Preparing absinthe, a bright green liquor made with a mixture of herbs, is a process worthy of its artistic bohemian roots.
Absinthe gained notoriety in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, where the drink was popular among Parisian artists and writers like Vincent van Gogh and Marcel Proust.
The traditional “la louche” method of preparing absinthe starts with about an ounce of the bright green liquor in a glass topped with a latticed metal spoon that holds a sugar cube. The sugar cube is slowly dissolved in water — which, at Nocturnem Draft Haus in Bangor, is dripped from an antique pewter fountain that owner Gene Beck bought on eBay — until the spirit is thinned into a hazy green cocktail. The process sweetens the bitter edge and waters down the 130 proof liquor into a smooth, licorice-flavored tipple.
Maine’s most popular liquor, Fireball, as a point of comparison, is 66 proof.
“It’s not the way you saw in ‘Moulin Rouge,’” Beck said with a laugh. In the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, a group of French bohemians take shots of absinthe topped with flaming sugar cubes as Australian pop star Kylie Minogue emerges in the form of a glittering green fairy.
Even so, the preparation process does have a cinematic quality. The bottle of absinthe being used in the preparation was from Tree Spirits Winery and Distillery, which has a holographic green fairy on the label.
“People think they’re going to be taking LSD when they drink absinthe,” Bruce Olson, founder of Tree Spirits Winery and Distillery, said with a laugh. “All those herbs are going to give you a slightly different feel than just alcohol, but you would get alcohol poisoning before you got any hallucinogenic effect.”
Tree Spirits absinthe is special in a different way: it is the only Maine-made absinthe.
Olson “fooled around” making his own wine and brandy for years before starting his Oakland-based winery and distilling business in 2010. A few years later, he started experimenting with absinthe. It was nearly 40 years after he had first read about absinthe in a novel he read for his freshman writing composition class at Colby College in Waterville.
“I thought, ‘I know about this product, it’s kind of cool, and we have a distillery so we can make the base liquor for it and get the herbs locally,’” Olson said. “It seemed interesting, so I took a shot at it. It’s worked out.”
To make absinthe, Olson starts out with apple brandy, specially distilled at a higher proof, as a base liquor. He distills it and adds the first three herbs — anise, fennel and wormwood — and lets the mixture sit in the still overnight. He then takes part of the mixture and infuses it with the other herbs: lemon balm, hyssop, coriander and petit wormwood.
“That’s where the green color comes from,” Olson said. “You strain the herbs out of that, blend the two pieces together and get this beautiful green product.”
Most of the raw ingredients for Olson’s absinthe are also grown in Maine. Olson makes the base liquor apple brandy by distilling wine made from fermented apple cider that he purchases from Apple Farm in Fairfield. Most of his herbs come from Blessed Maine Herb Farm in Athens; the only herbs he cannot get from there are anise and fennel, which Olson said he buys from an organic farm in Oregon.
“The goal is to not only make locally, but source locally as well,” Olson said. “It makes it a little more interesting and a little more satisfying.”
Because Tree Spirits is a small-scale distillery, the absinthe is also only available in Maine. “In other states, we’d have to find distributor and they’d take a huge cut,” Olson said. “If we were making 10 times as much, we could do it, but we sell all that we make.”
The market may be a hurdle for other potential absinthe producers in Maine. Olson said that while the bottles of absinthe, which cost $77 for 750 milliliters, make up a large share of his annual profits because of their cost, he does not sell that many bottles every year. Olson said absinthe attracts a small population of curious buyers who are attracted to unique spirits, mostly millennials and older liquor enthusiasts with money to spend.
“It’s a real niche kind of market,” Olson said. “We are small, so we live in this niche.”
Sales are also slow because absinthe is usually used sparingly as a flavoring in cocktails; Olson said one 750 milliliter bottle would likely last the average consumer about a year. “Even though we’re in lots of bars now, it doesn’t translate into incredible fast sales,” Olson said. “Bars that buy our absinthe will go through 10 or 12 bottles a year.”
The legal hurdles could also deter potential producers. While absinthe has been legal in the United States since 2007, the liquor is still heavily regulated because of its tenuous ties to hallucinogenic properties. Olson explained that to introduce a new wine or spirit, producers are only required to submit a formula to the federal government for approval. With absinthe, producers have to send in a sample and they test it for thujone, the hallucinogenic found in wormwood; the Food and Drug Administration’s legal limit is 10 parts per million of thujone.
“Our first sample that we sent in had too much thujone in it, so we can to cut back the amount of wormwood in the formula,” Olson said. “It took us a year from when we first sent in the sample until we finally got approved. For wine, it might take a month.”
There are also restrictions on the marketing of absinthe. “The label can’t promote the idea that absinthe is hallucinogenic or psychotropic or anything like that,” Olson said. “They don’t want to see a label that encourages people to think they are hallucinating.”
Still, absinthe stockists are hopeful about the future about the future of the spirit in the Pine Tree State.
“The craft liquor and craft distilling business is growing by leaps and bounds [in Maine],” Beck said. “I’d like to see more [absinthe]. I bet they’d have all different kinds of characteristics.”
Beck said that Nocturnem has been serving absinthe for over six years. They began serving Tree Spirits about four years ago after Beck encountered the distillery on a trip to Skowhegan with the Growler Bus, a Bangor-based distillery and brewery tour company which Beck also founded.
“Their absinthe is quite good,” he said. “It’s similar to French absinthe pernod: an herbal, anise-forward absinthe.”
Beck admitted that Nocturnem’s customers only order absinthe every so often, but when one orders absinthe prepared using the “la louche” method, it is likely to inspire a curious chain reaction.
“If one person orders it, it will increase the chances of someone else ordering it,” bartender Sam Chase said. “When it does come out, it starts a conversation.”
Besides serving the absinthe in the traditional manner, Nocturnem serves three cocktails with absinthe. One, called the Root of All Evil, is made from absinthe and Maine Root root beer, and is available year round. The other two — Corpse Reviver and Death in the Afternoon — are seasonal Mardi Gras cocktails that are available until Fat Tuesday on March 5.
Beck believes that absinthe’s longevity and allure can be attributed to its history, mythology and its herbal roots in a world of artificially flavored liquors. “Absinthe stands the test of time,” Beck said. “I doubt pink bubblegum flavored vodka will stand the test of time.”