Seven Questions with Absinthe Master Ted Breaux
Ted Breaux is for good reason considered the modern absinthe pioneer in America, the guy who helped cajole, nudge and insist that the powers that be change the antiquated rules that prevented absinthe from being made or served in this country. Now as the maker of Lucid, he’s pushed his passion to the front of the absinthe sweepstakes, but isn’t resting on his laurels. Next up: four Jade Liqueur absinthe varieties. He’s the man to talk to about the myth-laden beverage, so we did.
NCB Mix: As someone for whom absinthe has been a passion for some time, explain the fascination.
Ted Breaux: Initially, the fascination was fueled by frustration. Upon becoming interested in absinthe in 1993, I was greeted by a complete void of quality, factual information. I found almost nothing but decades of published conjecture and musings, and not one modern scientific study of the liquor itself. Only Barnaby Conrad’s, Absinthe, History in a Bottle (Chronicle Books, 1988) shone like a beacon in the fog of misconception and myth. My original frustrations would persist until I became the first to subject samples of 19th century absinthes to rigorous scientific just a few years later, where I watched these misconceptions and myths tumble like dominoes.
NCB Mix: Not only have you built Lucid into a successful brand, but now you're bringing in four other absinthes — why?
Breaux: You are referring to the Jade Liqueurs absinthes, which represent the ultimate expression of historical accuracy without reservation, and have been available in various parts of the world since 2004. I created them in response to the glut of industrially manufactured, artificially colored “absinthes” that have littered the European market since the 1990s. U.S. connoisseurs and mixologists have been asking for the Jades since we brought the ban down in 2007, but if Lucid hadn’t been successful, it wouldn’t make much sense to release these more expensive, much more limited offerings into the U.S. market. My four Jade absinthes are distilled strictly by me, employing base materials and ingredients that are available in very limited quantities, which limit the annual volume to a couple thousand cases in total. That’s all there is to satisfy demand in various upscale markets around the world, including the U.S.
NCB Mix: Can you explain the basic differences among the four and Lucid? Are American consumers sophisticated enough about absinthe to appreciate the differences?
Breaux: Initiating American consumers to quality absinthes is akin to initiating a newcomer to good red wines. Those who acquire experience within the category appreciate the differences, just as a connoisseur of wine appreciates the differences between a Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel. And naturally, the more educated a consumer becomes in matters of absinthe, the more likely that consumer is to demand a quality product as opposed to something cheaply made (but not cheaply priced) from industrial flavorings and food coloring. We aimed to set a high standard with Lucid, which is traditionally distilled from whole herbs, and is 100 percent natural. The Jade absinthes are prepared using the same basic process and antique alembics, but three of the four (1901, Edouard and Berger) are exacting historical resurrections of specific brands of absinthes as they appeared during the Belle Époque. This is possible thanks to scientific analysis of the original brands, which subsequently enabled me to reverse engineer them. The fourth (Nouvelle Orléans) is a vintage-style absinthe with a personal twist — something I would have done to create my own identity had I been a distiller in the 19th century.
NCB Mix: I'm not aware of a break-through absinthe cocktail — what have you found are the most popular ways absinthe is being consumed in bars?
Breaux: You shouldn’t feel bad about not being aware of a breakthrough absinthe cocktail, simply because it came into vogue well over a century ago and faded into obscurity following the ban. That would be the Absinthe Frappé, which was actually the title of a hit pop song in 1904. It was revived post-Prohibition as the Herbsaint Frappé, but like many pre-Prohibition favorites, never returned to its former prominence. Being that we as Americans are sorely underexposed to the flavor of anise in modern times, we have decades of catching up to do. I’d like to see absinthe return to its rightful position as a bar staple, but that depends upon education, which fuels long-term interest in the revival of the category.
NCB Mix: Are there parts of the country where absinthe has become more popular than others? If so, why do you think that is?
Breaux: I’ve witnessed the return of absinthe being embraced in markets both large and small across the U.S. Naturally, larger markets that offer an array of culinary and cocktail options serve as focal points of the absinthe revival due to their cultural diversity, but in my travels across the nation, I frequently find niche restaurants and bistros in even unexpected locales that create an identity for themselves simply by offering a proper absinthe service.
NCB Mix: What needs to happen for absinthe, yours or anyone else's, to get better placement and usage in bars?
Breaux: The Lucid brand represents more than 60 percent of the category and is available in all 50 states, so availability isn’t much of an issue. Increasing the usage and placement of absinthe in bars depends upon education, which is a long-term effort. The bottom line is if one cannot serve absinthe with sufficient expertise, he won’t be inclined to pour it. My mixology classes educate bartenders and mixologists on how traditional absinthe is crafted, how to gauge quality of a product by reading the label, how absinthe fits in both classic and modern cocktails, and how to mix it effectively. Only upon mastering the basics of absinthe mixology does one understand its value in the bar, both yesterday and today.
NCB Mix: As always, what's your favorite drink with absinthe right now?
Breaux: I’m fond of several of the dozens of classic cocktails that make good use of absinthe, but one of my current favorites is probably one mentioned in Harry Johnson’s Bartender Manual from 1900. It’s easy to make, requires few ingredients, and always goes over well:
Italian Style of Mixing Absinthe
1 ¼ ounces absinthe
¼ ounce maraschino liqueur
¼ ounce simple syrup (gum syrup is better)
Combine all in a shaker with crushed ice, shake vigorously until ice forms on the outside of the shaker, strain into a small rocks glass. Add a dash of your favorite bitters if you like.