Ted Breaux is credited with kick-starting the modern appreciation of absinthe and helping overturn its ban in the US. Previously a research scientist, he abandoned a successful career and took a risk by distilling his own range of absinthes. Today, he sees eulogising about artisanal absinthe as something of a mission.
It was in the mid-90s when I was working as an environmental microbiologist when a colleague first mentioned absinthe in passing. I asked him about it and he said: "You know, that green liquor that made people crazy." If that doesn't whet your appetite I don't know what would. In the US in the mid-90s, there was of course nothing around. I realised if I was ever going to look into it, I needed to have the product, distil it myself and find out what was in it that might have made us crazy.
The more I tried to research it, the more I was thwarted by the void. It was kind of upsetting. I wasn't getting plants from the same regions as the original European producers. I had to rely on common herb shops. As the 90s wore on, I started tasting commercial products and was horrendously disappointed. Whenever a new product came out in Europe, I bought it. Most were cold-compounded mixtures containing commercial essences and flavours from plastics jugs and drums, dye like Tartrezine and sugar. I amassed a huge collection of bad absinthe.
In 2000 I came across two unopened bottles of absinthe that dated from just before the ban. They were my Rosetta stone. At first, after I drew samples through the sealed corks I was repulsed by the flavour of anise, but as I got used to it I realised why people drank it. It was potent and delicious nearly a century later: I could taste the plants in it. Using a mass spectrometer, I searched for anything hallucinogenic or poisonous, but I found nothing - no methanol, no drugs, nothing unusual. Even thujone was only in single-digit parts-per-million. I became convinced the allegations were false - peddled by the Temperance movement or the wine industry. Since then, I've co-authored studies in peer-reviewed journals, tested a couple of dozen vintages but never seen anything significant that could have caused hallucinations.
I became inspired, and decided I should go to Europe and produce artisanal absinthe without any legal hindrances. In 2003, a friend discovered a working distillery designed by Gustave Eiffel, which is where we now distil. I buy my plants a year in advance from growers. To overturn the ban in the US, we had to educate the government and prove scientifically there was no reason for it. We went straight to the federal level, to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. We showed the original absinthe ban wasn't airtight legally and that modern laws had superseded all the old laws. But it came down to a matter of discretion and they kept saying no, no, no. They were worried about how absinthe would be marketed and consumed. Eventually, we assured them we were responsible, trust developed and the ban was lifted in 2007.
Absinthe is still a niche product and an object of mystery to most people. Even those who consider themselves experts in particular spirits tend to know little about absinthe. But the wave that's happening now involves better-educated bartenders, better products, and craft distillers who understand what it should taste like and how it should be made. The US is probably most well-developed in terms of artisanal appreciation - we probably have around 24 brands made in the US and 75 per cent are what I would call artisanal. In the UK market, at least half the products out there are still bottled with food colouring, sugar and commercial essences.
There's still no legal definition of absinthe in US and UK law. According to Swiss law it's not absinthe if it's not directly distilled from botanicals, contains sugar, art or colourants, doesn't taste like anise, and doesn't louche. One thing they have in common is that they are all anis-flavoured spirits. Beyond that, there's significant variation, as much as in gin - everything from the illusion of sweetness, to flavours of tea, medicinal roots, elements of other spirits, gin and Chartreuse.
When not served in the French fashion with a fountain, absinthe takes any cocktail and gives it some 'brightness' and 'pop'. C. F. Lawlor, author of The Mixocologist or How To Mix All Kinds Of Fancy Drinks, in 1895, said many people like a dash of absinthe because they feel it "fetches out the flavour" in a cocktail. But bartenders should remember: small doses work wonders.
I hope we judge this period as the real renaissance in the category. Even if it remains a niche product I hope the public develops an appreciation of quality absinthe, distilled naturally and not of an industrial operation. It's a beautiful product. Right now craft distillers are in a battle, like the Jedi versus the evil Empire. But the force is strong in me.