The almost 100-year-old U.S. absinthe ban was lifted a little more than six months ago, after it was determined that the negligible amounts of thujone (a substance that is toxic in large doses but appears in benign quantities in herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and, yes, wormwood) found in absinthe posed no major threat to public health, as the Victorians believed.
I did my share of “absinthe” drinking as an Oscar Wilde-worshiping teenager, when my goth cronies devised concoctions of wormwood (from the spice aisle of Whole Foods) steeped in legal Pernod (illegally procured by older friends). While living in Japan, one of a handful of countries that was never subjected to an absinthe ban, I got my hands on the real thing.
Now, postban, any number of Chicago drinking establishments have picked up this legendary spirit: Delilah’s serves five varieties while Binny’s sells six, the Violet Hour mixes it into cocktails, and Potter’s Lounge, the newish hotel bar at the Palmer House Hilton, offers tableside absinthe drip-fountain service. There’s no use telling people that nearly identical tipples such as Pernod, pastis, and Chartreuse have been on the market for years, and that it’s more likely the insanely high alcohol content (50-75 percent) rather than the thujone content that accounts for the legendary “absinthe high.” It’s the wormwood mystique that draws drinkers in.
I recently attended an absinthe seminar at In Fine Spirits (coincidentally the Reader‘s choice for Best Wine Bar 2008, though the selection of beer and cocktails there ain’t bad either). Reps from two different companies were on hand with amusing anecdotes about the history of the drink: Kate Hartman from Kübler Absinthe, a Swiss “bleu” (clear) absinthe, and Sonja and Derek Kassebaum from North Shore Distillery, introducing Sirene Absinthe, an herby green absinthe made locally in Lake Bluff, Illinois. We sampled a battery of pre-Prohibition cocktails involving absinthe (several of which are offered on the menu at In Fine Spirits), including the crisp, lemony Corpse Reviver No. 2: one ounce each of gin, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, and lemon juice, with a few drops of absinthe as a subtle accent, and the Sazerac (approved by Louisiana legislators as the official cocktail of New Orleans last month), which is crafted from absinthe, Peychaud bitters, and rye for a flavor that falls between Chinese medicine, potting soil, and a manhattan–in a way that isn’t entirely unpleasant. On a recent visit to the wine bar I indulged in “Death at Dusk”–a variation on Ernest Hemingway’s recipe for “Death in the Afternoon”–a shot of absinthe topped with champagne and a dash of creme de violette (which accounts for the “dusk,” a creepy gray-green hue). It’s weirdly reminiscent of the salty-sour Dutch licorice Dubbel Zoute, which is to say it’s an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring.
Fortunately we were spared the “modern” absinthe cocktails like the “Green Mint Machine” and the “Root Beer Float” at the seminar. Absinthe is far too subtle (and expensive) to dilute with dreck like chocolate-mint Bailey’s and root beer Schnapps.
Don’t fret if you missed the event: In Fine Spirits will be putting on another one July 29.