One of the best perks I get with this job is that I get to speak with some amazing people who are the backbone of this industry I love so much. That is why I was thrilled to have the chance to interview the legendary Ted Breaux, Master Distiller of Lucid Absinthe.
I am a huge absinthe fan, but I am also an admitted novice. From the beginning, I knew I didn't want to ask the same generic questions that are always asked regarding absinthe. So when given this rare opportunity I turned to my friends over at the Wormwood Society for a little help with my questions.
Q. Can you tell me briefly about your story? How did you become interested in absinthe and what do you as an expert find enjoyable about it?
A. I was working as a research scientist in a laboratory in 1993, when a colleague made a passing comment about absinthe that caught my attention. Having seen the word "absinthe" in my hometown (New Orleans), but not knowing exactly what it was, when I asked my colleague for clarification, his response was, "you know, it was that green liquor that made people crazy". I found that to be unbelievable, and there appeared to be no convenient informational resource to either confirm or deny that. It became a mission of mine to resolve it.
Q. How did that whole absinthe movement get started?
A. The resurgence in the interest of absinthe began in the mid 1990s, when certain Czech liquorists realized that tourists would pay handsome sums of money for any bottle of green/blue liquid that was labeled "absinth". While this fueled the initial curiosity of many persons, the downside was the fact that whatever was in those bottles was closer to liquid drain cleaner than anything recognizable as absinthe. I found that to be incredibly disappointing, as did many. I didn't care to see the tradition of absinthe hijacked in that fashion by profiteers who had no passion for the liquor. Fueled with determination, I set out to set things straight in the marketplace.
Q. What makes the difference between a truly good, traditional absinthe and a novelty, mass-market brand? How can an inexperienced consumer tell the difference?
A. The easiest way for the American consumer to differentiate products that are artisanally distilled from those that are industrial novelties is to have a close look at the label. The first red flag is to be on the lookout for anything labeled as a "liqueur". If the word "liqueur" appears on the label, this indicates that it is bottled with sugar. Absinthe is a dry spirit, and is not and never was a sugary liqueur. The next thing is to look at the fine print on the backside of the label for the words, "FD&C blue, yellow, and/or red", and/or the phrase "certified color". Any bottle in which "FD&C" and/or "certified color" appears on the label is artificially colored, and therefore is not artisanal in nature. If one is getting a bottle of sugary, artificially colored product, then that calls the authenticity and value severely into question. Unfortunately, the industrial imitators are usually priced no different than the artisanal brands.
Where artisanally distilled products are concerned, it's mostly a question of subjective taste and style.
Q. Do you think some of the new absinthes being made with non-traditional ingredients are as "legitimate" as more historically faithful recipes?
A. So long as the product is artisanally distilled as per original methods, there is some room for distiller creativity within the category. For example, those absinthes that are artisanally distilled in the U.S. generally take on a more "nouveau" character that departs from the traditional theme. We see the same thing with U.S. gin. This type of expression and horizontal expansion is beneficial to categorical recognition and opens the possibility for new, interesting mixology.
Q. Is absinthe, like wine, best made in certain regions, or can you make it anywhere? Also, which ingredients are most responsible for the taste in your glass?
A. Certain herbs of specific European origin possess a distinct character that favors the most traditional styles of absinthe, and I see the best few brands in France and Switzerland continuing to represent the crème de la cème where the traditional theme is concerned. The main musical theme in the taste is carried by green anise, fennel, and absinthe (grande wormwood), with the harmonious background provided by accenting herbal notes and coloring botanicals.
Q. Are you planning on distilling here in the US. If so, when? If not, why not? What's coming next from you to the US?
A. I cannot do what I do from within the U.S., simply because the materials I need are non-existent there. Likewise, just as cognac, armagnac, champagne and calvados are traditionally French, absinthe is inherently of Franco-Swiss origin, and the tradition of absinthe is very much alive in its own birthplace.
There are good things coming from me to the U.S., but only after I wade through tremendous red tape and multiple headaches. Absinthe may be technically legal in the U.S., but the regulatory hassles associated with it are no picnic.
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