Spirits: Just Don't Drive

After nearly a century's absence, absinthe is making hearts grow fond again all across Europe. In trendy bars and apartment soirees from Barcelona to Bristol, young professionals are mixing the famously hallucinogenic elixir of Belle Epoque painters and poets. Dozens of European distillers are conjuring up the "green fairy" for new palates, its fresh, meadowy taste reminiscent of pastis. Skeptical? Perhaps you're wondering, "Won't absinthe, van Gogh's liquor of choice, drive me to lop off my ear in a psychotic fit?"

A valid question, indeed. After all, the drink was banned in Switzerland after it was deemed the cause of a triple murder-suicide a century ago this week. Much of the rest of Europe followed, blaming the mysterious concoction of plants for the depravity of its devotees. Banned by America in 1912 and France in 1915, no one even knows for sure what it tasted like back then. But an environmental chemist named Ted Breaux from New Orleans has made it his mission to find out. For the past 12 years, he has been on a round-the-world quest to re-create 19th-century absinthe.

Whenever he gets time off, Breaux heads straight to the Loire Valley town of Saumur to distill absinthe. Using a couple of hundred-year-old bottles of original Pernod absinthe, painstaking forensic chemistry and a decade of research, Breaux, 39, says he has managed to replicate fin-de-siecle absinthe exactly: a secret mix of a half-dozen odd botanicals, including Spanish green anise, alpine hyssop and absinthium. The result is Absinthe Edouard 72 (a staggering 144 proof) and Jade Verte Suisse 65 (130 proof), at 75 euros a bottle.

Every period detail is correct. Breaux chose Saumur's Combier distillery for its swan-necked, copper alembics, the very stills used by Pernod in the 1870s. They gleam in a distilling room designed by Eiffel. Even the obsolete driven-in corks are accurate. "I'm twice as obsessive about the details as a hard-core connoisseur would even know to be," he boasts.

Ah, but what about the psychosis? "It's all a myth," says Breaux. "Some of [the old absinthe] was known to be toxic," thanks to the crude additives backroom producers used. But his forensic evidence argues that absinthe made by top distillers was safe enough to meet even modern European limits on thujone, the neurotoxin blamed for its hallucinations. Seventy-five euros a bottle doesn't sound so bad when you get to keep your ears, now, does it?

A NEW TWIST ON AN OLD FAVORITE

Van Gogh probably drank his mixed with sugared water. We've got better ideas:

The Absinthe Daiquiri
45ml absinthe
235ml crushed ice
1 T. confectioner's sugar
Blend and serve.

The Sazerac
45ml absinthe
60ml cognac
3 dashes bitters
1 t. sugar
Shake with ice. Strain and serve.

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