No spirit is more misunderstood, mythologized or outright demonized than absinthe. The so-called "green fairy" has been whispered about as a hallucinogenic liquor capable of producing mind-shattering effects from orgiastic violence (a French farmer notoriously hacked his family to pieces after an overabundance of absinthe) to some of the greatest creative output of the 19th century. Some say Oscar Wilde sipped it for inspiration, and Vincent van Gogh lopped off his ear, in part, because he had scrambled his brain on absinthe.
Almost none of what has been said about absinthe is remotely true. Sure, drink enough of the stuff and you'll end up looking like the subject of Edgar Degas' painting "L'Absinthe," but that may be because it's 124 proof.
Much has also been made of the 1912-2007 absinthe "ban," but as the Wormwood Society points out, absinthe was never really "illegal" in the U.S. The spirit's 95 years of obscurity had more to do with a combination of bad press (a good deal of which was the result of propaganda from the wine industry—a whole other story) and bureaucratic inattention. Among the many herbs and spices that go into absinthe production is thujone, a toxic chemical compound that can cause convulsions and massive organ damage when ingested in high doses. A U.S. law stating any food or drink containing wormwood must also be "thujone-free" made absinthe effectively verboten. The fine print, however, clarified "thujone-free" didn't mean "no thujone at all." Absinthe, of course, contains less thujone than the government threshold. Once this legal nuance was pointed out, the gates were opened to a flood of absinthe into the U.S. market—some fine, some not-so-fine. In this case, we stumbled across an example of the former in the Woodinville, Wash.-based Pacific Distillery: Pacifique Absinthe Verte Superieure ($53.95).
Billed as small-batch crafted in the methode ancienne—using a precise 1855 French recipe of anise, angelica, coriander, fennel, hyssop, melissa, grand wormwood and Roman wormwood—Pacifique lives up to its hype. Reviews on the Wormwood Society website give it 4.4 out of 5, Serious Eats listed Pacifique as a top-10 absinthe and Wine Enthusiast honored it with 91 points.
Beyond its lovely, grassy yellow-green hue, Pacifique boasts a seductive aroma: a fresh-cut scent of fennel and delicate anise rise first, supported by a rich whiff of wormwood. That might seem basic to a seasoned absinthe drinker, but finding the "trinity" of absinthe notes in such perfect harmony is the exception rather than the rule.
Mixed properly, with a slow drip of two-parts ice-cold water (anyone who suggests you drink absinthe neat or as a shot is not your friend), the liquor takes on a milky green color evocative of a stream filled with crisp spring runoff.
On the palate, Pacifique is smooth, delicate and lacks any syrupy-ness, which is what absinthe is supposed to taste like—too many taste like black jelly beans melted in moonshine.
A note on preparation: Common practice is for absinthe to be diluted in a process referred to as la louche: Water is poured over a sugar cube and strained through a special "absinthe spoon." In the case of Pacifique, sugar covers the delicacy of the botanicals, rendering it a little oily and further weaponizing its high alcohol content. (Think you've had hangovers? Try binging on sugar-spiked absinthe and you'll understand its reputation for insanity.)
Treat Pacifique with the respect it demands; and, for the love everything holy, don't light it on fire. First, it's a stupid trick for newbie tourists. Second, it ruins the complexity of the drink. Third, it's dangerous. A flaming glass of absinthe can turn into a flaming bartop with the merest misplaced tip of the wrist. Props to Pacifique, which stresses this injunction on every bottle.
Taken in moderation, it delivers a warm, medicinal buzz that does seem to inspire genial contemplation. One sip over the line, however and, well, we know what happened to van Gogh.