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The Wormwood Society

Crazy for absinthe

Crazy for absinthe

The potent green-hued liqueur pours back into the U.S. after a long ban is lifted

By Louisa Chu – SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE

After an absence of nearly 100 years, absinthe is back — with a vengeance.


The lifting of the U.S. ban, which dates to 1912, has opened a
floodgate. Four brands of the anise-flavored liqueur with the sinister
reputation are already on the market and nearly two dozen await
approval — including one called Mansinthe, commissioned by shock
rocker Marilyn Manson.


Done in by the early 20th Century Prohibition tide and the belief that
it caused hallucinations and madness, absinthe has been vindicated by
modern science. It’s showing up in Chicago-area retail shops and in
bars, where it is served in creative cocktails and in the classic
preparation, simply mixed with water and sugar.

Absinthe is
usually a green-hued liqueur, hence the nickname Green Fairy. Recipes
vary, but connoisseurs agree on what real absinthe should contain: “The
holy trinity is wormwood, anise and fennel,” said Markus Lion, the
German creator of Mansinthe. “If one is missing, it’s not absinthe.”


Grande wormwood is the source of thujone, the chemical blamed for the
spirit’s nefarious effects, although now it is largely believed that
the high alcohol content was the culprit. (U.S. regulations prohibit
more than 10 parts per million of thujone.)

Absinthe has a
distinctive but subtle anise flavor. It tastes slightly bitter from the
wormwood, but no more so than a strong herbal tea.

“It’s an
Alpine meadow in springtime,” said David Nathan-Maister, head of
Oxygenee, the U.K.-based company specializing in absinthe.

Of
the four absinthes approved for sale in the U.S., Kubler Absinthe
Superieure ($50) has the longest history, dating to 1863. It continues
to be distilled in Switzerland from locally grown plants and herbs,
including the trinity and other traditional ingredients: hyssop, lemon
balm, petite wormwood, mint, coriander and star anise.

“We also
use some secret herbs,” said Peter Karl, export director for the firm.
Despite all the herbs, the Kubler absinthe is clear inside its green
bottle. It is a clandestine absinthe, a style created months after the
1910 Swiss ban; the clear liquid was easier to hide than the green
version.

Another brand, Lucid ($60), was designed by New
Orleans native T.A. Breaux, an environmental scientist who has spent
the last decade analyzing pre-ban absinthes to try and re-create them.
(He said he “evacuated during Katrina with my entire collection of
vintage absinthe, all dozen bottles.”)

“Lucid is intended to be
a representation of a good 19th Century absinthe,” Breaux said. It’s
made at the landmark Combier distillery in France using “French grande
wormwood, European green anise and sweet fennel, and other herbs.”


St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte ($75) is the only absinthe made in
the U.S. and uniquely American. “It’s the product of 11 years of trial
and error and a lot of really positive trials after that,” said Lance
Winters, master distiller in Alameda, Calif. His first batch, 3,600
bottles, sold out in six hours. A second batch will be sent to New York
by mid-March, but should be available by mail-order to Illinois.


Winters distills with grande wormwood and fennel, but instead of the
traditional green anise, he uses star anise. He departs from tradition
in the coloration step by infusing opal basil, tarragon, meadowsweet
and stinging nettles in the spirit.

Le Tourment Vert ($60), served at Madonna’s
post-Oscar party, is the most controversial brand among connoisseurs.
Though distilled in France with classic ingredients, it’s an odd
product, flavored with sage and rosemary and artificially colored
turquoise green. The packaging is impressive, with an outer canister
protecting an etched-glass bottle. It can be mail-ordered from New York.


The strong taste of absinthe nearly requires it never be drunk neat or,
worse yet, in shots. “You might as well inject Novocain directly into
your tongue,” said Nathan-Maister.

Sugar is optional, adding
sweetness and viscosity, according to Gwydion Stone, founder of The
Wormwood Society Web site (wormwoodsociety.org), and creator of
Marteau, a Portland brand due to be released in April.

“Sugar is not for the absinthe, it’s for the drinker,” Stone said.

Neptune’s wrath

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving


In this cocktail from The Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen Ave., the green
color of the absinthe and chartreuse and the blue of the flamed
chartreuse is meant to mirror the colors of an angry sea. If you are
concerned about consuming raw eggs, use a pasteurized egg.

1 egg white

1 1/2 ounces gin

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/2 ounce absinthe

2 tablespoons simple syrup, see note

1/4 ounce green Chartreuse


Shake the egg white, gin, lemon juice, absinthe and simple syrup in a
metal cocktail shaker without ice (this aerates the egg white and
incorporates it into the liquid). Add clear ice cubes; shake. Strain
into a coupe glass. Flame the Chartreuse in a separate coupe; pour
while flaming on top of the cocktail.

Note: To make simple
syrup, heat 1 part water and 2 parts sugar in a saucepan until the
sugar dissolves. Cool. Any extra can be kept covered in the
refrigerator for several weeks.

Nutrition information per
serving: 254 calories, 0% of calories from fat, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated
fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 57 mg sodium, 0
g fiber

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