Good to the Last Drip - An Interview with Ted Breaux
by Mark Miester
|Absinthe, the scourge of society and muse to a generation of artists, is back -- and thanks to chemist Ted Breaux, New Orleans is back in the forefront.|
|'What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? ... Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride that they are not as other men.' -- Aleister Crowley
Athletic, muscular and projecting a surfeit of self-confidence, Ted Breaux looks more like a personal trainer than a chemist, but appearances can be deceiving.
|Breaux has agreed to meet at Lola's restaurant to discuss his new business venture, one greatly anticipated in certain quarters. After offering a crushing handshake, he removes an unlabeled bottle from a cardboard box. He pours a measure of pale green liquor into an antique short-stemmed glass. Over the mouth of the glass he lays a flat silver spoon pierced with holes, and on it he places a sugar cube. From a glass carafe, he carefully drips ice water over the sugar -- drop by drop -- until it dissolves completely. The diluted liquor turns an opalescent green and the glass explodes with a tantalizing bouquet of licorice and alcohol.
The Green Fairy has arrived.
Since first yielding to her spell nine years ago, Breaux has become one of the world's foremost experts on absinthe, the potent peridot spirit flavored with anise and distilled from the toxic herb wormwood. Purported to pack a narcotic-like punch, absinthe became the tipple of choice for artists in fin-de-siecle Paris before it was banned throughout much of the world in the first decades of the 20th century due to its allegedly deleterious effect on the nervous system.
Absinthe was largely a European phenomenon, but it did take root in one American city. New Orleans was the absinthe capital of North America, with local brands such as Green Opal, Milky Way and Legendre (an antecedent of the contemporary liqueur Herbsaint) catering to local tastes. By the time federal marshals padlocked its doors at the height of Prohibition, the Old Absinthe House had become probably the most famous bar in a city famous for bars.
Partly due to its notorious reputation and partly due to its lengthy absence, absinthe has long been shrouded in mystery. Was it really a mind-altering drug? Was it poisonous? Did it really drive men mad?
"Part of what I've done for the past nine years is resolve the mystery," says the 36-year-old Breaux, a New Orleans native. "It's taken some of the mystique out of it for me, but that's the expense of truth."
The truth, he says, is absinthe got a bum rap. Despite its sullied reputation as the hallucinogenic poison that wreaked havoc in Belle Epoque society, Breaux argues that absinthe properly made with quality ingredients is no more harmful than any other spirit. Now, after years of historical and scientific research, Breaux is putting his money where his mouth is. Disenchanted with contemporary brands, Breaux has painstakingly crafted a line of absinthes he claims is the most faithful replication of classic absinthe produced since the ban. Thanks to the Internet, bohemians, boulevardiers and bon vivants the world over will soon be able to sample for themselves the tongue-numbing spirit that enchanted Verlaine, Van Gogh, Picasso and Hemingway.
The essential ingredient of absinthe -- the ingredient that distinguishes it from anise-flavored liqueurs such as Pernod or Ricard -- is artemisia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood. The medicinal use of wormwood dates back to at least 1600 B.C. The Egyptians used the bitter herb as an antiseptic, a stimulant and tonic, and as a remedy for fevers and menstrual pains. The Greeks prescribed it for jaundice, rheumatism and anemia. The Romans used it to aid digestion, for upset stomach and to cure bad breath. The leaves of the shrub-like perennial were also used to expel intestinal worms, hence its English name
|Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the name absinthium is said to derive from the Greek apsinthion -- "undrinkable," presumably a reference to its extreme bitterness.
According to Barnaby Conrad's exhaustive account Absinthe: History in a Bottle (Chronicle Books), the modern liquor known as absinthe was first produced in the late 18th century in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland, where a bounty of wormwood and other alpine herbs grows wild. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor, is believed to have invented absinthe in 1792 as a potent patent medicine, although "bon extrait d'absinthe" had been advertised in the region as early as 1769. By the late 1790s, Ordinaire's herbal elixir had already acquired the nickname la fee verte.
|By the time federal marshals padlocked its doors at the height of Prohibition, the Old Absinthe House had become probably the most famous bar in a city famous for bars.|
|A Frenchman named Major Dubied, impressed with the heady tonic, purchased the recipe and in 1797 went into business manufacturing the spirit with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. The success of their modest Swiss distillery led Pernod in 1805 to split from his father-in-law and open a new factory across the border in Pontarlier, France. Pernod Fils started small -- it produced only 16 liters a day in its infancy -- but the spirit's growing popularity led the company to increase production to 400 liters a day after a few years. Pernod Fils' original recipe included six aromatic herbs: wormwood, Roman wormwood (artemisia pontica), hyssop, lemon balm, fennel and anise. Other herbs that would find their way into later recipes included angelica, dittany, juniper, nutmeg and star anise.
The popularity of absinthe skyrocketed in the mid 19th century, following the French conflict in North Africa. French troops in Algeria drank absinthe to stave off fever and dysentery, and when the war ended in 1847, they returned to Paris with a newfound taste for anise. Other distillers sprang up to cash in on the growing market, but Pernod Fils remained the standard.
Perhaps it was the spirituous potency or perhaps the allegedly mind-altering effects. Whatever the reason, absinthe was embraced with passion by the painters and poets of Belle Epoque France. The liquor appears, either explicitly or implicitly, in Edouard Manet's The Absinthe Drinker (1859), Edgar Degas' L'Absinthe (1876), Paul Gauguin's Dans Un Cafe a Arles (1888), Vincent Van Gogh's Night Cafe at Arles (1888) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Monsieur Boileau at the Cafe (1893). Toulouse-Lautrec was known to prowl the Moulin Rouge with a hollowed-out cane filled with his beloved muse, and Van Gogh allegedly cut off his ear after a prolonged drinking binge. A decade later, Pablo Picasso, a more moderate bibber, embarked on a series of absinthe-themed canvases that would chart his transition from Blue Period to Cubism.
Among the literati to come under absinthe's spell were Charles Baudelaire, Ernest Dowson, Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Jarry, Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham, but the two writers most associated with absinthe -- and most responsible for mythologizing it as the elixir of bohemes -- were Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. The pair carried on a tumultuous, often violent affair against a hazy backdrop of intoxication. Rimbaud believed that absinthe helped to eliminate the inhibitions that impeded visionary experiences and inspiration; Verlaine, on the other hand, was just a drunk.
In England, Oscar Wilde said this of his favorite tipple: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
In 1918, Aleister Crowley, the British occultist and so-called "wickedest man in the world," composed a lyrical essay on absinthe and aesthetics titled The Green Goddess. He wrote his essay not in Paris or London but in New Orleans, the absinthe capital of North America. "Art is the soul of life," he proclaimed, "and the Old Absinthe House is the heart and soul of the old quarter of New Orleans."
"Absynthe" appears in New Orleans liquor advertisements as early as 1837, but its popularity didn't take off until the latter half of the 19th century with the opening of the barroom that would become the Old Absinthe House. Built in 1806, the plaster and brick structure at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets housed a series of businesses until 1846, when owners Jacinto and P.O. Aleix opened a saloon called, in the parlance of the day, Aleix's Coffee House.
In 1869 the Aleix brothers hired Cayetano Ferrer, a bartender from the French Opera House, to run the bar, and in 1874 Ferrer took over the lease and rechristened it the Absinthe Room. Ferrer was acclaimed for serving absinthe in the French style: marble fountains dripped cold water onto lumps of sugar suspended on perforated spoons over glasses of absinthe until the concoction achieved the tippler's desired level of sweetness and dilution. Of particular importance to serious absintheurs was the quality of the louche, the opalescent clouding that occurs when water is added to absinthe. A fountain, adorned with the likeness of Napoleon, its basin pitted by years of dripping water, still decorates the bar of what is now known as Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House. Its spigots, however, have long since run dry.
|Far from strictly a demimonde haunt, the Absinthe Room attracted an impressive list of visitors, including presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Aaron Burr, William Thackery, Jenny Lind and Oscar Wilde. The notorious dipsomaniac William Sidney Porter allegedly derived his pen name there after repeatedly summoning the barkeep, "Oh, Henry ..."
Long before Hurricanes and Hand Grenades ravaged the French Quarter, the Absinthe House's signature drink, the absinthe frappé, was the cocktail of the day. It was prepared by vigorously stirring absinthe and simple syrup in a glass of crushed ice. After straining, a shot of soda water finished it off. Composer Victor Hebert was so enchanted by the libation he wrote a popular song about it: "At the first cool sip on your fevered lip/You determine to live through the day/Life's again worthwhile as with a dawning smile/You imbibe your absinthe frappé."
|The two writers most associated with absinthe -- and most responsible for mythologizing it as the elixir of bohemes -- were Paul Verlaine (pictured) and Arthur Rimbaud.|
|Another absinthe-based cocktail, the absinthe Suissesse, combined absinthe with French vermouth, créme de menthe and an egg white. Ernest Hemingway, who drank absinthe in Spain and wrote about it in For Whom the Bell Tolls, contributed this Hemingwayesque recipe to a 1935 collection: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." Papa called it the Death in the Afternoon Cocktail.
The best-known absinthe-based cocktail today is the Sazerac, which combines an absinthe substitute with rye whiskey, simple syrup and Peychaud's bitters. Presidents Taft and Harding were reportedly among the Sazerac's devotees.
Absinthe also found its way into kitchens; it originally flavored Antoine's signature oysters Rockefeller. But on July 25, 1912, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Inspection Decision 147 effectively banned absinthe in America. It was a proactive response to reports of absinthe abuse in Europe, and one supported by virtually no scientific evidence.
In New Orleans, the ban, like the subsequent Prohibition, was more of an inconvenience than an interdiction. Elizabeth Anderson, wife of the writer Sherwood Anderson, lived in New Orleans in the early 1920s and recalled that absinthe was ubiquitous. "We all seemed to feel that Prohibition was a personal affront and that we had a moral duty to undermine it," she wrote. "The great drink of the day was absinthe, which was even more illegal than whisky because of the wormwood in it. Bill Spratling [a teacher at Tulane University] had bought 10 large jugs of it from some woman whose bootlegger husband had died, and he shared his booty liberally with his friends. It was served over crushed ice, and since it did not have much taste of alcohol that way, it was consumed in quantities."
A 1934 article in Time magazine declared New Orleans the absinthe capital of the world. L.E. Jung & Wulff Co. -- "the big New Orleans absinthe firm," according to Time -- sold 1,500 cases of it following the repeal of Prohibition until the company was notified that, repeal or no repeal, absinthe was still illegal.
In 1933, Legendre & Co., a New Orleans-based firm that had previously manufactured Legendre Absinthe, introduced Herbsaint, a wormwood-free liqueur d'anis. A pun on the French pronunciation of absinthe meaning literally "holy herb," Herbsaint remains the city's most popular absinthe substitute. The liqueur's label, however, quietly alludes to its origins. Surrounding an illustration of the Old Absinthe House is an embossed pattern of silvery wormwood.
Today, the French Quarter's epicenter of absinthe culture is not the Old Absinthe House but Pirate's Alley Cafe. The cafe serves Absente, a wormwood-free liqueur modeled after absinthe, in the French style, and a painting of the seductive Green Fairy peers out from behind the bar. Not coincidentally, Pirate's Alley Cafe is also a favorite haunt of goths. In America, absinthe enjoys a close association with the gothic subculture. While it does show up in the fiction of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite, the connection isn't so much about vampires as it is about Belle Epoque romanticism, and nothing evokes the spirit of the fin de siecle like absinthe.
|As a side note, the former Old Absinthe Bar, located at Bourbon and Conti streets, derived its name from the fact that the cypress bar and absinthe fountains were removed from the Old Absinthe House following Prohibition and later installed at the new location. The Old Absinthe Bar closed in 1998 and a daiquiri shop took its place, but a reminder of the shop's former tenant remains. Inexplicably, the Old Absinthe House's antique absinthe fountains adorn the shop's counter, eliciting bemused reactions from daiquiri sipping patrons. The current owner of Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House, Jober't Salem, recently purchased the former Old Absinthe Bar, offering at least some hope that the antique fountains will one day be returned to their original home.|
|New Orleans chemist Ted Breaux first became interested in absinthe when he saw Barnaby Conrads authoritative book, Absinthe: History in a Bottle.|
|If absinthe had remained the province of bohemians and the bourgeois, it likely never would have been banned. But in the 1880s, in the wake of a wine shortage, it crossed over to the working classes. Many Frenchmen turned to absinthe as an inexpensive alternative and remained loyal to it even when wine again became available. The period from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. became known as l'heure verte -- the green hour. At cafes from Montmartre to Montparnasse, one could find policemen, laborers, butchers and bankers, all enjoying the elaborate absinthe ritual, and all getting royally plastered.
In 1874, the French consumed 700,000 liters of absinthe. By 1910, the figure had jumped to an astonishing 36,000,000 liters. Given the potency of absinthe -- it was typically between 50 and 75 percent alcohol -- and the tendency of bibbers to drink several in a sitting, each diluted with less water than the one before, France had a legitimate social problem on its hands. The Green Fairy had become the Green Curse.
The age of absinthe came crashing to an end on the night of Aug. 28, 1905. A French laborer, Jean Lafray, murdered his pregnant wife and two young children after drinking absinthe. Despite the fact Lafray had consumed no less than six different kinds of spirits in the 16 hours leading up to the murders -- everything from brandy to créme de menthe -- absinthe was blamed.
It didn't help matters that absinthe had already become the subject of intense debate in France. Dr. Valentin Magnan, a distinguished French physician and anti-alcohol lobbyist, conducted a series of studies that found absinthe affected the central nervous system and caused convulsions, hallucinations and insanity. A new term, absinthism, was coined. Magnan's findings are suspect, but they became a rallying cry for France's growing temperance movement. An unholy alliance formed between the temperance society, which blamed distilled spirits in general and absinthe in particular for the moral degeneration of France, and wine producers, who saw in absinthe a threat to their livelihood. (Even at its height of popularity, absinthe never comprised more than 3 percent of all alcohol consumed in France.)
In the wake of the Lafray case, absinthe was banned in Switzerland and, despite a dearth of scientific evidence, the United States, Italy, France and Belgium followed suit. Distillers turned to producing wormwood-free anise-flavored liqueurs, called pastis, to satisfy the public's taste. Pernod Fils opened a distillery in Tarragona, Spain, where absinthe remained legal, before eventually being subsumed by the modern pastis company Pernod-Ricard. (Despite claims to the contrary, the liqueur d'anis Pernod is not absinthe minus the wormwood.) In Switzerland, many absinthe makers went underground. To this day, bootlegged la bleue absinthe is a specialty in the Val-de-Travers region.
Was absinthe more dangerous than other spirits? Probably not. While thujone, the toxic component of wormwood, has been shown to cause epileptiform convulsions in animals, it occurs in absinthe in such low concentrations that one would have to ingest a stupefying volume of alcohol to approach an unsafe level of thujone. There is also evidence to suggest that some of the symptoms attributed to absinthism might have actually been the result of poisoning from toxic adulterants -- copper salts to add color and antimony trichloride to increase the louche effect -- in cheap absinthe. Conrad and other absinthe scholars agree that the most dangerous chemical in absinthe is really ethanol -- drinking alcohol.
In the years since the ban, clandestine absinthe making has become a popular hobby in virtually every self-respecting bohemia. Recipes for bootleg versions abound, most of which involve steeping wormwood and other herbs -- even marijuana -- in vodka or Pernod. Do-it-yourself absinthe kits, with seductively lurid warnings, sell on eBay for about $15.
The absinthe revival began in earnest a little over a decade ago with the opening of the Czech Republic to the West. Tourists peregrinating Prague discovered Hill's Absinth, a caustic, flavorless, mouthwash-green liquor that appeared to satisfy Westerners' most ghastly impression of what absinthe must have been like. Czechoslavakia had apparently never banned absinthe, and neither, it turned out, had the United Kingdom, where absinthe consumption had never been a problem. A company called Green Bohemia (founded by Jesus and Mary Chain/Black Box Recorder guitarist John Moore) began importing Hill's to England in 1998, and absinthe became the hip tipple of yet another fin de siecle. Absinthe figured prominently in the recent films Moulin Rouge and From Hell, and celebrities like Johnny Depp, Trent Reznor, Eminem and Marilyn Manson reportedly have it shipped from England by the case.
|So it is with estimable graciousness that Ted Breaux credits Hill's with kick-starting the absinthe revival. "That's as far as the credit goes because their product is horrible," he says. "It has nothing in common whatsoever with original absinthe. It's an entirely different product."
Breaux, who works as an environmental microbiologist for a Canada-based company, first became interested in absinthe about nine years ago when he saw Barnaby Conrad's book. His curiosity piqued, he found an 1855 recipe for absinthe in a Scientific American article and decided to sample it for himself. "It was absolutely horrible," he recalls. "I couldn't believe people drank it. It wasn't until I was actually able to taste original absinthe that I realized there was a lot of problems, a lot of errors and assumptions."
In 1998, through an estate sale, Breaux obtained an antique bottle of pre-ban Pernod Fils. When he sampled the pale green liquor, it was a revelation. The subtlety and complexity of its flavor were leagues beyond the contemporary products he'd tasted from Spain and other countries where absinthe is legal. Unlike the cheap modern adaptations, Pernod Fils was made with whole herbs rather than extracted oils. It contained no added sugar, and its delicate green hue was achieved not through artificial coloring but through a chlorophyllic process.
|Ted Breaux and Jade Liqueurs Co. Ltd. graphics and Web site manager J. Justin Sledge sample Breauxs replica of Edouard Pernod absinthe.|
|Breaux the chemist went to work. Through a process of analytical and organoleptic testing, he succeeded in reverse-engineering Pernod Fils and other classic pre-ban absinthes. "Herbs that are 100 years old don't taste like fresh herbs," he says. "Part of the trick is learning how to recognize the taste of herbs after they go through that aging process. It was difficult to crack, but I got pretty good with it."
Good enough to go public. Through La Fee Verte, a Web site dedicated to absinthe, Breaux met chemist Don Walsh. Walsh, a New Orleans native living in Thailand, shared with Breaux a fascination with absinthe and an interest in authenticity. The two hashed out a business plan and founded a company, Jade Liqueurs Co. Ltd., to produce Breaux's meticulous recreations. From the onset, they decided that absolute authenticity would be their goal. "No one has gotten it right," Breaux says. "The market that they appeal to is more young people who want to get drunk. That's not our market. Our market is connoisseurs."
With a manufacturing facility in Thailand ready to roll and the possibility of a distillery in France on the horizon, Jade Liqueurs' absinthe appears close to becoming a reality.
Breaux discounts the popular notion that thujone is absinthe's only -- or even primary -- active ingredient. (See sidebar: "The Thujone Connection"). "There's a lot more to absinthium, the herb, than thujone," he says. "There are a lot of things in it that hardly anyone had studied."
Those nebulous compounds, as well as those in all its herbal ingredients, might be the key to what is often referred to as absinthe's "secondary effect," the particular sensation drinkers experience above and beyond that of alcohol inebriation. "The thing about absinthe is, despite the alcohol you feel very lucid," Breaux says. "If you look at the different herbs that are used in absinthe, they're employed in very high concentrations, and those herbs have different effects. Some are excitatory, some are sedative. So it's kind of like an herbal speedball. It's a very subtle thing. Absinthe is not like taking an illicit drug. That's all highly exaggerated."
Absinthe may not be a drug, but it remains very much illegal in the United States. According to Breaux and other sellers, it appears to occupy a legal status similar to Cuban cigars: while the importation and sale of absinthe is restricted, its possession and consumption is not. For better or for worse, absinthe typically flies below the radar of the Customs Service. One does run the risk of having his or her shipment confiscated when ordering from overseas, but in La Fee Verte's popular absinthe discussion forum, there has yet to be a report of a U.S.-bound shipment running afoul of customs agents.
Jade Liqueurs plans to release at least six different products. Among the first slated for production are Absinthe Pontarlier, a reproduction of the very first commercially produced absinthe; Absinthe Edouard, a reproduction of Edouard Pernod, a classic brand from the turn of the century; Absinthe Nouvelle-Orleans, an adaptation of a brand popular in New Orleans; and Absinthe Gorgon, a unique absinthe Breaux crafted with the gothic crowd in mind.
Jade absinthes won't come cheap. The cost including shipping is expected to run a little under $100 a bottle -- but Breaux says the results will be worth it. "No liquor manufacturing company today is set up to make absinthe the way it was made 100 years ago," Breaux says. "The herbs we use are grown, harvested, cut and processed to our standards. This is really a niche product. "
After taking more than an hour to explicate the history, chemistry and industry of absinthe, Breaux has one more point to make: it tastes good. "It's wonderful," he says. "Clean, stimulating, and considering how strong it is, very light on the system. I'm not a big drinker, but once you develop a taste for it, nothing else is the same."
For more information on Jade Liqueurs Co. Ltd., visit: www.bestabsinthe.com