Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

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Absinthe Comes to Woodinville
by Anna Roth
photos by Lara Ferroni

 

Marc Bernhard is growing wormwood in his Everett backyard.

 

Yeah, that wormwood—the intensely bitter herb that contains the noxious chemical thujone, widely believed to induce hallucinations and insanity. Wormwood also happens to be the main ingredient in absinthe, the controversial “green fairy” of bohemian Paris that supposedly drove Van Gogh to sever his ear… and is now legal in the United States for the first time in nearly 100 years.In truth, the spirit’s psychotropic properties have been greatly exaggerated. And a new generation of distillers, Bernhard among them, is eager to reintroduce authentic absinthe to the American public. “A well-made absinthe is a wonderful drink. I’ve never encountered anything like it,” he says. He painstakingly followed age-old European production methods to develop the recipe for Pacifique Absinthe, the signature spirit from his new Woodinville-based Pacific Distilleries. At press time, it was set to hit liquor store shelves by Christmas.

It’s been a long road for legal absinthe production in the United States. The herbal spirit’s heyday was nineteenth-century Europe, where it enjoyed widespread popularity and had its praises sung by celebrated writers like Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde (“What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” Wilde once asked). But a growing temperance movement, coupled with pressure from French wine producers, worked to taint the drink’s image.

Like any good historical craze, the banning came down to mob justice. One summer afternoon in 1905, a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray murdered his wife and two children after drinking two glasses of absinthe—leading to a public outcry railing against the spirit’s supposedly mind-altering properties. The fact that Lanfray had also consumed seven glasses of wine, brandy-laced coffee and more than a few cognacs was overlooked by the scapegoat-hungry public. Absinthe was banned in most European countries (it remained legal in Spain and the UK), and the US followed suit a few years after.

 

 

 

In 2000, nearly a century after the ban, French chemists tested a few pre-ban bottles and made an interesting discovery: Thujone, the offending chemical in wormwood, all but disappeared in the distillation process. Absinthe had more in common with other high-proof herbal liquors like Chartreuse than its wild reputation suggested; moreover, since EU law was specifically directed against thujone, absinthe was technically legal. In 2007, the United States relaxed its ban, opening the door for distillers like Bernhard to try their hand at the famous spirit.The years of prohibition had done wonders for absinthe’s reputation. Like so many liberal arts majors before him, Bernhard became obsessed with the spirit after taking a college course in 1998 that focused on nineteenth-century art and literature. “Absinthe’s unusual history drew me in, and I started researching it,” he says. Though it was still early days for the Internet, he hooked up with other absinthe enthusiasts on message boards and chat rooms (Bernhard remains an active member of the website The Wormwood Society, www.wormwoodsociety.com).

It was through the Internet that Bernhard started to order bottles of absinthe to sample its mysteries firsthand. His first attempt, from the Czech Republic, left him sorely disappointed. “It didn’t taste that good,” he says, adding that most people’s experience has been with this faux absinthe. “What’s made in Eastern Europe now is vodka with food coloring and flavoring oils added to it.”

But when Bernhard finally got his hands on a bottle of pre-ban French absinthe, he was hooked. “When I tasted that, my eyes opened wide. It had me,” he says. He started traveling around Europe, often in the company of British absinthe hunter David Nathan-Maister, to unearth more pre-ban bottles and mine vintage distillers’ manuals for their recipes.

Like gin (which Bernhard also produces at Pacific Distilleries under the Voyager label), absinthe is characterized by a group of necessary ingredients—fennel, wormwood and anise—along with a rotating cast of supporting herbs like coriander, star anise, hyssop and juniper that vary from brand to brand. Along with the wormwood, Bernhard also grows his own fennel. He and his wife ran a small, home-based herb business before opening the distillery, and together they harvest the herbs, hang them to dry (“I have a whole garage converted for the task,” he laughs) and hand-strip the leaves.

Absinthe takes a day to make, and up to three months to age. First, Bernhard mixes pure alcohol, water and the herbs in a copper alembic still. (Always on a quest for authenticity, Bernhard imported the still from a Portuguese company that’s been manufacturing them since 1837.) After letting the bitter mixture soak overnight, he lights a fire underneath. A day of cooking mellows the wormwood and brings out the drink’s signature herbal, licorice notes. Then, he waits.

“You have to taste absinthe periodically while it’s ageing to know when it’s ready to go,” he explains. “When you first make it, you have a sweet and sour, swampy kind of smell. Over time, that breaks down, and forms a real sweet flavor. When that swampy smell is gone, you know you can bottle it and sell it.”

 

Try our recipe for an absinthe cocktail, Hemingway’s Death in the Afternooon.

Eating and drinking things are all in a day’s work for Anna Roth.

 

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