Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback

December 5, 2007
A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback

EARLIER this year, when Lance Winters heard that absinthe was being sold in the United States again for the first time since 1912, he shrugged it off. Then he reconsidered. He’d spent 11 years perfecting an absinthe at St. George Spirits, the distillery where he works in Alameda, Calif., and considered it one of the best things he’d ever made. Why not sell it?

Over the past few months, he must have wished he’d stuck to his first instinct.

The division of the Treasury Department that approves alcohol packaging sent back his label seven times, he said. They thought it looked too much like the British pound note. They wondered why it was called Absinthe Verte when their lab analysis said the liquid inside was amber. Mostly, it seemed to him, they didn’t like the monkey.

“I had the image of a spider monkey beating on a skull with femur bones,” Mr. Winters said. But he said that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau thought the label “implied that there are hallucinogenic, mind-altering or psychotropic qualities” to the product.

“I said, ‘You get all that just from looking at a monkey?’”

His frustration came to a sudden end last Wednesday, when he learned the agency had finally granted approval to his St. George Absinthe Verte, the first American-made absinthe on the market in almost a century.

Since the start of the year, at least four absinthes, including two from Europe and one from South America, have been cleared for sale. At the same time, hundred-year-old legends about its ties to murder and madness have been discredited. For years, absinthe’s chief appeal has been its shady reputation and contraband status. It was said to have caused artists like Van Gogh to hallucinate. Now that it is safe and legal, will anyone still drink it?

To find out, I tried the two absinthes on sale in New York along with an early sample of St. George Absinthe Verte. And I was astonished by how delicate, gentle and refreshing they were. Astonished in part because of my earlier run-ins with absinthe. There was the Portuguese stuff that looked like radiator fluid and tasted like a mouthful of copper. There was the Czech product that a friend smuggled past customs in a mouthwash bottle. I would have preferred the mouthwash.

Another European brand is “the color of reactor cooling fluid and there’s nothing natural about that,” said Mr. Winters, who would know. Before turning to alcohol as a full-time job, he worked as an engineer on a reactor on board a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Absinthe aficionados agree that a lot of absinthe isn’t very good.

“Before Hurricane Katrina destroyed a lot of my things, I had a very extensive collection of bad absinthe,” said T. A. Breaux, a former resident of New Orleans who designed one of the new absinthes, Lucid. Most of Mr. Breaux’s bad absinthe is modern, but the taste of absinthe has been problematic for centuries. The word comes from the Greek apsinthion, which means undrinkable. The essential ingredient in absinthe, a medicinal herb called grand wormwood, is profoundly bitter. How bitter?

“Ever take malaria pills?” Mr. Winters asked. “Ever bite into one?”

Mr. Winters had never tasted absinthe when he started making his own. Nor did he hope to sell it. He was just playing. “You know, give a boy a still,” he said. He worked from a recipe in a back issue of Scientific American, then adjusted the formula. “It was just a manic obsession with the ingredients that drove me to tweak the formula.”

After a few tries, Mr. Winters found that grand wormwood was best used in just the first step of absinthe making, when it is infused into grape brandy along with anise and fennel and then distilled, so its bitterness could be left behind in the still. In the second step, he infused a portion of what came out of the still with lemon balm, hyssop, tarragon and other botanicals, including a much less bitter cousin of grand wormwood. Finally this flavorful infusion is mixed back into the result of the first distillation.

Mr. Breaux, too, muffles the wormwood with fennel and anise. An environmental chemist with access to gas chromatography mass spectrometers, he had analyzed unopened samples of absinthe from before the ban.

“They are just beautiful pieces of craftsmanship,” he said. “They were artisanally made with the best herbs and there’s just no comparison between that and something that has green dye and ‘absinthe’ stamped on the bottle.” The two kinds have as much in common, he said, as “a good Bordeaux and a bottle of cheap wine that one buys in a roadside convenience store.”

That, more or less, is what I’d say about the difference between the absinthes I cut my teeth on and those produced by Mr. Breaux, Mr. Winters and the Kübler distillery in Switzerland.

I tried each straight (eye-opening, but not for everybody), and diluted with water. The sugar cube of legend is not needed with a skillfully made absinthe, which all of these were.

The Kübler Absinthe Supérieure ($56.99), at 53 percent alcohol, is the easiest to understand. Fans of Pernod and other absinthe substitutes will find the flavors familiar. But while Pernod speaks of anise, Kübler tastes like licorice. It says only one thing, but says it very pleasantly.

With Lucid ($67.99), things get more complicated. Mr. Breaux makes it in a French distillery based on his analysis of vintage absinthes. Besides a bracing dose of fresh anise and a back-of-the-tongue bitterness, on one tasting, I thought I detected asparagus. A second encounter was more minty. Both times, Lucid kept pulling me back in for a fourth, seventh, twelfth sip. It was alarmingly easy to imagine exploring it while a long afternoon slipped away.

St. George, which will cost around $75, is the most layered of the three. Mr. Winters has a history of capturing delicate aromas in a bottle (a vodka of his called Hangar One smells just like mandarin blossoms) and his Absinthe Verte is full of fresh green herbs. Anise and fennel make their scheduled appearance but hardly dominate.

While the United States may be in the throes of an absinthe renaissance, distillers suspect that new bottles will arrive slowly. Absinthe was banned in America in 1912 because of health concerns fanned by some of the same anti-alcohol forces who would later push through Prohibition. Due to a reorganization of the government’s food-safety bureaucracy, the ban was effectively lifted before World War II, although it took decades before anybody realized it.

One absinthe that will try to brave the regulators next year is a spirit distilled by Markus Lion in Germany for the performer Marilyn Manson. Called Mansinthe, it is “designed to please newbies as well as long-term absinthe lovers,” Mr. Lion said in an e-mail message.

Mr. Breaux has crafted several other absinthes that are sold in Europe, but he and his American importer, Viridian Spirits, are not ready to face the Tax and Trade Bureau again just yet.

“I’m trying to recover my sanity first,” said Mr. Breaux. “There’s this perception that we opened a door and now anybody can walk in. But it’s not like that. It’s like everything is still on probationary status.”

Jared Gurfein, who founded Viridian, agreed. “There’s no question they’re watching us,” he said. “I’m just not sure what they’re watching for. I hope it’s not for somebody to cut their ear off.”

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