Spirits Close-Up: Absinthe

The Absinthe drip at Volstead's Emporium // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The Absinthe drip at Volstead’s Emporium // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Absinthe is loaded with misinformation. So let’s get a few things straight:

Absinthe in America is as “real” as the absinthe in Europe. Since before Prohibition, we had mistakenly attributed mind-altering properties to a compound called thujone that’s found in wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), the main flavoring agent of absinthe. Thujone is not hallucinogenic and, despite what you may have heard, is not related to THC.

The stories that poets and artists told about absinthe-induced delirium were more likely the result of drinking dodgy versions bottled with other toxic chemicals for that “desired” effect. In reality, absinthe was once enormously popular among cosmopolitan Parisians, and it’s safe to say that the well-to-do along the Champs-Élysées weren’t tripping during happy hour.

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. authorities have allowed beverages, like “real” European absinthe, with trace amounts of thujone. Several good domestic absinthes have since popped up as well.

So don’t expect to “see a green fairy.” But if you’re interested in good spirits, the louching ritual of absinthe is mind-opening in its own right.

(Top) Cory Schuller fills the top of the drip with water. (Bottom) Leaving a cube of sugar on an Absinthe spoon and allowing the water to slowly drip and dissolve it into the Absinthe in the glass lets you adjust the taste of your Absinthe // Photos by Kevin Kramer

(Top) Cory Schuller fills the top of the drip with water. (Bottom) Leaving a cube of sugar on an Absinthe spoon and allowing the water to slowly drip and dissolve into the Absinthe in the glass lets you adjust the flavor of your Absinthe // Photos by Kevin Kramer

Volstead’s Emporium, the basement speakeasy near Lyndale and Lake, is the best place in the Cities to louche. It starts with a contraption that looks like a gorgeous Art Deco candlestick, with spouts jutting out from a canister full of cold water and crushed ice. You place a sugar cube on the slotted spoon over your absinthe and open the spout to a slow drip. The cube slowly dissolves, the spirit becomes cloudy, and as you dial in your preferred ratio of sugar and water, the flavors begin to change.

If you’ve never tried absinthe before, start with Kübler, a Swiss version that shows off the spirit’s classic profile of warm anise and fennel. If your tastes run spicier, you’ll want a dram of Pernod Absinthe, which pours a cloudy emerald color, and tastes more herbal and peppery. A Scotch drinker would enjoy St. George Absinthe Verte—the louching opens up notes of lemon verbena, mint, honey, and sweet tannin. For an absinthe with more barrel-aged and baking spice character, try Letherbee Charred Oak.

Kübler, Pernod Absinthe and St. George Absinthe Verte on the bar at Volstead’s Emporium // Photo by Kevin Kramer

John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.