The mystique of absinthe

Despite all the urban legends, the green fairy did not make a recent appearance in downtown Washington.

Pernod held a tasting of its absinthe, that green licorice-tasting spirit filled with mystique, at Morton’s Steakhouse downtown, one of four events the company is holding in the D.C. area this month. Attendees paid $45 to sample the drink, which was banned for nearly a century because it was believed to hold hallucinogenic properties.

Pernod and Morton’s are hosting 60 tastings across the country, said Tracy Yewell, sales and marketing manager for the upscale steakhouse. It was an agreement between the two corporate offices that their clientele would get the most out of the experience, she added.

The 55 attendees who came to the restaurant’s small, partitioned back room were of diverse backgrounds, largely coming from work to enjoy a drink they’d only heard about but never tasted.

The absinthe was available in four cocktails, with Pernod featuring the original French style, which drips water from a fountain onto a sugar cube sitting on a slotted spoon over the glass. Attendees could also have a Sazerac, which features whiskey, bitters, half a sugar cube and a lemon rind in addition to the absinthe; Le Deuce, a vodka-and-champagne drink with raspberries; and the Monkey Gland, which consists of gin, orange juice and grenadine with the absinthe.

Many tasters tried multiple cocktails, and some had one (or a few) of each. As the two-hour event wore on, voices rose, behavior grew more animated and gesticulations became increasingly frenzied. None of the participants, however, admitted to hallucinations.

Brian Eckert, Pernod’s national brand manager, operated the fountain throughout the evening and gave a five-minute speech explaining the history of absinthe, how it acquired its mystique, why it was banned and how it became legal again.

“Pernod was the creator of absinthe,” he said, adding that two French entrepreneurs opened the first commercial absinthe distillery in 1805. Its mysterious green color led to the nickname “the Green Fairy” at the height of its popularity in the 19th century, and after it gained a reputation of being both addictive and hallucinogenic, absinthe was banned in the U.S. in 1912 and in France in 1915, rendering the French blend absent from the marketplace. A “rougher-edged” Czech blend still was legal, but it packed a punch the French variety didn’t.

“It was discovered in 2007 that absinthe does not create hallucinations, so now we’re back and able to be sold, with wormwood in its original form,” he said. “We’re getting back to our original roots.”