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Drink Mon Jun 22 2009
When you talk to distiller T.A. Breaux about his product, after a while you get the vague sense that he's talking like a parent (or teacher) who has to patiently (very patiently) explain the same fact to a child (or student) over and over again until said person finally gets it.
But that's because Breaux distills absinthe, one of the most misunderstood spirits on the market.
Breaux's absinthe crusade began about 15 years ago when he was a chemist in New Orleans. Someone mentioned absinthe in passing as a, "green liquor that makes people crazy." Breaux was intrigued and began researching the product that would soon become his calling. He couldn't find much until he looked at the Merck Index, whose entry for absinthe Breaux has memorized. "Ingestion of the liqueur absinthe can cause hallucinations, convulsions, death." Breaux wondered how that could be, given that the drink was extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century.
Since it wasn't available, Breaux tried to distill his own batch, which he deemed "terrible." He couldn't hit on the elusive answer until the mid-nineties, when he acquired two unopened bottles of real vintage absinthe. By 2000 he got the equipment he needed to analyze the product. "It opened up a whole new world of possibilities," he said. He discovered that the allegations of hallucinations were "completely false" because he could now prove what was actually in the liquor.
Absinthe gets its reputation has a hallucinogenic because of the ingredient Grande Wormwood, which contains thujone, the component responsible for causing the hallucinations. In the U.S, thujone has been banned from being an ingredient in food or drink for almost a century. However, when Breaux analyzed his ancient absinthe, he discovered that it didn't contain very much thujone at all.
Breaux reverse engineered the spirit to learn how to make it and went to France to start producing his absinthe using herbs from the area and 130-year-old equipment, figuring he'd never be able to sell his product in his home country
In 2006, New York attorney Jared Gurfein decided he'd like to try something different with his career. He called a friend in the liquor industry looking for a business idea and came up with the notion of bringing absinthe back to the U.S. Gurfein had lived in Europe and had seen absinthe "percolating in the subculture." He thought it could be an interesting business prospect, if he did it right.
Gurfein connected with Breaux, and when they discovered they were on the same page when it came to their views on absinthe, they cemented their partnership, and Viridian Spirits was born.
The tricky part was getting the product approved. The pair took Breaux's recipe for what was going to become Lucid and submitted it to TTB, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. However, they chose not to say what the formula was and simply asked if it was legal.
It passed the test, but a red flag appeared when Viridian submitted the Lucid label for approval, and Viridian had a year-long legal fight over the term "absinthe." Viridian was eventually able to prove their formula met regulations. In March 2007, Lucid was approved and appeared on the U.S. market.
Once Lucid was approved, many other distillers hopped on the bandwagon and created their own versions of absinthe, including Lake Bluff's North Shore Distillery. Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore told me at this year's WhiskyFest that they'd started the distillery because they wanted to make gin and absinthe. "We didn't think we'd be selling absinthe," she said, pleased about the regulatory approval.
You can try absinthe in various bars and restaurants, but if you want to buy a bottle, you usually have to pony up about 60 bucks or more to get one of the many varieties available. The price is high because the ingredients can be difficult to acquire, and, as Kassebaum explained, "It's so complex and so difficult to make well."
To make the price a little easier on the wallet, Lucid's just come out with a 375 mL bottle for retails for about $35.
Of course, not all absinthes have quite the same flavor profile, which mean it may be difficult (and expensive) to figure out which one you like best. To that end, Delilah's (2771 N. Lincoln) is holding its first absinthe tasting on Tuesday June 23 (that's tomorrow), where you can sample all sixteen brands of absinthe available in the U.S. for just $20.