Friends Don't Let Friends Burn Absinthe

Marc Bernhard, a craft absinthe distiller based in Washington, knowns damn well that the green fairy won't make you hallucinate, and he rails against the popular practice in some bars of lighting the sugar cube on fire.

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Mar 3 2018, 3:00pm

The green fairy has yet to arrive. Instead, a clear liquid pours from the spout sticking out of a copper still. Every few minutes, Marc Bernhard sips samples to ensure that the liquor still bears the distinctive licorice-like flavors of anise and fennel. Once the flavor turns crappy, as he puts it, it's time to cut off the flow. Only then is the absinthe ready to go green.

Bernhard, an engaging man with short graying hair and a mustache, is one of a small handful of American distillers producing absinthe. The potent and widely misunderstood spirit, rumored fuel of hallucinogenic sex frenzies, was considered illegal in the United States until 2007. Now the distiller aims to spread the word about quality absinthe and dispel the myths. "One of the biggest battles we fight is people come in and think they are gonna hallucinate," he says.

The liquor earned its legendary status in 19th century France, where it was popular among artistic circles and known as la fée verte. However, it fell victim to pearl-clutching hysteria, possibly hyped by competing wine producers, around the rumored effects of thujone, a component of wormwood. A typical 1905 article written by a medical doctor warns of brain softening, epilepsy, hallucinations, insanity and other afflictions from indulging in the "the queen of poisons." When Vincent Van Gogh chopped off his ear, absinthe took the blame, as it did when an intoxicated Swiss laborer murdered his own family in 1905. As a result much of Europe banned the spirit in the early 20th century, with the United States joining the prohibition in 1912.

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Marc Bernhard and his absinthe still.

In fact, we know now thujone does not cause hallucinations, although excessive amounts can result in convulsions and renal failure. In any case, research shows that even Belle Époque-era absinthe contained only trace amounts of the chemical after distillation. The extraordinary and anti-social reactions by certain absinthe drinkers a century ago are now chalked up to either dangerous additives added by unsavory distillers, unrelated mental illness, or perhaps some consumers simply being very, very drunk.

Eventually, the United States rationalized its regulations, as has Europe. In 2007, US officials clarified the rule, mandating that the spirit be thujone-free—specifying that thujone must come in at less than 10 parts per million, which is plenty of leeway for a well-produced spirit. Suddenly, absinthe was legal again.

Bernhard was one of the first to take advantage, although his introduction to the liquor a decade previously was less than auspicious. "I got the fake garbage from the Czech Republic," he says, describing it as "like toilet water and Aqua Velva, plus pond scum." The experience didn't deter him, and after finding a distiller's manual from 1855 in an antiquarian bookstore, he started experimenting with backyard absinthe. After trying several recipes, he settled on the Montpellier, which includes anise, angelica, coriander, fennel, hyssop, melissa, grand wormwood, and Roman wormwood. He grows some of the herbs himself, including the wormwood, and imports others from overseas. "Real absinthe is always distilled with real botanicals," he says.

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Clear absinthe drains from the still.

As soon as Washington state legalized craft distilleries in 2008, he opened Pacific Distillery, located in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville—a town with so many breweries, wineries, and distilleries that locals joke it has a haze of alcohol hanging above it. While many of the alcohol purveyors maintain fancy facilities with high-end restaurants and tasting rooms, Bernhard runs his operation out of a nondescript warehouse in an industrial center, where he also produces vodka and gin.

To make the absinthe, he mixes the botanicals with a rye spirit in a handmade copper alembic pot still, equipped with a water bath to keep the herbs from sinking and scorching. After steeping for at least 48 hours, he heats the still with fire for around ten hours. The liquid inside evaporates and travels to a cooling chamber, where it condenses in a clear, purified form.

After distillation, he macerates the clear absinthe with herbs a second time, which gives it more flavor as well as its brilliant green color. He heats it one more time "like a big soup," then filters out the herbs and ages the drink for three to six months in neutral metal barrels, giving the herbal flavors time to break apart and soften on the palate. The resulting concoction is around 160 proof, so he adds water to hit the target number of 124.

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Christmas absinthe in front of the water fountain.

The color of the liquid dulls while aging, so the green fairy actually looks more like olive oil by the time it's ready to drink. Very old absinthe can even turn brown, but it doesn't degrade the flavor. "It's one of the few spirits that keeps improving after bottling," Bernhard says.

Visitors can sample the finished product, Pacific Absinthe Verte Supérieure, in his small tasting room at the front of the warehouse. He keeps a traditional French Drip setup with a water fountain, resembling a glass lamp filled with ice, that drips cold water out of up to four spigots at once. The water runs over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and into the absinthe waiting in a glass below. The device was developed back when the drink was so popular that bartenders couldn't keep up with demand, so they let people add their own water and sugar to taste.

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The cloudy water and absinthe mix.

Bernhard rails against the popular practice in some bars of lighting the sugar cube on fire. "Friends don't let friends burn absinthe," he says, dismissing the "abomination" as a trick for tourists. His preferred ratio is one part absinthe to four parts water, with just a touch of sugar. The resulting mix is cloudy, off-white, and tastes strongly of anise and fennel, with an herby flavor on the back end provided by the wormwood. Even undiluted, the liquor is surprisingly smooth, considering its elevated alcohol content. It also makes a great cocktail mixer.

With his strict adherence to the 1855 recipe, Bernhard swats aside the false perception that American absinthe can't use real wormwood or somehow can't be as good as European-distilled product. To wit, his spirit won a gold medal at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of inferior absinthe being made, both in the United States and overseas. "What's hobbling absinthe is there's so much bad stuff that has tainted it in people's minds," Bernhard says, noting that the domestic market is still "a grain of sand in a sandbox of liquor."

The word absinthe has no real definition according to the FDA, so seeing the name on a bottle doesn't tell the consumer much. Instead, discerning buyers should search for "grain neutral spirits distilled and infused with herbs and spices" on the front label to let them know it's the real deal. Artificial colors and flavors are a no-no.

And if you start to hallucinate, better see a doctor, because the absinthe is not the cause.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2016.