Most regulations imposed on the production of alcohol seem arbitrary at best. Often, archaic rules stay on the books, making life hard for modern drinkers: Alabamians can buy a bottle of Bacardi that's 75% alcohol, but can't by a beer that is more than 6% alcohol by volume.
There is hope, however, for a new day has begun for the sophisticated drinker and neo-impressionist alike. Recently, the U.S. overturned an 80-year-old law prohibiting the production of absinthe. Sort of.
Actually, the FDA regulation limiting the amount of thujone
—a poison present in wormwood—in spirits to 10 parts per million is still on the books, but recent chemical studies have shown that even fin de siècle
absinthe contained less than the maximum level. Turns out the green fairy was legal all along. Craft distilleries across the nation rejoiced at the news, and many have begun concocting an absinthe recipe for the emerging market.
One distillery, Portland's Integrity Spirits
, has managed to beat most of the competition to the punch with the release of America's second absinthe, Trillium Absinthe Supérieure
, at a swanky party in the downtown offices of ad agency ID Branding
“We were already experimenting with a botanical liqueur similar to absinthe, but without wormwood,” says distiller Richard Phillips. “As soon as we heard the ban was lifted, we tweaked the recipe and came up with something we really liked.”
An intensely herbal liqueur, absinthe is defined by the presence of wormwood (artemisia absinthium), which differentiates the legendary liquor from other anise spirits. The effects of wormwood and thujone are disputed, but thujone is popularly believed to induce a mild psychoactive response in the brain. While no medical study has ever confirmed this belief, stories of the hallucinations of 19th-century French bohemians led to absinthe's nickname, the Green Fairy, and to the mystique that has followed the beverage for 100 years.
It's now believed that absinthe's anecdotally overpowering effects, from Van Gogh's self-inflicted ear wound to the story of Jean Lanfray—the Swisschap who murdered his family after a daylong bender drinking absinthe, wine and liquor—may be the fault of cheaper methods of obtaining color. Copper sulfate will turn your absinthe green, but it will also give you heavy metal poisoning. Trillium, like all real absinthes, is colored with nothing but chlorophyll from the many botanicals infused in the alcohol—including lemon balm, damiana, hyssop, star anise and, yes, wormwood.
Another explanation for "absinthe madness" is the potency of the spirit. At 120 proof, Trillium would make a decent paint-stripper—if, at $59.95, an awfully expensive one. Don't worry, though; this ain't everclear. The traditions associated with absinthe were publicized as much as its mystique at Trillium's release party. Drinkers were encouraged to prepare their absinthe the same way the French Impressionists did a century ago: First, a shot of absinthe is poured into a special glass; then a sugar cube is placed on a slotted spoon over the glass and water is dripped from a special fountain over the sugar to dissolve it into the drink. The water turns the liquor a cloudy, pale green while the sugar softens the herbal bitterness.
There is plenty of pomp and circumstance in this method, but Trillium's smooth and intriguing flavor lends it to modern uses just as well. Lucy Brennan of Mint
fixed up a reinvented martini with Trillium instead of vermouth and an orange twist, and a passionfruit/vodka/absinthe cocktail called the Gauguin, both of which were delicious.
Now that Trillium is in Portland, absinthe will never be a rarity again. The OLCC ordered 200 cases of the stuff before it was even released. At $59.95 for a 750 mL bottle, the drink is not only for sophisticated palates, but also sophisticated wallets. That said, try it when you see it at the bar—we've already spotted it at a dozen bars around town—and you'll be more likely to indulge in a bottle.