In Marc Bernhard’s Everett backyard, the plants of legend grow. Wormwood, hyssop: These are herbs for making absinthe, that naughty nymph of a liquor that fin de siècle Frenchies nicknamed “the green fairy.” Loathed by temperance types, fetishized by literary giants—Hemingway called it the “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy”—and misunderstood by just about everyone, absinthe has been Bernhard’s obsession since college. Since then he’s become a board member of the locally based absinthe advocacy group the Wormwood Society, and has been experimenting with making his own—Absinthe Pacifique—at his Pacific Distillery in Woodinville. When it hits stores this spring, Pacifique will be one of just a few authentic absinthes available anywhere. (That neon-green liquid that college kids smuggle home from Prague, Bernhard says, is usually just colored vodka.)
Speaking of smuggling—isn’t absinthe illegal? Not anymore. For over 100 years, absinthe was banned in the United States and Europe, the outcome of a campaign waged by the temperance movement and an alliance of French wine producers. Their claim that the “pernicious liquor” rendered imbibers insane, however, turns out to be an exaggeration: A few years back, EU censors found that thujone, the chemical in wormwood said to cause hallucination, all but disappears during distillation. By the end of the twentieth century, several continental countries had re-authorized the sale of old-fashioned absinthe. In 2007, the United States approved several imported brands for distribution here.
Taken by itself, absinthe is bitter, heavy on herbs, and, at 120 proof, powerful—imbibers describe a lucid intoxication distinct from “normal” drunkenness. The way nineteenth-century Parisians drank it—and enthusiasts still do—is to slowly add three to five parts water to one part absinthe, pouring the water over a sugar cube on a perforated spoon and swirling the glass as the beverage louches, or turns cloudy and emerald-colored.
If you want to sample absinthe but fear going all Edgar Allen Poe, try the Sazerac at the Polar Bar in the Arctic Club Hotel downtown. Bartenders add to it just a few drops from the authentic absinthe fountain onsite, lending a hint of anise to the whisky-based cocktail. The bar serves absinthe the traditional way, too, but pace yourself. Legal or not, the intoxicating reputation is well earned.
Polar Bar, Arctic Club Hotel, 700 Third Ave, Downtown, 206-340-0340