Taste: Spirits: Absinthe Again

Philly, of all places, is changing this elusive liquor’s rep

On the Friday night between Christmas and New Year’s, scores of well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings flirted and danced on the second floor of Time — a restaurant/bar/club on Sansom Street — at a dark and mysterious party fueled by glasses of the storied green elixir known as absinthe.
Twenty miles away, in a bland industrial park in the Far Northeast, Robert Cassell, a stocky 29-year-old who studied nuclear medicine, presided over a 400-gallon, $250,000 copper still from Scotland filled with the makings of Philadelphia Distilling’s first bottling of Vieux Carré Absinthe Superieure, marking the first time in 100 years that the aperitif was distilled on the East Coast.
None of this would have been possible even two years ago. In 2007, the U.S. government lifted an absinthe ban instituted in the early 20th century amid widespread hysteria over the beverage: Van Gogh was said to have cut his ear off during an absinthe binge; a Swiss man killed his family after drinking too much; and many tipplers reported fantastic hallucinations. While it’s true that wormwood — one of absinthe’s essential herbs — contains a naturally occurring psychoactive substance, there’s so little in absinthe that it’s effectively inert. “It’s much more likely that van Gogh was just drunk on a 138-proof spirit,” says Cassell. “You’re not going to trip your head off.”
At Time, as well as at Fairmount’s London Grill, Alison Two in Fort Washington, and Vintage on 13th Street, absinthe is ceremoniously presented the way it was in the painter’s day: in a small glass, with a sugar cube resting above the liquid on a slotted spoon. You trickle ice water over the cube from a pitcher, sweetly diluting the absinthe; the three elements together form a cloudy, milky final product. The taste profiles of absinthes on shelves today vary to some degree, but suffice to say that if you don’t enjoy anise, the most pronounced flavor, a whole glass of the stuff may be too much to handle. But don’t pass on the experience. Just opt for a mixed drink that uses a smaller amount, such as the Demon Vert at Chick’s in Queen Village, where bartenders pair absinthe with gin, lime, and the sweetness of Falernum syrup.
For Philadelphia Distilling, absinthe is an uphill battle. “Nobody knows a thing about it,” says the distillery’s co-owner, Andrew Auwerda. “But it’s a wide-open market.” And while there’s some educating to be done, we’re proud that Philly is leading the way.