The Absinthe Experience

From Allison Thaemlitz

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On Saturday, March 3, 2018, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum hosted the Absinthe Experience, a sampling of New Orleans made absinthe and its history. Ray Bordelon, founder of the museum’s La Galerie de l’Absinthe, ran an absinthe drip and shared his extensive knowledge of the history and myths surrounding absinthe. Jedd Haas, founder of Atelier Vie, the only distiller of absinthe in New Orleans, supplied the distillery’s Absinthe Verte and Absinthe Rouge and answered questions about the ingredients and process of distilling absinthe.

For both Jedd and Ray, one of their favorite parts of participating in these sorts of events is hearing the wild and bizarre myths and rumors people have heard about absinthe. For Ray the rich history of absinthe is more exciting and intriguing than any of the myths, and he loves being able to share that story with people.

A few popular myths busted at the Absinthe Experience:

  • The wormwood in absinthe will not cause hallucinations, but the high alcohol (90-148 proof) content just might if not properly diluted.
  • Never set your absinthe on fire! It will just burn off the alcohol you spent money on.
  • Absinthe’s iconic green coloring comes from the chlorophyll of the herbs used in distilling.
  • The distinct licorice-like flavor comes from star anise not licorice.
  • As of 2007, absinthe has been legal in the United States.

If you missed the event, here’s a quick taste of the history and myths surrounding absinthe:

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The mythology of absinthe is almost as delicious as the taste of absinthe. The outlier spirit that tastes sweet because of the potpourri of herbs and spices which often the taste of alcohol, has become a regular part of most modern bars. And people are intrigued by its story and its rituals.

Developed as a high proof flavored spirit, absinthe received a boost in France as vineyards suffered from attack by the insect phyloxera, the pest that caused the withering of vines which threatened the future of wine production. As wine became more expensive and scarce, absinthe was there to fill the void.  And being more potent than wine, it gave customers more bang for the franc.

Absinthe, with its rituals and paraphernalia, gave people an otherworldly experience in a bar. Instead of just a pour, people watched drops fall on a sugar cube while the liquid in the glass transformed. The drink was highly perfumed by the smell of anise. It was an experience that led the romantic demi-monde habitués to weave stories about the power of absinthe and its hallucinogenic visits from the green fairy.

What no one realized was that they were just drunk.  No hallucinogenic drugs – just alcohol. But because of the wine industry activists who saw absinthe as a threat to market share, absinthe became a scapegoat for the evils of excess. And absinthe’s success also created opportunists who used poisonous contaminants to make fake absinthe, which was lethal to drink.

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So absinthe was banned. It took a 21st century biochemist, Ted Breaux, to convince the FDA and the Department of Agriculture that absinthe – properly made – was not a dangerous thing. The ban was lifted in 2007. Today absinthe is drunk again in the traditional way, although at a controlled proof. It is generating new traditions too. Flaming the glass after the dripping and myths about vampires and vampire hallucinations have resurrected the fascination of the now tamed absinthe. It speaks to the power of myth and romance to drive a market.

Visit La Galerie de l’Absinthe in the Southern Food & Beverage Museum to step into a replica of the Old Absinthe House and explore the history of absinthe for yourself. And if you are interested in learning more about the distilling process and tasting the green fairy for yourself, stop by the Atelier Vie Distillery for a tour and tasting and say hello to Jedd!