Q&A with Ted Breaux, Founder and Distiller of Lucid Absinthe

Ted Breaux didn't set out to become the master distiller of Lucid absinthe -- the first genuine absinthe to be sold stateside in close to 100 years.

The New Orleans native had pursued a career as a research scientist after studying microbiology and chemistry, graduating from Harvard, Louisiana University and Louisiana State University.

Before creating Lucid, Breaux didn't even know much about absinthe -- not until a colleague made a passing comment about the wormwood-infused spirit that's often mistakenly thought to cause psychedelic effects. The friend questioned Breaux: "You know, that green liquor that made people crazy?"

The regular questions -- and multiple misconceptions -- surrounding absinthe are what eventually compelled Breaux to separate fact from fiction. He began research with the initial goal to learn as much as he could, and in doing so began the process of distilling his own artisinal absinthe according to traditional production methods.

What started as a research project became a passion, and Lucid was born.

These days, most Americans don't know the difference between real absinthe and the fake stuff. The easiest way to differentiate an authentic, artisanaly-distilled absinthe from modern chemical concoctions: just take a close look at the label. Anything labeled "liqueur" means there is sugar involved, said Breaux, an absolute "no-no" when creating genuine absinthe. Likewise, check for any fine print on the backside of the label for artificial food coloring like "FD&C" or the words "certified food coloring."

Clean Plate Charlie wanted to learn what it takes to make a genuine absinthe and how to drink it, so we had a chat with Lucid Master Distiller Ted Breaux:

Clean Plate Charlie: How did you become the Lucid creator and distiller? What led you down this career path?

Ted Breaux: Professionally, I am a microbiologist and chemist, and became interested in absinthe about 19 years ago. It started as a research project, and eventually consumed so much of my time that it became a full-time profession.

Is there a story?

The strangest thing happened in late 1996, whereby not one, but two full, sealed bottles of antique absinthe fell into my hands from two different directions. One was from an old estate, the other a family heirloom of a business associate. I credit those two bottles with providing the "Rosetta Stone" that solidified my thinking about 19th century absinthe.

What do you like most about your job and your product?

What I like about my job is that it never feels like a proper job, although it's packed with unceasing challenges. What I like about the product is that we deliver what we advertise.

What's a typical day like for you?

I never live the same day twice. My work days are exhausting, and often involve travel and difficult schedules. Fortunately, I do get some time at home to recharge now and then.

Let's get down to the good stuff. What makes a genuine absinthe -- what is unique about its ingredients and how is it made?

The finest original absinthes were -- and should always be -- artisanaly-crafted, completely natural distillations and infusions of whole herbs. That is how it was crafted in the 19th century, and it is how we [at Lucid] do it today. We even use antique absinthe making equipment.

Why is absinthe green?

Artisanal absinthe like Lucid obtains its natural color from whole plants. Industrial absinthes are colored with artificial dyes that are usually listed on the label.

Is it among the most potent liquors available today?

Absinthe is traditionally bottled at high proof, but that can be deceiving, as it is never taken neat. A single bottle of Lucid is the equivalent of more than a liter of 80 proof vodka.

What, in your opinion, is the most common misconception about absinthe?

The most common misconceptions about absinthe today are that we removed or reduced something to make it legal. [Editor's note: see here.] We didn't. It is also speculated that we removed the grande wormwood, but we actually use a lot of it. Furthermore, it is not a hallucinogenic. [And, although Lucid contains trace amounts of the chemical thujone, it still passes U.S. regulations.]

What is the one thing most people - even those who think they know a lot - don't know about absinthe?

Most people don't realize that absinthe has never had a proper legal definition in the U.S., or Europe, which is why you can find cheap, adulterated versions of the drink. That's what has given the entire category a bad reputation.

I read that Switzerland is birth place of absinthe. Do you know who created the first absinthe, and how is that absinthe different than the genuine absinthe made today?

Legend has it that absinthe was created by a French doctor living in Switzerland well over 200 years ago. What we make today is very similar to the earliest surviving, handwritten recipes: it's the same basic ingredients, and the same methods.

Lucid's [Viridian Spirits] is also the exclusive U.S. importer of T.A. Breaux's Jade Liqueurs' Nouvelle-Orleans Absinthe. What makes this product different (and more expensive)?

The Jade line is more expensive for several reasons. Jades use particular cultivars of privately grown plants. These custom-distilled brandy spirits are aged for several years before bottling, have different flavor profiles, and every drop I distill personally. For the Jade absinthes, I use the same 130 year-old absinthe stills.

Where is Lucid absinthe distilled? What makes the distillation process authentic?

We distill everything at the antique Combier distillery in Saumur, France, the architect of which was none other than Gustave Eiffel. The equipment and methods we use are all from the 19th century. What we do is expensive, but we aim to please consumers who want historical authenticity as opposed to modern flavorings and food coloring.

Lucid was the first genuine absinthe to become legally available in the US after a 95-year ban. When did it become available?

Lucid was granted approval on March of 2007, and became the first genuine absinthe distributed and sold in the U.S. since 1912.

What type of absinthe was being sold in the US prior to the genuine absinthe -- what made it different?

There was no genuine absinthe sold in the USA prior to Lucid's approval, just sugared, artificially colored imitations with no grande wormwood.

What is grande wormwood? Why was it banned? What changed that allowed you to sell in the U.S.?

Grande wormwood was unfairly singled out initially as being "bad," but that wasn't based upon any sound science, and those [laws] were lifted decades ago. Basically, the ban on absinthe in recent years was in name only. We've demonstrated through published scientific studies that fine-distilled absinthes, both in the 19th century and today, contain nothing that makes them any more harmful than any other alcoholic beverage of similar strength.

How would you describe the taste of absinthe?

The taste of a traditional 19th century absinthes yields a balanced flavor of anise and fennel against a background of minty, earthy grande wormwood, and other botanical plants. It should give a wealth of perfume when "louched" [the traditional method of diluting absinthe with cold water over a sugar cube], be slightly sweet on the palate, but should never be bottled with sugar. Absinthe was never an "herbal liqueur."

What is your personal favorite way to drink absinthe?

I like absinthe both served in the traditional French method, but without sugar, and in many classic cocktails. Certain absinthes lend themselves better to certain drinks. [For instructions on how to louche absinthe, read more here.]

There are many different ways to drink absinthe aside from louching. What are some classic cocktails (or modern cocktails) you think absinthe works well with and why?

The first edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book [first printed in 1930] contains 104 classic cocktails that call for absinthe. One of my favorites is the Brunelle, which contains 1 part absinthe to 3-4 parts fresh lemon juice, and is sugared to taste. It's delicious!

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