The green lady, the green muse, the green goddess; absinthe has been known by many names, and they all possess at least a hint of intimidation to the cocktail neophyte. Add the intricate nature of its specialized stemware, the mystique of its famous louche and the mind-altering mythos surrounding one of its key ingredients, and it comes as no surprise that absinthe is seen by many as a distilled delicacy which only a true aficionado could enjoy. At this year's Tales of the Cocktail, however, an expert panel led by Stephen Gould aimed to shed some light into the cloudy allure of absinthe and offer even the casual carouser a firmer grasp on the fabled 'Green Fairy'.
High above the slate sidewalks and wrought iron balconies of New Orleans' famous French Quarter, the Riverview Room of the Hotel Monteleone played host to the most interactive seminar of the entire five-day Tales festival. Part history lesson, part crash course in mixology, the cocktail lab started off as an intimate affair with small groups of attendees seated closely together around impressive arrays of artisanal spirits, liqueurs and mixers provided to each table. As the afternoon unfolded, however, the crowd livened up and spread out, mixing and shaking an assortment of classic concoctions right along with world class bartenders, then serving up the newly learned recipes to their fellow absinthe apprentices.
While a custom, six-drink menu was created for the seminar, including such legendary cocktails as the Sazerac and two variations on the Corpse Reviver, the panelists took special care to explain the nuances and appeal of enjoying the green lady on its own. Using an iconic reservoir-style absinthe glass, barmen Noah Heaney and Joshua-Peter Smith offered some insight into the presentation and procedure of pouring a proper portion of the spirit. It was explained that the small chamber at the base of the vessel is designed to maintain a consistent alcohol serving size from the bartender, while the slow addition of cold water is often left to the bar patron. This practice allows the drinker to bring forth their preferred level of louche, a milky result of releasing the essential botanical oils suspended within the high-proof alcohol. The aesthetics of watching the liquid's immediate transformation is an impressive spectacle in its own right, but it also serves as the tell-tale signature for identifying a true absinthe distillation.
With T. A.Breaux at the podium, a world-renowned producer and promoter of the emerald spirit, the lore of wormwood was dispelled and the reality behind absinthe's notorious hallucinogenic association was revealed. Though it enjoyed immense popularity during the 19th century both in France and abroad, absinthe became a victim of its own success, according to Mr. Breaux. While imitation is often said to be the highest form of flattery, knockoff products, such as “Bohemian” absinthe, went a long way in tarnishing the reputation of the genuine article and creating a stigma of mind-altering side effects which persists to this day. Counterfeit absinthe contains little to none of the essential oils which are found in the original formula, and were often comprised mainly of poor-quality alcohols, wormwood for flavor, and a green coloring agent. The resulting combination was in the same vein as the dicey bathtub gins produced during Prohibition and contributed greatly to the incidents of “madness” in those consuming it.
Presently, absinthe's global reputation is on the rebound, thanks in large part to the debunking efforts of Mr. Breaux and his colleagues, though the market is by no means free of bogus products. Those looking to pawn off imitation wares have devised their own elaborate ritual to add a false sense of tradition to the ersatz creations while masking its inadequacies. This so-called “absinthe” is poured into its glass over a sugar cube, which is then set ablaze and submerged, with water added to quench the resulting flame and give the illusion of a louche. This gimmick conceals the lack of botanical oils and inability of the inferior concoction to cloud properly, do not be fooled!
With a bit of knowledge, true absinthe is easily identifiable and even easier to acquire these days, with Mr. Breaux and Mr. Gould producing some of the highest quality libations available through Jade Liqueurs and Golden Moon Distillery, respectively. Those seeking their own encounter with the 'Green Fairy' would be wise to begin their pursuit with such superior craft spirits.
Contributor Ian Gregory is a child of the 80's and a Tulane graduate, with a BA in History. Born and raised in Manhattan, NYC, he has called New Orleans his home for the last 10 years.
An experienced bartender, Ian has appeared in the Where Y'at Best Bartenders of New Orleans Guide on 3 separate occasions. Now testing the waters of freelance writing as a contributor forMicroShiner, he doesn't have a twitter handle, but feel free to find him on Facebook (