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Simply put, absinthe is a high proof spirit distilled from grain alcohol, flavored and colored both by a trinity of botanicals; sweet anise, savory fennel, and grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The latter of the three, grand wormwood, imparts a bitter sting on it’s flavor and would do the same for its reputation over time. In the end, absinthe, or “The Green Fairy,” would come to be defined as anything but simple.
Marked by licorice and intense herbal notes, the spirit was invented in the late 1800s either by the French or the Swiss (both claim honors) and potent absinthe quickly earned a reputation for causing odd and inordinate levels of inebriation. Imbibers would recount varying levels of hallucination and loss of control, effects which unsurprisingly gained favor with a certain class of oddballs, artists, and bohemians in Paris, as well as its cultural counterpart in the U.S., New Orleans.
Cheap and strong, absinthe became a source and subject for creatives like Edward Degas, Ernest Hemingway, and Baudelaire, some of whom began to liken its high to a visit from a green fairy, conjuring visions to be transcribed into art later on. Toward the end of 19th century absinthe’s popularity reached critical mass with influentials in the city’s burgeoning art and literary circles. Bars and meeting rooms specializing in the spirit like The Absinthe Room on Bourbon Street and Tujague’s on Decatur were packed nightly with bawdy patrons sipping signature cocktails, like the Absinthe Frappe, or simply with sugar cubes diluted by cold water dripping from ornate glass fountains mounted on bars.
As a staple of the the city’s booze-inclined cultural intelligentsia, it became dually integral to its thriving cocktail culture spawning iconic creations like the Sazerac—a whisky cocktail variant in which the glass is “rinsed” or “seasoned” with absinthe before assembly. But rumors of absinthe’s narcotic qualities and indecorous drinkers continued to swirl, both here and abroad, encouraged by social conservatives, prohibitionists, and a community of struggling winemakers whose vineyards were ravaged by Phylloxera bugs.
Shouts of absinthe as a “danger to society,” causing everything from violent rage to epilepsy, began to coalesce and one of its defining botanicals, grand wormwood, was fingered and said to contain toxic levels of something called Thujones. The dam broke in 1907 when a Frenchman living in Switzerland named Jean Lanfray murdered his entire family in what was described by detractors as an “absinthe rage.” An organized campaign was launched against the liquor, reefer madness style, and by 1915 it was banned from both purchase and production in several European countries and the entirety of the United States.
None of this, we’d come to learn, was based in truth or science, and speaking with Jedd Haas, a New Orleans native who produces two contemporary absinthes via his craft spirit distillery Atelier Vie, he can’t help but laugh.
“Wormwood has about as much neurotoxins as caffeine,” Haas chuckles, “and it would take as much of it as it would caffeine to kill you or even make you sick. People weren’t hallucinating,” he tells me, “they were just drunk. Don’t forget this stuff was 160 proof in some cases. If they were getting sick, it was from drinking cheap versions laced with toxic additives like copper to cover up poor taste and fix color.”
This may have all been true but it was no matter: an absinthe ban stood strong for 95 years here in the U.S. until a small team of absinthe-minded entrepreneurs, scientists, and lawyers— led by one persistent organic chemist with a taste for the stuff and an eye for its potential in the marketplace—stepped in. Ted Breaux and a few legal friends took to the labs, and eventually the FDA, to prove grand wormwood and absinthe were no more dangerous than any other spirit. In 2007, the ban was leveled.
10 years later and absinthe (the real stuff) is very much back on the scene in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter bars, following an unjust, nearly century-long time out. Though Atelier Vie is one of the only local commercial producers of absinthe (most comes from France), you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar that doesn’t stock it or feature an absinthe cocktail on the menu.
Haas tells me he and his small team proudly grow their own grand wormwood and other herbs that make their way into his classic green Absinthe Verte with strong anise and herbal overtones and a more “approachable” Absinthe Rouge. A walking encyclopedia of absinthe history, you can visit Jedd at his distillery on weekends for a casual tour, talk, and tasting.
When asked about where and with whom to find the best cocktails, he mentions a few favorites like Arnaud’s French 75, Commander's Palace, and Bar Moncher. But to talk seriously about cocktails, albeit with a rather unserious person, he sends me toward pal and legend of NOLA’s bar scene, Paul Gustings.
Gustings has been bartending at some of the city’s most storied bars and restaurants for more than 35 years and at Tujague’s, where you'll find him now, for 18 o f them. He's received more bartending honors than Meryl Streep has Oscars, and when he returned to Tujague’s in 2017 after a hiatus, it was actual news.
Much like Haas, Gustings gets a kick out of the centuries-long swirl of misinformation around absinthe. “It’s all so crazy but this is a crazy place, after all. Hard to say if the drama has been better or worse for it in the long run, but you’d be surprised how many people come in here still terrified that this stuff will trip ‘em out.”
Of the countless ways absinthe can be prepared, Gustings prefers his simple and straight but also raves about his Suisesse, a creamy absinthe cocktail that blends egg white, Orgeat soda, and Peychaud’s bitters (also made in Louisiana). A surprise off-menu hit at Tujuage’s, Gustings tells me, is an Absinthe Bloody Mary where tomato juice proves itself a sturdy canvas for the spirit’s untamed herbal notes.
When pressed about interest in absinthe cocktails since re-legalization 10 years ago, Gustings says it’s definitely high and even though the flavor profile isn’t engineered for an American palate (anise and wormwood are not used much in American cuisine), barely an hour goes by that he’s not pulling a bottle of Haas’s Toulouse Absinthe Rouge or Lucid (Ted Breaux’s brand) off the shelf.
Despite most of its mythology having been busted, absinthe still piques the curiosities of visitors, if only to hear its story in the very place where it happened. Walking/drinking tours can be found for purchase on most days and Ray Bordelon, another champion of Absinthe’s reentry into society, recently curated L’ Galerie Absinthe at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Visitors to the museum can gawk at a replica of the Old Absinthe House from 1985, original pre-ban absinthe bottles, spoons, incredibly ornate fountains and, of course, read all about absinthe’s colorful history in the city that gave it a home. Sort of.
Absinthe has its sillier side too and a tradition of lighting the drink on fire to melt a sugar cube perched atop a spoon doesn’t interest Gustings very much. “I won’t do it,” he says, frankly “for a few reasons including safety. Not of the bar’s thought, of my own”. Gustings has a (flammable-looking) white beard that hangs eight inches below his face.
The legendary Olde Absinthe Room, renamed John Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House, still stands proudly on Bourbon Street where it intersects with Bienville.
So much of New Orleans and absinthe history occurred inside its walls and you can really feel it. A living, thriving monument to its intrigue in times of both fear and favor and the bar provides a (slightly) calmer respite from the frozen hurricanes that have taken hold of the French Quarter’s main artery. Folks still sidle up to the 200-year old wooden bar and watch as icy cold water dissolves sugar cubes into real absinthe just as it did so many years ago. Black and white photos from absinthe’s heyday and other various tributes to the storied spirit serve as decor.
Back at Tujuage’s, when asked if he ever suspects a phony visit from the “green fairy” from tourists after a few Suisesse cocktails, Gustings says “oh heck yea, all the time. It’s pretty funny to watch but hey, I don’t say nothin’ about it, what do I care? Let em’ be Baudelaire for a day.”
I live in Brooklyn where I write about food, booze, cooking, and travel. Anything with sesame is my all-time favorite food this week.