ABSINTHE - education through a panel, a new book, and a night of absinthe at the Ferry Building
Absinthe is on the move from its initial novelty phase once finally legalized in the US in 2007 into an era where appreciators of fine drink are gaining greater education and refinement on the subject. No, it is not a hallucinogen (more on that in a minute), and no, it's not the artificially sweetened and colored liqueurs flooding the market (but labeled as absinthe). When made as it has been historically, it's a natural, herbal spirit with a rich culture surrounding it.
We owe increasing knowledge to artisan producers of absinthe near and far. Some are local guys, like Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, the first producer in the US when the ban was lifted, or more recently, Davorin Kuchan of Old World Spirits, producing green (verte) and bleue (white) absinthes. Then there's absinthe historians and experts like Peter Schaf and John Troia of Tempus Fugit Spirits who import some of the best absinthes from France and Switzerland, such as Duplais' brilliant verte and blanche (white) versions. Schaf also created Vieux Pontarlier, a classic-style absinthe made in Pontarlier, France, from local wormwood, long considered the finest grown in the world (where most wormwood was sourced over 100 years ago). Schaf, Winters and Ted Breaux of Lucid, formed a recent panel during SF Cocktail Week, a two hour session (and tasting) on the green fairy (read about it here).
Another source for absinthe education is books, the latest being A Taste for Absinthe, by R. Winston Guthrie with James F. Thompson. Though predominantly a cocktail recipe source, this elegant new book, with photography by Liza Gershman, offers an encompassing summary of the history and culture surrounding absinthe, from its poster art, to the spoons, glasses, fountains and accouterments used to serve it. It's an artful drink requiring leisure and attention, not a hallucinogen, a myth still falsely promoted around the world (thujone is the fragrant chemical found in wormwood and other plants, such as sage, believed to be a neurotoxoin in extremely high doses - governments have strict regulations on the levels of thujone allowed in the making of absinthe so it is not remotely dangerous yet qualifies as actual absinthe). Kudos for film anecdotes throughout the book on movies where absinthe is imbibed, classic films I grew up watching that are rare to run across now like Lust for Life and Madame X.
On the recipe side, the book is broken down into five sections: classics, fruit and citrus, whiskey and gin, liqueurs and bitters, and modern classics. The recipes are compiled from some of our country's best bartenders, including many SF locals. While straightforward classics like Death in the Afternoon (absinthe and champagne) and a bright Brunelle (lemon, absinthe, citrus) are all here, there are also modern takes such as Neyah White's Green Goddess: absinthe, Square One cucumber vodka, simple syrup, lime fresh basil and thyme. There's even dessert-like recipes... try an Absinthe & Old Lace: gin, absinthe, creme de menthe, cream, egg white and chocolate mole bitters.