—is inspiring a new generation.

 

What Is Absinthe?

It’s a high-proof spirit flavored with wormwood and anise, with other botanicals playing a supporting role. Since absinthe contains no added sugar, it’s technically not considered a liqueur. Named for Arte

misia absinthium—the wormwood plant— absinthe typically features “the holy trinity” of wormwood, anise and fennel. Flavorings may also include star anise, hyssop and lemon balm; some American-made versions use local herbs like spearmint or rosemary.

A Brief History of the Green Fairy

The first known recipe dates back to 1789, according to The Wormwood Society, an absinthe education group. Because of its greenish tint and the way the oils “dance” in the glass as water is added, it became known as La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy). The spirit rose to popularity in France and Switzerland throughout the 1800s.

Why was it banned?

Historians point to a smear campaign by France’s wine industry, after the phylloxera epidemic decimated vineyards in the mid-1800s. As prices of wine and brandy soared, many turned to absinthe (made with a non-grape neutral spirit base) instead.

It didn’t help that as absinthe’s popularity soared, unscrupulous purveyors began to sell adulterated, even poisonous knockoffs, creating concerns about the safety of absinthe (in England, the gin industry faced similar issues).

Worried that the wine industry would fail to rebound, France’s winemakers leveraged the burgeoning Prohibition movement to vilify absinthe. That included sensational propaganda, including flawed studies that claimed wormwood caused hallucinations or psychedelic effects. Absinthe was erroneously blamed for Van Gogh lopping off his ear and for filling asylums with people who had gone insane after drinking the spirit.

Absinthe bans followed in Switzerland (1910); the U.S. (1912); and France (1915).

When was it legalized?

In the U.S., absinthe was legalized in 2007. Switzerland lifted its ban two years earlier and France lifted its ban in 2011.

You May Also Like: How Prohibition Shaped American Wine Country

Leading the Modern Absinthe Wave

The personalities driving the modern absinthe wave tell us how they got here. You’ll also find recommendations on bottles to pour and tips for serving and enjoying the legendary liquor. And if you notice a number of mystifying coincidences woven throughout these pages, you’re not imagining it—the Green Fairy works in mysterious ways.

THE IMPRESARIO

Don Spiro

“A turn-of-the-century absinthe cabaret for the 21st century,” is how Don Spiro describes the monthly soirée hosted by The Green Fairy Society, an organization he co-created. The events might include burlesque performers one month, sideshow specialists the next— but absinthe is always part of the escapist draw.

Spiro began cohosting speakeasy nights at the midtown Manhattan space where he tended bar, he remembers, starting around 2009. But it wasn’t until 2016, when he was introduced to The Red Room within NYC’s KGB Bar, that absinthe and its mystique became part of the aesthetic.

“I like debunking mysteries,” he explains. “Absinthe lends itself to that: There’s so much history and false advertising about it.”

Because absinthe was banned for 95 years, the spirit built up an “amazing mythology,” he says, the result of propaganda that painted absinthe as harmful or likely to cause hallucination. “It’s my job to smash all that mythology so people will drink it.”

Today, the event features samples from a rotating roster of producers and riffs on anise-forward cocktails like Death in the Afternoon and the Corpse Reviver. Lighthearted absinthe education—such as a florid poem that was an ode to Ted Breaux (who we will meet in a moment)—is also part of the show.

Awareness about the spirit has come a long way, Spiro acknowledges—but it still has further to go.

“Ten years ago, I’d go into a bar and ask for a rye Manhattan, and they wouldn’t even know what rye is,” he says. “Now, you can go into any dive bar and they’ll say, we have five brands; which would you like? I’d like absinthe to be like that.”

Recommended Bottle: Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure

“Just delicious,” is how Spiro describes this bottling from Philadelphia Distilling, which includes fennel, lemon balm and spearmint, packaged in an eye-catching decanter-like bottle.

Absinthia Vermut poses for portraits at a bar in Berkeley, California
ABSINTHIA VERMUT / PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHEA EVANS

THE SPIRITED ENTREPRENEUR

Absinthia Vermut

It takes a special dedication to have your name legally changed to Absinthia Vermut. But that’s what this Oakland, California-based absinthe-maker did.

Vermut first tried absinthe at a party in 1996, then a recent NYU college grad. “I loved it,” she recalls. “And I heard it was illegal—when you’re 26, that’s the coolest thing ever.” Fascinated by absinthe’s history in the art world, she dove into research mode. “I started making it four months later.”

As a result of her hobby, “my friends started calling me Absinthia.” The nickname stuck. “A couple of years after I started making absinthe, I found out my last name [Vermut] is actually German for ‘wormwood.’ I had no idea. It was meant to be.”

Yet, she wouldn’t launch her own brand—Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits—until almost two decades later, in 2017. Following a career in the corporate world, she earned an MBA, got divorced and changed her legal middle name to Absinthia.

In addition to a trio of organic absinthes—white, green and barrel-aged—plus a non-alcoholic “Fairy Dust” cocktail syrup, Vermut plans to develop other spirits flavored with wormwood, namely vermouth, amaro and gin.

Today, Vermut says, “I feel like education about absinthe is as important as distilling in my career.” In addition to myth-busting, she’s often demonstrating how to louche absinthe or mix it into cocktails (a current favorite: the martini-like Tuxedo No. 2). After decades—centuries—of misinformation, she believes people are ready to embrace absinthe.

“It was such a misunderstood, demonized product,” she says. “All these years later, I think absinthe is starting to find its place.”

Recommended Bottle: Absinthia Organic Absinthe Blanche

Amid a sea of Green Fairies, this is a clear Swiss-style absinthe made with organic botanicals including fennel, anise and coriander.

You May Also Like: How to Use Absinthe in a Cocktail

Rhys Osborne poses for portraits at a Bedroom 6 in Venice Beach, California
RHYS OSBORNE / PHOTOGRAPHY BY GABRIEL NIVERA

THE MINDFUL

Host Rhys Osborne

It all started with an absinthe fountain.

As a student at USC, Rhys Osborne stumbled upon an antique absinthe fountain at a Los Angeles flea market— and it led him down a journey to learn about the spirit. Today, he’s the founder and owner of Bedroom 6, a speakeasy-style social club in New York City and L.A. that focuses on absinthe and its rituals to help guests “get and stay in the moment,” Osborne says.

Named for the six-bedroom college rental house where he began hosting parties in 2019, Osborne (now 25) welcomes 50 to 60 guests per session. A four-part guided absinthe tasting (“earth, fire, water, air”) encourages guests to ask questions and connect with one another in a “mindful” way.

“It’s about trying to approach the issue I care most about: the loneliness epidemic within my generation specifically and America in general,” he explains. “Absinthe has been a perfect potion to make that happen.”

The go-to bottle has been St. George Spirits’ Absinthe Verte—“It’s incredibly palatable to a new absinthe drinker”—although Osborne says the venue has been trying a new bottle every week. After sampling all of the bottles available in the U.S., he traveled through Switzerland and the Czech Republic in summer 2022 to meet absinthe producers there.

“Absinthe, frankly, has been a good little piece of magic,” Osborne says , reflecting on how finding a vintage fountain brought him to this path. “The Green Fairy came to me.”

Recommended Bottle: St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte

Osborne favors this California-made absinthe for its approachability. It offers plenty of star anise on the nose and palate, tinged with hints of lime, lemon balm, fennel and tarragon.

T. A. Breaux poses for portraits at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Birmingham, Alabama
T. A. BREAUX / PHOTOGRAPHY BY TAMIKA MOORE

THE PIONEER

T.A. Breaux

It was the end of 1993, and Ted Breaux—a New Orleans native and research scientist—felt like he was seeing absinthe everywhere: from a reference in a catalog he’d randomly received to the sign hanging on The Old Absinthe House bar as he walked by. “The cosmos just kept dropping the word in front of me,” he recalls. “I finally said, ‘What exactly was this?’”

Today, it’s hard to conceive of a time when authentic absinthe was completely unavailable in the U.S.—but in the 1990s, that was indeed the case. And the more Breaux researched the spirit, the more questions he had.

“It had been banned, and no one, nowhere could tell me with absolute certainty what was wrong with it,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe the mystery had never been solved, and I wanted to solve it.”

Eventually, Breaux became the first person to analyze vintage absinthe using modern-day equipment (doing so in 2000). He used those results to successfully lobby to have the U.S. ban on absinthe overturned (which happened in 2007) and launched his own absinthe brands (Lucid and Jade Liqueurs).

But before he could do any of that, he needed to procure a 100-year-old bottle of absinthe: “It doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” he says. He spent all his vacation time hunting down vintage absinthe in Europe and returned home to analyze the samples. “What was poisonous, deleterious? I found nothing.” In France, he recovered an antique still and used it to make Lucid, recreated from the 19th-century samples he had analyzed; it became the first absinthe legally imported to the U.S. In 2000, he founded Jade Liqueurs.

Three decades later, it’s still “an ongoing effort, an ongoing challenge,” says Breaux, who now resides in Birmingham, Alabama. “Thank goodness for me it remains a labor of love. If it were anything else, I don’t know that I could do it.”

Recommended Bottle: Jade Nouvelle Orleans

“It’s part Belle Époque and part me,” Breaux says. “The core of it is vintage absinthe, and it’s got a bit of an avant-garde twist.” It’s also a past Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Spirit of the Year.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!