The Green Fairy Comes Out of the Closet

Absinthe’s reception in America, over a century later

By Colin Marston and Clara McMichael

From left to right: Degas, Edgar. L’Absinthe. 1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris., Picasso, Pablo. La buveuse d’absinthe. 1901, Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Photo by Gregory Beaubau, Bizarre Bushwick.

Commonly known as “the green fairy,” absinthe throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries achieved an unparalleled mythology. Absinthe by the 1850s had become the drink of choice for the followers of Aestheticism, Decadentism, and Impressionism, shining a verdant yet murky aura around a whole generation. Its popularity and notoriety are symbolized most potently by the French poet Paul Verlaine in his tempestous and drunken love affairs with Arthur Rimbaud and the infamous self-multiation of Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his own ear during an absinthe-fuelled rage fellow painter Paul Gaugin. In 1912, attacked by the Temperance movement, absinthe was declared illegal in the United States.

Ninety-five years later, in 2007, New York City allowed the production and sale of absinthe. The William Barnacle Tavern opened in 2010 in the East Village and became the first bar to serve traditional absinthe in the five boroughs.

“This has not been made available since the 1920s, and it is now just coming back. I am now part of something that’s a rarity in New York,” Jodie the bartender muses, demonstrating how to make absinthe the old-fashioned way as Marlene Dietrich croons in the background.

Since then, absinthe has exploded, with at least a dozen bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn serving the drink, albeit typically mixed as a cocktail instead of the Barnacle’s bohemian way. There’s even a monthly homage to the Green Fairy at the KGB Bar in the East Village where, “a new brand of absinthe and a variety of risqué and bawdy performances” are showcased every month.

A singular expression of the Belle Époque’s mystique elixir is the bar Bizarre in Bushwick, home to a thriving burlesque and cabaret scene. Founded in 2013 by French film-makers Jean-Stéphane and Grégory Baubeau, Bizarre is named after a popular haunt of 60s Village nightlife, frequented by Andy Warhol and Beat era writers.

“What does burlesque mean to us? It means that we’re a bunch of art strippers! Isn’t this fucking adorable?” screams Fancy Feast, head performer and organizer of the Fuck You Revue, a raunchy queer burlesque held every third Wednesday at Bizarre.

Over at the tap, lit with faint and suggestive red neon light, sits Jessica the manager, administering absinthe and other drinks. “We have all-grain absinthe. We have a couple that are made in France, a couple different that are American. We have the Leopold Brothers, Grande Absent, and St. George which are all made in America.”

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits produces three types of absinthe: green, red and white. Photo by ©Clara McMichael

Another American absinthe to add to the list is Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits, a husband and wife collaboration founded in 2012 by Kevin Herson and Stacy Luckow. In 2015, Herson and Luckow moved the distillery from their Harlem basement to the Pfizer Building in Bed-Stuy, where Herson was one of the first business-owners to set up shop. Now, the building hosts over 150 companies — ranging from circus arts to kombucha, research laboratories to pickle factories. On the sixth floor, Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits has company with Standard Wormwood Distillery and Forthave Spirits. The distillers collaborate on events, share distilling techniques and sample each other’s products.

When Herson makes a new batch of absinthe, he combines ingredients including malted barley and spelt, sugar, yeast and New York tap water. This mixture ferments into a beer-like liquid. He runs the liquid through a stainless steel continuous stripping still, which transforms it into 50% raw alcohol. Herson collects the alcohol in glass containers, then transfers it to a kettle where he flavors the absinthe with fennel, lemon balm, anise, peppermint, anise and wormwood — which is the key ingredient. He boils and purifies the alcohol, then collects it in three parts: the head, the heart and the tail.

Herson proofs the alcohol down to 132 and puts it back in the glass containers, where he creates the three flavors of absinthe: green, red and white. The green is made with fresh mint leaves, the red is produced with hibiscus flowers and lemons, and the white is made with poppy seeds.

Herson lets the alcohol sit for a few days before he strains it. A machine fills empty glass bottles with absinthe, the bottles are wax-sealed, and they’re labeled.

Kevin Herson’s Green Absinthe Cocktail
½ oz. green absinthe
Mint leaves
Ginger beer
Mix together and serve.

The company’s growing nicely, so I don’t really have anything to complain about,” Herson said. “For the time being, New York is such a massive market… there’s a lot more ground to cover.”

From Herson’s distillery to the various speakeasies and cabarets dotting the city, absinthe has resurfaced from oblivion to a staple of New York nightlife, one sip at a time.

Herson takes a break after a tour of the distillery. Photo by ©Clara McMichael