Absinthe: The Tale of a Resurrected Spirit

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — The word “spirit” is a homonym with two meanings. Spirit can refer to a ghost or a libation. Either way, both meanings are icy. This is the story of a resurrected spirit.

Absinthe is a green spirit made by macerating herbs into it. It was invented in Switzerland and became popular in the artist community of Paris, France well into the 19th century. A sugar cube, ice water, a slotted spoon, and a drip is the recipe for its classic preparation.

Liz Williams is the founder of New Orleans’ Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where they have an entire exhibition dedicated to the story of Absinthe and its cultural significance in New Orleans.

“It became very popular as a substitute for wine.  Wine grapes and the grapevines were suffering from an aphid infestation in the vineyards and wine became more and more expensive,” says Liz Williams.

The Phylloxera Insect Epidemic was responsible for two-thirds of the vineyards in Europe being destroyed. Many turned to Absinthe. It was only about a third of the cost of wine.

“In the old days, Absinthe was very potent.  By the late 19th century, wine was about seven to nine percent alcohol by volume.  Absinthe was about 90 percent alcohol by volume.”  

The converted wine drinkers were overindulging in a loaded libation. Some would become victims of alcohol poisoning. One of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning… is hallucinations. “They got so drunk after they had one glass when they were used to having something that was so much lower in alcohol, that they ordered another,” explains Wiliams.

The Food and Drug Administration of the United States along with the administrations in other countries banned Absinthe. They reasoned that one of the phytochemicals in the ingredient Wormwood was the cause of the hallucinations.

Absinthe was changed to take out the wormwood ingredient and “Absinthe-like” beverages were created in its place. Herbsaint was New Orleans’ answer to wormwood-absent Absinthe.

At the heart of Bourbon Street, The Old Absinthe House introduced Absinthe to the United States back in 1829. It has a colorful history with very hospitable bartenders.

Trish Wilson is the Assistant Manager and a beloved bartender at The Old Absinthe House. She says, she has experienced a phantom cat on more than one occasion. Other bartenders have experienced the paranormal with stories that involve human apparitions.

“I looked in the mirror and there was a person standing behind me.  I could see them in the mirror.  When I turned around that person was gone. It was a classic horror movie scene,” says Trish Wilson.

Jackaroe Arana Stanley is the Bar Manager at the Old Absinthe House and says, “here are many stories about the place being haunted.  There are stories about Jean Lafitte’s pirates having a meeting with Andrew Jackson in a secret room here.  Some wonder if Jean Lafitte’s treasure is buried behind the fireplace.  There is a lot of history here.”

Whether one believes in ghosts or not, Absinthe was indeed resurrected. Absinthe was illegal for over a hundred years, until March 5th, 2007.

Liz Williams explains, saying, “It stopped being banned because Ted Breaux, one of New Orleans’ sons, was a biochemist.  He did the chemistry to show that Absinthe was not what the Department of Agriculture thought it was.  They, therefore, lifted the ban”.  

To learn more about Absinthe, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has a permanent exhibition about its history and cultural significance to New Orleans.

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