Name your poison: Absinthe

Absinthe is back, and it’s not so bad for you after all.

After nearly a century in exile, the Green Fairy is back. Absinthe, the notorious green-hued, high-proof spirit laced with toxic wormwood, is again legal in the United States. Flavored with various aromatics, most notably Grand wormwood, absinthe was once widely condemned as addictive and psychoactive. When the drink was implicated in a heinous murder early in the 20th century, many European countries and the United States banned it.

Since then aficionados have smuggled bottles from countries where absinthe was still legal, like Spain and Portugal; anise-flavored liquors were touted as faux absinthe; and DIY kits flourished.

Suddenly things changed: analyses of pre-ban absinthes showed that they contained very low levels of thujone, wormwood’s toxic component. So low that they would be legal in the United States, which in 1912 prohibited not absinthe or wormwood, but beverages with a thujone content greater than 10 ppm. Evidently any alleged psychotropic qualities stemmed from absinthe’s high alcohol content—120 to150 proof. Wormwood is indeed fatal in large doses, but most absinthe was and is, for legal purposes, thujone-free.

This discovery, by New Orleans chemist Ted Breaux, hasn’t opened the floodgates, but a few absinthe brands, approved last year by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, are now available here. There’s Lucid from France, Kubler from Switzerland and St. George from California.

The question is whether the newly revived spirit has staying power. “I think absinthe will stick around,” argues Dave Wondrich, author of “Imbibe!,” a history of cocktail culture. “It’s got a component beyond novelty.” Wondrich says that since absinthe had an important role in many classic cocktails, today’s trend of getting back to the classics bodes well.

One absinthe-laden classic is the Sazerac, a big reason why Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar in New Orleans stocks Lucid Absinthe Verte. “I serve Lucid in my Sazerac,” says bar chef Lu Brow, “but I haven’t started serving it as a drip yet.” Brow is referring to the classic absinthe ritual: Cold water drips from a tabletop fountain through a sugar cube suspended on a slotted spoon over a glass of absinthe. As the cold water mixes (to a 3:1 or 5:1 ratio) it creates the “louche,” a milky pearlesence.

“I’m still considering how we will do it,” says Brow. “If we send fountains out to tables, we’ll need half a dozen because once customers see them, they’re going to want to experience it.” She plans to have the absinthe concept up and running in a month or so.


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