How Colorado is making some of the best absinthe in the world
Three distilleries master the misunderstood Green Fairy
Colorado is known around the world for its green ... absinthe. Alongside Mary Jane, the Centennial State is producing some of the best Green Fairy of the modern era.
Some believe “real” absinthe only comes from Switzerland, France or the Czech Republic. But that’s a myth, in the same way its glowing green, hallucinogenic and devilish properties are a myth. Shrouded in lore, “absinthe is one of the most misunderstood spirits maybe of all time,” says Taryn Kapronica, director of sales, development and media at Leopold Brothers, a Denver distillery tucked away in the industrial grove of I-70 West. They’ve been making a world-class Absinthe Verte since 2008 (a year following absinthe’s U.S. legalization).
Despite popular belief that absinthe must come from Europe — in the way tequila must come from Jalisco, Mexico — absinthe can be made anywhere in the world as long as its “distilled with the ingredients anise, grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and fennel,” says Amanda Pawelski, one part of the husband-wife duo responsible for Trinity Absinthe of Loveland, Colorado. Their absinthe is a multiple gold medal winner at the Denver International Spirits Competition and medalist in The Fifty Best, Best Absinthe blind tasting. Pawelski adds, “Those three herbs make up what we in the industry call, ‘the holy trinity.’”
Wormwood — the most notorious ingredient — is simply a common mountain flower. Stephen Gould, proprietor and distiller at Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, tells Rooster Magazine, “There’s as many as 1,200 to 1,800 variations of wormwood. Nine to 11 are used in alcohol production (i.e. vermouth), and only Grand Wormwood is essential for absinthe.”
Gould is a former corporate executive who hung up his distilling boots close to 30 years ago and is now considered one of the most respected absinthe distillers in the world. He found his way back to the craft after “junking for booze”; a hobby of going to junk stores and garage sales looking for weird, unopened bottles of wine and spirits to taste. “Maybe 18 years ago, I was in Detroit and found a case of mid-20th century Spanish absinthe. I’d never tasted a proper absinthe and it blew me away.” Gould went on to spend over a decade developing his renowned REDUX Absinthe, traveling to remote Swiss villages during a time when the spirit was still illegal, learning old-world, underground techniques.
REDUX Absinthe, as a result, has been awarded medals from the San Francisco Spirits Competition, Denver International Spirits Competition, International Wine and Spirits Competition, and is one of the few American absinthes sold in Europe.
But why absinthe?
“Consumers and distillers in Colorado aren’t afraid of herbs, spices, and trying complex flavor profiles,” says Kapronica. “We are a whiskey state, but everyone does whiskey.” Pawelski adds her and her husband fell in love with the complicated history and process. “We didn’t want to do something that a number of other people have done. We’re more interested in the obscure and the medicinal history of Absinthe,” she says. Gould, meanwhile, has become sought after by international bartending and botanical distilling communities thanks to absinthe reigniting the fire of craft brewing.
The point is: this isn’t a vodka. Absinthe is not an easy spirit to make nor is it made in mass batches. It takes research, testing, passion and craft. It’s also steeped in a rich, polarizing history that is impossible to separate from the drink itself.
After all, would you drink something called “the green devil”?
Absinthe became a scapegoat for the temperance movement, which launched a mass smear campaign demonizing the spirit and claiming it caused everything from debauchery, hallucinations, even epilepsy. Absinthe also sat in the crosshairs of the wine industry since “there was such a taste for absinthe by the 1890s that in France they had a ‘green hour,’ much like happy hour today,” Kapronica says. “Soldiers returning from the French Algerian War, who were sent absinthe and consuming it regularly for the past two years, came back to France with a taste for it.”
In the U.S., waves of temperance between 1912 and 1915 made the spirit illegal, but there was no written law that codified why, Gould adds. Later in 1924, as part of the Safe Food Act, the law was written that a spirit could not be sold in the U.S. if it contains thujone — a chemical compound found in wormwood. Note: a level less than ten parts per million is termed “thujone free.”
Yes, thujone is toxic, but you could never consume enough to cause real damage simply by drinking absinthe. “Sage is higher in thujone,” laughs Kapronica. “Other drinkers will claim absinthe contains THC properties or made them hallucinate, but if you felt like you were tripping it’s because absinthe is strong.”
To legally be called an absinthe, the spirit must sit between 120-140 proof. Yep, that’s not a typo. For all purposes, pure absinthe is like drinking liquid nitrogen. “I’ve met older gentlemen at whiskey tastings who try to come off tough drinking 101 proof whiskey,” Kapronica says, adding that the strength likely contributed to its bad reputation in the 1800s and 1900s, when European wine drinkers suddenly switched to the mouth-burning green spirit. Absinthes were also frequently made by bootleg and bathtub distillers using cheap, dangerous ingredients like rubbing alcohol and perfumes.
“Tourists coming to Prague in the '70s would pay a lot of money for absinthe and someone figured out if you soak wormwood in vodka and add a green food coloring, you could sell it for a lot of money,” Gould says.
A real absinthe will never be neon green. Predominantly, you’ll see clear varieties or yellow/green, straw-colored absinthes. The coloring, in the case of Colorado distilleries, comes from steeping the nearly-final product as you would a tea, using no additives or extracts ... aka, no Yellow No. 5 (a coloring agent used by modern absinthe makers to produce the faux emerald, often neon UV hue).
Even natural, expertly-distilled absinthe had trouble shedding its bad reputation after gaining legalization. “The government came back and said absinthe is a sin word,” Gould says. “It was another challenge to show that was only due to propaganda waged largely by the French wine industry. Today, the rules are set that you cannot use absinthe it as a brand name, it must be smaller on the label than the brand name, and absinthe cannot appear on its own line on the label.”
Trinity Absinthe, Leopold Brothers and Golden Moon have been distilling and selling their absinthes since 2007 ... some before that ... and continue doing so today. Gould is prepping a second absinthe, REDUX Colorado, using herbs grown 100-percent in-state in collaboration with the farm owned by Alex Seidel of restaurants Mercantile and Fruition (Siedel is considered one of the top chefs not only in Denver, but the Southwest). Gould says he receives two to three calls a month from Colorado distilleries considering stepping into the absinthe pond ... so you might want to start acquiring a taste for the anise/licorice-flavored grape spirit now.
Haven’t tired a real absinthe before? A smooth transition is through cocktails, mixing absinthe into a Sazerac or going full Ernest Hemingway and fixing a Death in the Afternoon: champagne, absinthe and sugar or simple syrup.
Another popular, more ceremonial, procedure is with an absinthe fountain, which help slow the pace of drinking. If you’re ballsy enough to take it straight, be our guest, but don’t be alarmed if your mouth begins to tingle, it’s an affect of the fennel ... not a trip coming on.
You might also notice more local bars adding absinthe mixtures to their menus. Be sure to check the absinthe before ordering and ask for a local distiller. If the bartender responds, “Sorry, real absinthe only comes from Europe,” feel free to school them hard and with no restraint.
[originally published March 19, 2018]