A DATE WITH ABSINTHIA VERMUT AND THE GREEN FAIRY
A Laughter filled conversation with the noted Bay Area Craft Absinthe Producer
Absinthia Vermut displaying her wormwood tattoo in New Orleans
Every now and then I dust off my boots and wander off the well worn whiskey trail to contemplate the paths of other spirits producers. For some reason botanicals, herbs, and bitters have been drawing me into the plant world, of late. Perhaps because I am so tired of hearing about viruses and vaccines, I've been revisiting my interest in herbalism.
This got me to thinking about wormwood, which led me to meet Absinthia Vermut. There are too many myths and urban legends about absinthe out there to count, but in this interview, my goal was to tease some truths out of a modern day absinthe producer, and see where it led us. The following are excerpts from our wide ranging talk, during which we touched on everything from art to everclear and beyond, laughing quite a bit.
(The interview, in it's entirety, was conducted at Fort Hamilton Distillery in Brooklyn, NY, and, disclaimer, no absinthe was consumed: We did, however, have fantastic Rye whiskey cocktails.)
Barrel Strength Talent: So one question I always ask everyone like myself, who's obsessed with a certain type of spirit, whether it be cognac makers, or mezcal makers, or whiskey makers, I ask them a really simple question; a two word question. So you can answer back with only a few words: the "in a nutshell" answer, or you can take the rest of the interview to answer it.
Barrel Strength Talent: The question is "Why Absinthe?"
Absinthia: I had a feeling those would be the two words! (laughter)
Barrel Strength Talent: Why Absinthe, Absinthia?
Absinthia: I had Absinthe at a party when I was 26 years old.
Barrel Strength Talent: So, just a couple years ago..
Absinthia: Just a couple years ago (laughs).. So, I thought it was so fascinating, and one of the things I loved about it, was it was illegal, and I've always sort of pushed the status quo, and researching it was this wild trip down the rabbit hole of art history, which I had studied at NYU. So what I studied at NYU was art history, photography, and some philosophy, and absinthe just grabbed me with its story, and its art.
Barrel Strength Talent: ..It fit in with what you were studying...
Absinthia: ... And it was this period of art history that was really "poo-poohed" at the time, at NYU..
Barrel Strength Talent: Oh really?
Absinthia: Impressionism and that whole period wasn't well respected .
Barrel Strength Talent: Hmm, interesting! So what time frame are we talking about here? ...when it was "poo- poohed?"
Absinthia: I was a student at NYU from 88' to 92'.
Barrel Strength Talent: Okay, and why do you think that is? Was it (impressionism) just unpopular at the time?
Absinthia: It was just the snobbishness of the art historians.
Barrel Strength Talent: So they just push whatever they're into at the moment..
Absinthia: Exactly. Trends. I just love the art around absinthe, in fact I just did a few articles on my blog about the absinthe art history and poster art. Both when it was really popular and right before the ban on absinthe, when there was all this anti absinthe propaganda..so it was really the art of absinthe that got me into it...Also absinthe was my favorite color..Green!
Barrel Strength Talent:- So,at that time, had you tried it?
Absinthia: I thought I had! (laughs)
Barrel Strength Talent: (laughing) I know what you mean! I have a story about that, too..
Absinthia: Well, it was illegal at the time, so I had no idea, and that friend that made it, at the party he gave me the recipe and told me he got it from a family in the French Countryside. (laughter)..Which, you know, a few years later, I went, that's bullshit..It was everclear and food coloring, and there was this store in the mission in San Fransisco that sold anise and wormwood tinctures. I still have a printout of it..this was in the nineties and the internet was barely there..I still have that recipe in my records.
Barrel Strength Talent: (laughs)...You should frame it! That's very cool.. So what was it like for you.. what was your experience with it ..
Absinthia: So that night I met some people that I'm still friends with..it was a wild event. It was super fun. And then four months months later I had two neon green bottles I poured in an old ever clear bottle that I had rinsed the labels off and put my own labels on, and that night my friends started calling me "Absinthia."
Barrel Strength Talent: Interesting. I understand you had your name legally changed..
Absinthia: I did! That was actually not too long ago, probably around 2015. I was going through a divorce, and I was reading Barnaby Conrad's History of Absinthe Book.
The cover of my: Interestingly, the nose on this one is mild, b with the palate intense; the opposite of the blanche. Similar but muted notes on the nose, with assertive, earthy forest floor notes joining in on the palate. Moss, lemon balm and floral tastes balanced beautifully.ifully.fully.ully.lly.ly.y.
Absinthia: .. So I saw the page with all the pictures of wormwood, right? With my last name at the bottom of it, and that's when I realized that my last name is German for wormwood..
Barrel Strength Talent: That's insane! So that's one of the parts of your story I just cant get over. Did you know that the definition of vermut is "Preserver of the Mind?" So it's interesting, right? Because absinthe has been thought to drive people crazy!
Absinthia: Interesting! I did not know that's what it meant! So do you know what wormwood means in Russian?
Barrel Strength Talent: No.. but I did look up the meaning of absinthium, which means
"without sweetness"..and vermut means preserver of the mind, so I don't know what that says about you!
Absinthia: (laughs).. I don't know what it means either! But wormwood in Russian is "Chernobyl".
Barrel Strength Talent: Your'e pulling my leg..
Absinthia: It's true! Because without sweetness, it's bitter, and Chernobyl was.. so they named it bitter. So interesting, yeah..
Barrel Strength Talent: So interesting... We are going to get to the bottom of this! So we've established the meaning of your name, which is incredible. What I want you to do right now is talk a little bit about why they call wormwood, anise, and fennel the holy trinity of alchemical herb combinations, when it comes to absinthe... And why do those herbs work so well together?
Absinthia: Mmm,That's a great question! I would take that back to the Henriod sisters and Dr. Pierre Ordinaire...and this is one of my favorite parts of the story. No one is really sure who first started making absinthe. I personally believe the Henriod sisters. I sort of envisioned them as these witchy sisters living in the Swiss Alps, playing with herbs, and coming up with this delicious concoction.
Barrel Strength Talent: What time period are we talking about here?
Absinthia: I want to say around 1740, I believe...and Dr. Pierre Ordinaire (Dr. Ordinaire was a French doctor who, while living in Switzerland, was widely credited for inventing absnthe) in my version of the story, bought the recipe from them. And then he either sold it to Pernot or someone married someone who was related to somebody at Pernot..which was the first distillery to produce absinthe.
Barrel Strength Talent: So let's go back even farther and talk about Medieval times..
Absinthia: And back to the Bible, because wormwood tincture is mentioned in the Bible....and today it is currently used in synthetic form as malaria medication..
Barrel Strength Talent: Right! and I guess that's what happened with the soldiers in Algeria..
Absnthia: That's correct, they are the ones that brought it to Paris.
Barrel Strength Talent: So, one of the many reasons I'm excited about what you do is because there is so much correlation, really, between all distillers in ancient times because many were alchemists and were using what they made for medicinal purposes... and for cosmetics and such, but also for sorcery. There was a woman named Maria Hebraea, or Maria the Jewess.. she was trying to convert base meals into gold and crazy stuff like that, so her early goals weren't boozy. But she essentially invented the pot still, and the "Bain Marie"...
Barrel Strength Talent: ... So, partly because of my own interest in herbalism, I'm always interested to know how people used herbs to solve their health problems that are addressed by popping pills these days..., and I understand that in medieval times wormwood was prescribed for menstrual cramps, and all kinds of ailments. ..but it was also used by sorcerers and shamans to invoke demons... As a way of bringing your demons out in the open, and into the picture, so to speak, so you could face them...or "face your sh#*t", so to speak...and you can quote me on that! (laughter). Wormwood was called a demon fugue herb ands used to purge people of their evil spirits.
Absinthia: Also it was used for stomach ailments, fever, and halitosis.
Barrel Strength Talent:Oh, right! Bad breath...
Absinthia: Yes, I actually tell people when they're like, when should I drink absinthe? Well, it's typically a digestive which means you drink it after your meal...and I tell them if they're having dinner with some old guys who maybe dont have the best breath, give them a little absinthe, especially with the fennel in it, and it just freshens the breath.
Barrel Strength Talent: So absinthe itself started in the 1700's...
Absinthia: Yes, with the Henriod sisters and Pierre Ordinaire...and it was brought to Algeria by the French soldiers so they would have something safe to drink....and they loved it so much they brought it back to Paris. And that's how "L'Heure Vert" came to be.. because happy hour became "the green hour". It was right around that time that there was philloxera ( an insect pest of Grape Vines that devastated the wine industry) with the French wine.
Barrel Strength Talent: Oh, that's really interesting..
Absinthia: So there was no wine to drink, and what little there was, was very expensive. Absinthe was cheap, got you drunk a lot faster, and had this whole beautiful ritual.
Barrel Strength Talent:..and was Pernot the first legal distillery to sell it?
Absinthia: Yes. One of the things that happened, though, when it became wildly popular, that also happened here during Prohibition was when you have unregulated alcohol, people make whatever they want...they use whatever ingredients they want..and one of the theories behind why it was hurting people, making them crazy and killing them was they were drinking alcohol they shouldn't have been because it was cheap. They (bootleggers) wanted to benefit off of the popularity of absinthe and they sold garbage to people. Industrial strength alcohol that made people sick.
Barrel Strength Talent: Right,right. Same thread runs through whiskey during Prohibition. The poor people, the blue collar people were often being sold rotgut. And the people with all the money were going to the fantastic speakeasies all dressed up. Getting better stuff, but not that much better!
Absinthia: Yeah, another really good argument against Prohibition.
Barrel Strength Talent: ...and there are many!
Absinthia:..And there are many, and there are also many reasons why there was all this anti-absinthe propaganda: It wasn't just that people were making it with cheap ingredients and getting sick, it was there was a lack of wine. And when the wine industry came back, they needed to make money.
( There was a French Psychiatrist named Valentin Magnan who developed a theory that "Absinthism" was degrading French society, and who played a large role in getting Absinthe banned, despite using methodology and methods which were largely unsupported.)
Barrel Strength Talent: So, the artists and Belle Epoque writers had caught onto it, and understood absinthe's beauty and potential. Now Absinthia, I have to say, this is one of the first times I've ever used the word "Louche"(laughter) in an interview, but I'm suddenly obsessed with the word..because of you!. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing!
Absinthia: I think it's a great thing..
Barrel Strength Talent: It's such a great word!..and I'm kind of a word obsessive... so the dictionary definition of louche is, you know, someone of "low moral character" (laughter)
..but it also means someone of low moral character who is really attractive..disreputable, or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.
Absinthia: (laughs) Those two things kind of go together sometimes..
Barrel Strength Talent: Yeah, that pretty much describes every guy I've ever been attracted to so ..(laughter) but its really interesting the way the word is a double edged sword that is also used in descriptions of absinthe's color. The louche color palette is so beautiful. So milky, not really clear but not really foggy, either. They're sort of this in between liminal world of colors. If you look at an actual painters palette, you can see these effects. So, can you talk a little bit about louche and how the process of distilling absinthe separates the oils from the alcohol, and what brings that effect about..
Absinthia: Yeah, absolutely. It's actually caused simply by the anise. So, anything with anise in it, and as far as I know, its the only herb that when you add water, the water adds color to that beverage. And so the louche is really important to absinthe, because it opens up all the botanicals. It tastes very different just with the absinthe neat, as compared with even a few drops of water, because it's loosening up those flavors so you can really taste the botanicals in absinthe..and anything with anise in it will louche like ouzo and arak. They will louche because they have anise in them.
A "Death in the Afternoon" cocktail showing the Louche effect
Barrel Strength Talent: So interesting. So what is your process? My understanding is there are alot of ways that people can bootleg it or make it on their own, but not all of them are considered legit, right? So you can make a sort of tea from it which is considered a form of maceration..
Absinthia: Yes, we call that a "Fauxsinthe"
Barrel Strength Talent: Very cool..
Absinthia: ..and then there are brands that, well I don't want to name any names, but they are just using sugar or artificial colors, and we call those "crapsinthes".
Barrel Strength Talent: (laughs). That is so great! I am so happy you are telling me this..because that was important to my interview with you, sort of talking about the differences between macerations and distillations of absinthe..
Absinthia: So there's no legal definition of what absinthe should be but what we understand a true absinthe should be is distilled, with the trinity of herbs, no sugar, no artificial color and no herbs floating in it.
Barrel Strength Talent: So do you distill? And if not, who does the distilling for you?
Absinthia: So I do the distilling with my distiller in San Carlos at Coastal Spirits.
Barrel Strength Talent: Where did you learn distilling?
Absinthia: Working with the distillers. So when I was making it on my own, before I went legit, I was making fauxinthe, since I was not distilling it on my own. But I knew that I had ... because I had used my friends and family as guinea pigs for so many years, I knew that I had the flavor I wanted, and I knew that it had to be distilled. And so I started, you know, meeting with different distilleries and figuring out who I wanted to work with. I'm not actually a distiller.
Barrel Strength Talent: Okay, so in the beginning, were you making product by gypsy distilling? In other words, were you going to somebody's distillery, and saying, I want to make absinthe, can we do it on your still? Or had you actually bought a still..
Absinthia: Neither, actually. I was going up to Sebastopol, California, to this herbal farm and buying distillate. I was putting it in big blue plastic barrels and carting it home, then making tinctures and combining it all. So I was doing a maceration method on my own until I started distilling it, but I knew I did not want to commercially sell a maceration, I wanted to commercially sell a distilled bottle.
Macerated Tea of Wormwood
Barrel Strength Talent: Oh, that's really interesting. So when was this?
Absinthia: That would be between 97' and 2013. And in 2013 I started working with my first distiller on creating the recipe we wanted to bottle and sell.
Barrel Strength Talent: On what kind of stills? And where did your distiller have his stills made?
Absinthia: On copper pot stills from Germany. The distiller's name is Brad Plummer.
Barrel Strength Talent: ...So as an experienced absinthe drinker, how do you drink your own spirit?
Absinthia: Well because I've been drinking it for so long, I dont need to dilute it as much, right, as much as people who are coming fresh to absinthe. And so I'll usually just throw a big ice cube in a glass and fill it up with absinthe, and put maybe a splash or two of water in it. Then I swirl it around until it starts to louche and I enjoy it.
Barrel Strength Talent: Oh, nice. So what your'e saying essentially is the whole theater they do at the absinthe bars in New Orleans is not really necessary, but it's fun, and it's essentially theater and people feel like they're getting something special..
Absinthia: So I do have something to say about that! (laughter) Do not light your absinthe on fire. Do not light the sugar cube on fire; it just damages the absinthe. That was actually started in the Czech Republic in the nineties so they could sell absinthe illegally on the internet..it was just a marketing ploy!..
Barrel Strength Talent: Ahh, I see..
Absinthia: I also feel that absinthe that needs sugar in it, along with the water, to taste good, is probably not well crafted absinthe. My absinthe does not need sugar,.. and tastes just fine without it.
Barrel Strength Talent: And do you think that..the bitter tastes..most Americans just aren't familiar with those bitter tastes?
Barrel Strength Talent: So have you had a problem selling people on that bitter concept?
Absinthia: So my experience is that people think they hate absinthe because a lot of what is out there needs a lot of sugar to taste good and is very bitter. And then they taste mine, and they go "wow, I actually like this". It's the way its' distilled and its the grapes we use..it has a natural sweetness to it. And I absolutely agree, Americans do not like harsh, bitter herbals. We dont grow up with a lot of fennel or anise in our diets, so we arent used to that either. And I really feel like I make a much more drinkable, palatable absinthe for Americans.
Barrel StrengthTalent: So what kind of grapes are they (for the grape neutral spirit base)?
Absinthia: You know it almost doesn't even matter what kid of grapes they are. It's that they are older grapes, and they're sweeter because they've aged...they're not fresh, right? So just like wine, the longer you leave grapes, the sweeter they are.
Barrel Strength Talent: So grape neutral spirit is distilled from the skins, correct? And where do they come from?
Absinthia: Correct.Those come from the Central Valley in California: The herbs come from South Oregon. The grapes and herbs need different climates to grow in..the grapes need it very hot...the herbs need it cooler, which is why it worked so well to grow them in the Swiss Alps..
Barrel Strength Talent: So your absinthe is based on a Swiss model.. Have you tried absinthe from some of the other countries that make it? I was surprised to learn that they make something akin to absinthe in Asia and Africa..
Absinthia: I've tried an Israeli absinthe..I would say most Czcek absinthe is crapsinthe..(laughter) some of the French ones are good, but more Eastern European absinthes are just too harsh and bitter for most Americans.
Barrel Strength Talent: How did you settle on an herbalist? And then if you could walk me through the process..
Absinthia: It was a process of trial and error. There are a number of organic farms in Oregon that grow wormwood, but not all of them know how to ship it properly, and so we had issues where it would show up at the distiller already compostable and just not usable at all. The farm I work with now has a really good track record and they're on it about what they pack up, how they pack it, and how they ship it. Because most wormwood is ready in July and that's hot, and it can easily get ruined. So it has to be packed fresh on ice..
Then we get the grape distillate: sometimes it depends on where we are, but sometimes we make the grape distillate, and sometimes we buy it. So when my distiller gets the herbs and has the distillate, he throws the herbs in the ethanol and let's it soak, or macerate, and what comes out is my absinthe blanche, which he distills.
Barrel Strength Talent: So one distillation for the grape neutral spirit and one for the herbs..
Absinthia: Yes, and then for the barrel aged absinthe, those then go into wood barrels.. we've only had one release of the barrel aged, and I have to tell you it makes the best Negroni! You just swap out the gin for the Absinthe..
Barrel Strength Talent:... and how long is it aged?
Absinthia: Just long enough to get it over the bottle shock..
Barrel Strength Talent: Just a scoonch..
Absinthia: ..and for the absinthe verte, we make a special batch that's just a little bit stronger.
We take the grape neutral with the herbs in it, distill it, and then soak in more, different herbs.. and one of them is a different type of wormwood that doesn't create thujones...and that was the whole big misunderstanding of absinthe back in the day..
Barrel Strength Talent: Which was..
Absinthia: Once you distill wormwood, it's perfectly safe to drink.
Barrel Strength Talent: Are you saying that all the stuff those famous writers and artists were drinking was thujone free?
Absinthia: Yes. Absinthe with less than 35 parts per million. So practically no thujone.
Barrel Strength Talent: So if that was the case, how did absinthe get the reputation that imbibers were having these hallucinations, seeing green fairies and going crazy, etc..
Absinthia:They were alcoholics! (laughter).They were painting with lead based paint..there may have been lead or copper in their glassware.. they were drinking poorly made bootleg absinthe like we spoke of earlier... Absinthe has been legal since the repeal of Prohibition, but because we didn't understand the science, we did'nt know that. When I made my first batch of legal abisnthe, I threw 70 lbs. of fresh wormwood into that distillate, distilled it and sent it off to a federal lab and it passed, with the US standard of less than ten parts per million. As we like to say, thujone is "fake news"
Barrel Strength Talent: (laughter) So why do you think this sort of misunderstanding about absinthe persists..
Absinthia: If I knew the answer to that..I did a presentation recently and asked if anyone still believed everything their parents said, and when they laughed, I said, then why would you believe propaganda created by the wine industry 120 years ago? Yet people love the lure of something that was once illegal, they love the lore..the lies..
Barrel Strength Talent:They love the louche!...So what set of personal circumstances in your life do you think drew you to this career?
Absinthia: Well, I was studying art and photography..and I grew up in Greenwich Connecticut and felt it was a little too straight laced for me, so I gravitated to the West Coast eventually. They say all the fruits and nuts roll West!
Barrel Strength Talent: ..And I found out by doing a little sleuthing that you are also a certified pyrotechnician?
Barrel Strength Talent:(laughter) So I said to myself, I just found a woman who distills absinthe and is also a pyrotechnician? Wow, I need to meet this person!....So just two more questions..and we'll wrap up here: How do you think the American spirits consumer will best come to understand absinthe?
Absinthia: Well, there was this great article in Wine Spectator where they said Americans aren't going to come to absinthe through the louche: but through the cocktail, and it's a really great ingredient in cocktails. So they'll get to know it through a sazerac or a corpse reviver, and then move on to the straight spirit.
Absinthe Frappe with Mint
Barrel Strength Talent: So is the proper term for you an "absintheure?"
Barrel Strength Talent: This has been a blast. Thanks so much and I wish you the best of luck!
Absinthia's small batch organic spirits can be found here: https://absinthia.com
My tasting notes are below:
Absinthe Blanche: The nose is intense, with fresh lime, pine needles, forest botanicals, bright grapefruit oil and fennel fronds. Palate is oily and rich, more subtle with anise seeds, notes of Finnish licorice and a burst of juicy mint and fennel.
Absinthe Verte: Interestingly, the nose on this one is mild, but with the palate intense; the opposite of the blanche. Similar but muted notes on the nose, with assertive, earthy forest floor notes joining in on the palate. Moss, lemon b floral tastes balanced beautifully.
Barrel Aged Absinthe: Being a whiskey connoisseur, I have to say, I'm really in love with this one.With it's gorgeous light golden color, it's a very elegant sipper. Along with the familiar range of herbal and anise flavors, subtle notes of tupelo honey, vanilla bean and caramel coat the palate. I see this in a French 75 in place of gin. Excuse me while I go make one right now!