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Robb Report Vices

The Absinthe Master

Shaun Tolson

T. A. “Ted” Breaux almost single-handedly brought absinthe back from the dead. Through his analysis of vintage examples, Breaux disproved the myths that the spirit was harmful, and he was instrumental in lifting the ban on absinthe here in the United States as well as in other countries. We sat down with him to talk about his craft, the spirit, and what all absinthe connoisseurs should know.

What made you want to study absinthe?

Absinthe was fascinating to me. Being a native New Orleanian, I would see the name around, but no one could tell me much about it. I got scientific theories and opinions, but nothing that was very credible.

To change the world’s opinion of absinthe, you started with vintage examples. How did you acquire those bottles and what did you do with them?

They really just fell in my lap; it really seemed like they found me. An old lady brought some bottles into a French antique shop, and a colleague of mine had an old bottle that was a family heirloom. His grandfather acquired it in Cuba a long, long time ago.

I analyzed the contents of those bottles, took information from the analysis, and essentially reverse engineered the brands.

What did you learn?

Analyzing these vintage absinthes has been a lot of fun for us. Many of them meet modern, stringent U.S. standards. We find that these products that were legitimately crafted and the top-selling products of their day, they were good. It’s pretty remarkable.

For decades, people believed that absinthe was a hallucinogen and that it was potentially poisonous. How did you dispel those myths?

We learned that there were a few poorly made examples, and the wine industry used those as a way to demonize absinthe. Unlike Champagne or Cognac, there was no appellation of control with absinthe. In those days, when people sold something as absinthe that was illegitimate, it usually contained some very harmful things. It was strictly “buyer beware”; people were very brand conscious.

The cheap adulterated products that were aimed at alcoholics were colored with things like copper sulfate. These poor alcoholics were imbibing a lot of these inferior products [and dying]. The whole situation with absinthe was not unlike the gin craze that happened in England about a century before.

In England during the previous century, a lot of people were dying from bad gin. It’s not because all gin was bad, but when it wasn’t made properly and [was] made cheaply with turpentine or whatever else they were using back then, it was potentially poisonous.

What made you want to revitalize the spirit?

It wasn’t what I set out to do initially. To do the analysis and write a book about it, that was the original intention. But I realized it would be more interesting to disclose the important things, keep some of the trade secrets to myself, and put the actual spirit out there.

A friend of mine in Paris happened to meet a guy who owned a distillery. It had been a prominent distillery in the 19th century but had faded into a bit of obscurity, and it was his mission to restore it. We formed a relationship back at the end of 1993 and I start distilling right away. It was like walking into the Nautilus from a Jules Verne novel, and I was Captain Nemo.

The first absinthes that you distilled under the Jade Liqueurs brand were—and still are—small-batch, premium spirits. What else can you tell us about them?

The eau-de-vie that we use for my ultra premiums, I have to have that handmade for me. It’s expensive and we can’t get much of it. I also source the plants from the original regions where they were sourced [during the 19th century] and I have to buy those plants a year in advance. I also have the luxury of aging my premium absinthes for three years before bottling them.

In addition to those small-batch absinthes, you now also make Lucid, which is a much bigger and more readily available brand. How do you make it and what makes it special?

Lucid is a product that we have to put in all 50 states. That means we have to make a lot more of it. The base spirit that we use for Lucid is a French spirit—the cleanest spirit that money can buy—and we can obtain a lot of it. The plants that we use to make Lucid are plants that I’ve screened and can get from commercial growers in larger quantities.

Lucid still has to be handcrafted and we’re still using 19th-century equipment, which is very labor intensive. It’s just that with Lucid, we can make more of it. If you walked into a café in Lyons in the 19th century and ordered an absinthe, you’d get something that’s very similar to Lucid. That’s what it’s intended to be.

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