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Once wildly popular and banned for a century, absinthe is enjoying a resurgence
Absinthe isn’t everybody’s drink.
The green-hued spirit was the alcoholic beverage of choice, a muse even, for bohemian writers, artists and intellectuals in Paris from the mid-1880s until the outbreak of the First World War. A widespread belief that it induced hallucinations fuelled its popularity and eventually led to a nearly century-long ban that only added to the potent drink’s notoriety.
“People are anxious to try it and then they’ll make faces,” says Mike Beamish, who started distilling absinthe in 2015 at his family-run Deep Roots Distillery in Warren Grove, P.E.I. “They have to know it’s a strong alcohol. Ours is 72.5 per cent. And it’s got a powerful flavour. When you take a sip, it explodes in your mouth.”
Black licorice is the primary flavour. “Not the candy kind,” Beamish adds. It’s a real licorice flavour from fennel, aniseed and star anise.
Beamish says a slight bitterness on the tail end is because his recipe uses wormwood, the ingredient that garnered absinthe its reputation. The plant includes a psychoactive chemical called thujone, which is toxic in high doses.
“Absinthe became extremely popular in the mid-1800s in Paris once they found out the herb has traces of a hallucinogenic compound,” says Beamish. “Once that idea hit the art community, it spread like wildfire.”
They developed rituals. “It wasn’t just a matter of throwing it in a glass,” says Beamish.
Ornate fountains with taps dripped ice water on to sugar cubes on slotted silver spoons placed on the rims of specially designed absinthe glasses with a hollow stem that would fill with the spirit. The sugar would dissolve into the absinthe and combine with the water into a milky blend, a process called La Louche.
Beamish maintains the rituals don’t affect the taste. “They could have easily taken a teaspoon of sugar and a cup of ice water, poured it in a glass, stirred it and you’d have the same drink,” he says. (That’s how he enjoys the beverage at home unless he’s got guests.) “But they’d be sitting around these smoky cafés. It was an experience.”
Modern lab-testing techniques revealed wormwood doesn’t live up to its hype as a hallucinogen, and only trace amounts of thujone get through to the end product. The prohibitions were lifted in 2007.
Beamish developed the recipe at his small-batch craft distillery along with one of his sons, who first tried the infamous liquor out west. They tried it out as a novelty, but sales have been surprisingly strong. It’s one of the distillery’s best sellers and Beamish is boosting production with plans to sell to other Maritime provinces.
A 120-litre batch takes 1.8 kilograms of fennel and buckets more of other herbs.
“The volume of herbs we put in is quite substantial. You have to have enough that the alcohol can suck out all the oils and essences,” says Beamish. “We feel pretty confident that we’ve got an original product of what it really used to be. We’re quite proud of that.”