“It was an intoxicating shade of green and I loved the ritual:” An interview with Absinthia

Whether you dance regularly with the green fairy or admire her peridot glow from across the room, you’ve surely heard her stories. Since the absinthe prohibition was lifted, the historically-controversial spirit has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. We spoke with Absinthia, an absinthe enthusiast on the precipice of launching her own absinthe business about her passion for the storied libation.

The Alcohol Enthusiast: How did you first become interested in absinthe?

Absinthia: Absinthe was served at a party I attended in 1996. It was an intoxicating shade of green and I loved the ritual with the spoon and sugar. I absolutely had to know more. As an art historian in college, the history fascinated me. I had never studied the Belle Epoque and through researching absinthe I learned a great deal about the French Romantic period of art and literature. I loved learning about the French soldiers who drank it to prevent malaria in the Algerian War, bringing absinthe to Europe from Africa, and how it quickly became fashionable to drink—even creating L’Heure Verte and the Green Hour. And I was fascinated by the complicated reasons for its ultimate ban.

TAE: Why was absinthe banned? Why was the ban recently lifted?

Absinthia: The temperance movement in the U.S. and the French wine industry were instrumental in banning absinthe. Many grape vines in France had phylloxera so less fruit was available and thus more expensive. At the same time, mass production of absinthe made it inexpensive. The absinthe ban was fianancially and politically motivated. In 1905 a Swiss man named Jean Lanfray murdered his family and tried to kill himself—reportedly, after drinking absinthe. The murders were the last straw. From 1906 through 1914, bans were enacted across the US and many European countries.

A modern resurgence in absinthe’s popularity began in the 1990s, when an importer realized absinthe was never banned in the United Kingdom—it had been seen by the British as a “French problem.” Around the same time the U.S. government reviewed lab tests that showed vintage absinthe contained a safe amount of thujone [the substance present in small amounts in absinthe, once thought to be dangerously addictive and psychoactive]. In March 2007, absinthe was legalized again in the US.

TAE: When did you start your absinthe business?

Absinthia: After all that research, I had to produce a bottle on my own. I contacted the host of the party where I’d first tried it and procured the recipe, which came from a family in the Burgundy region of France. I served it at a party on April Fools Day 1997 while wearing a peridot green gown—the color of my eyes, my birthstone and the color of absinthe. I have been making it for friends and family ever since.

When absinthe was found to be within legal limits of thujone and made available again in the U.S. in 2007, I considered whether or not I wanted to start a business. I saw other absinthe brands being launched and knew I could do it better—so I decided to go for it. It’s exciting: My business partner and I are now bringing my absinthe to market. It’s not really anything I ever expected to be able to do. When something has been illegal since the early 1900s, you don’t have much hope it will be legalized again.

TAE: How is absinthe made? How does the process differ from standard distillation?

Absinthia: There is only one country, Switzerland, that currently has a legal definition of absinthe, and distillation is the sole permitted process. Absinthe must be naturally colored and contain wormwood, fennel and anise to be considered “real.” But because there are so few places with a legal definition, there are about as many ways to produce absinthe as there are absinthe producers.

TAE: What has been your experience launching an absinthe business in the post-prohibition US?

Absinthia: Launching my marketing firm five years ago was easy—all I needed was a computer and an inexpensive business license. The biggest difference with my absinthe business is the amount and variety of lawyers that I need to hire! There are so many loopholes and organizations to deal with. There are taxes to pay at every level of government. I can only store and transport my product a certain way. I must have my labels reviewed, and my recipe tested. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it—my passion for my absinthe keeps me going.

TAE: When will we be able to buy a bottle?

Absinthia: My business will be named Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits and we are developing the product name and branding around it. We plan to be in production this fall with bottles available for the holiday season 2012 or sooner. Our herbs are growing in the fields as we speak!