December 21, 2007, was a surreal day at the office for Lance Winters. Two choppers circled overhead filming a line of customers that stretched across the parking lot. California’s St. George Spirits—where Winters is master distiller—was releasing America’s first legal domestic absinthe in 95 years. “We ended up selling out of our first 1,800 bottles in of six hours,” Winters tells me. The customers who acquired a bottle that day left with a piece of history.
St. George’s Absinthe Verte hit the market at a heady moment in the spirit’s modern resurgence—the feds lifted the 1912 ban only a few months before—but the product was far from a rush job. In fact, St. George’s absinthe was more than 10 years in the making. In 1997, without ever having tasted an authentic absinthe before, Winters used a 10-liter still and a vintage recipe found in a Scientific American magazine to make a small batch—”to see what all the hubbub was about,” he says. His curiosity was not rewarded. Winters confused two different wormwood plants and turned out a viciously bitter product. Undeterred, he made subsequent, better-tasting runs. “Just about every year or so, I made a small batch, just to test out. We had to destroy it afterward, because it couldn’t be sold…but we always found a good way to destroy it.”
The buzz around absinthe has died down considerably since its unlikely comeback, but that hasn’t stopped numerous other American distillers from joining the culture of experimentation St. George fostered six years ago. Many of today’s American absinthes are brash fusions of tradition and innovation. In distinctly American fashion, these passionate craftsmen—and women—have taken something largely foreign and made it their own. (Although a few pre-ban producers existed in America, historically absinthe has been the dominion of the French and Swiss.) There isn’t a single approach or list of ingredients they all adhere to. However, each is driven by a love for the noble yet misunderstood spirit rather than the dream of making big money.
Like Lance Winters, Cheryl Lins began distilling absinthe before the ban was lifted…although hers was, as the Swiss would call it, clandestine. In early 2006, Lins became interested in absinthe when she read that she could order European bottles online. Steep prices—around $100 for newly established pre-ban style brands like Jade—were prohibitive for Lins who was earning a living milking goats in the western Catskill mountains. But so taken with absinthe’s revelatory breadth of flavor, she followed a tip from an online forum and ordered an inexpensive alembic still from Portugal to make absinthe more cheaply for herself.
St. George’s distance from history points to a palpable tension in the absinthe community. Winters talks of “two tribes” when referring to the American distilleries that make absinthe.
Through Internet research and trial and error, Lins taught herself to distill and hammered out a recipe she liked with the tabletop alembic. Absinthe was still taboo, and she figured it’d stay that way, content to quietly observe the “green hour” with friends and fellow hobbyists. To her surprise, after the ban was lifted, absintheurs urged Lins to go pro. She now runs her one-woman distillery, Delaware Phoenix, out of a small storefront space in the village of Walton, New York.
Unlike the artificially colored fakers that may have torched your insides one boozy summer abroad, real absinthe is a thing of beauty. It’s made similarly to gin: a base spirit is infused with botanicals and then re-distilled. The great 19th century houses like Pernod Fils set the standard for classic botanical formulas using green anise, fennel, and Artemisia absinthium, the intensely bitter alpine plant also known as grand wormwood. (The bitterness subsides through the magic of distillation.) The pale runoff is a light, delicate absinthe blanche (“white”) most often enjoyed by the Swiss. Absinthe verte (“green”), the French’s choice style, results from a second chlorophyll-boosting botanical infusion, yielding more body and complex flavors all tinged absinthe’s typical peridot color. Finishing herbs can include hyssop, veronica and lemon balm. Regional styles developed within each country; pre-ban distillers’ manuals indicate a Besançon absinthe was heavy on fennel, while Lyon was anise-forward.
For Winters, personality plays as much of a role in St. George’s absinthe as regionality. It begins with a house-made Chardonnay brandy, which is infused with wormwood, star anise, and fennel and re-distilled. Artemisia pontica (lesser wormwood), meadowsweet, lemon balm, stinging nettle, tarragon, opal basil, hyssop and mint then flavor and color the spirit. Many of the botanicals are locally sourced. “Stinging nettle and meadowsweet”—two herbs with no historical precedence as absinthe ingredients—”really come in and play a big role,” says Winters.
St. George’s distance from history points to a palpable tension in the absinthe community. Winters talks of “two tribes” when referring to the American distilleries that make absinthe. In one camp, “There are…traditionalists, who end up making something the way they’ve seen it made and the way they feel it should be made,” Winters says. “Then you’ve got other people who want to put their own artistic spin on it. That’s the camp that we fall into. We catch a lot of shit on absinthe blogs over that.” But Winters readily brushes off the flak. “Our distillery doesn’t exist to create what people expect of us,” he says. “This is a form of art, and if you don’t put your own self expression into that, you aren’t creating art, you’re creating forgeries.”
According to Seattleite Gwydion Stone, absinthe enthusiasts have good reason to care so much about tradition. Stone founded the Wormwood Society, a mostly online-based community of about 3,000 absinthe lovers, 100 of which are active on its website’s message boards and product-review pages. It began in 2004 with Stone and a few other absintheurs pooling funds to buy European bottles online. Stone has researched, scanned, and posted antique distiller’s manuals, complete with recipes, to help shed light on what pre-ban absinthe was like.
Once absinthe was legal again, Stone launched his own line of absinthes, Marteau, referencing formulas from 19th-century houses, as well as older recipes from when absinthe was a medicinal folk tonic. To Stone, veering from the traditional absinthe pantry risks compromising the spirit’s core identity. It’s a warranted concern, considering the fakers that try to cash in on absinthe’s persistent intrigue. Plus, it’s been a little over a decade since absinthe’s resurgence and presently only Switzerland has adopted a legal definition for the spirit. Elsewhere, there are no rules. The threat of imposters “could effectively destroy the category entirely,” cautions Stone.
The Green Hour
To their credit, without any legal guidelines, the American absinthe avant-garde largely choose to walk the fine line, expanding the category while retaining absinthe’s essential character as a fragrant, nuanced and herbaceous spirit made with strictly natural ingredients. Newer shops continue to enter the market with interesting interpretations. Earlier this year, Chicago-based Letherbee Distillers released an Absinthe Brun, which spends six months in charred new oak barrels to obtain its golden color. The fledgling Quincy Street Distillery in suburban Riverside, Illinois, has an absinthe blanche named Prairie Fairie due out in the coming months. For its base spirit, Quincy Street’s owner and distiller, Derrick Mancini, crafts a unique mead distillate produced from regional wildflower honey.
At Delaware Phoenix, Lins produces two absinthes, both with the same six core herbs: grande wormwood, anise, fennel, Roman wormwood, hyssop and lemon balm. Each also has a seventh, unconventional component. For Walton Waters, Lins adds lemon thyme. Meadow of Love includes wild violet—which she forages locally when possible. And her wormwood is grown by friends on nearby farms. They’re simple yet meaningful touches that reflect her taste and local terroir. “Ideally, I want to use American herbs as much as possible,” she says. It simply can’t be made anywhere else—undeniably absinthe, and exquisite as they come, yet genuinely American.
With its high proof, absinthe should not be consumed straight but rather gradually diluted with chilled water—a process that releases many of absinthe’s latent flavors. The French call this spellbinding reveal la louche. Aim for a ratio of between three and five parts water to one part absinthe, or roughly the kick of a glass of wine. Dripping the chilled water over a sugar cube to sweeten your drink is acceptable but optional, as truly choice absinthes should taste great on their own. The so-called “bohemian” ritual, involving fire, is best avoided. You’re better than that.