Browsing through the 6,000+ pictures on my iPhone, I ran across the pictures from the formidable food fest at the Swiss Ambassador's abode in Paris the last night of my 4 summer weeks in France, which helped me recall the absinthe tasting that night, which then reminded me of an absinthe I love way more than that one--a white absinthe called Tenneyson. And that reminded of my pre-France trip fact-finding mission into another connection between Austin and France: Tenneyson Absinthe Royale.
Austin resident Graham Wasilition is almost twenty years younger than I. But interesting nonetheless. He is the founder and managing partner of the company that produces this white absinthe that is Tenneyson Absinthe Royale: distilled in the Jura mountains in Pontarlier, France—in the historic venue of La Distillerie Les Fils d’Emile Pernot, which was founded in 1890 and is in a charming corner of la Franche-Comté.
It may first catch your eye as a gorgeous piece of glassware. And indeed the bottle for this white absinthe has its own great story. To get the right look for the distinctive etched (French) glass bottle, Graham has the same people in Poland who do the beautiful work for the Belvedere vodka bottle bestow their fine craftsmanship on the Tenneyson bottle. The bottle, once etched with that distinctive scroll design, is shipped back to France to the distillery in Pontarlier.
The bottle is filled with the end product, a result of aromatics distinctive to absinthe -- wormwood, anise, fennel -- plus other botanicals. It is then corked and shipped to the US, to be placed on the shelves of cool bars and stores in seven states in the US, including Texas.
(The man Graham hired to be responsible for the look and feel of Tenneyson’s packaging in that distinctive bottle is Mormon and has never had a drop of alcohol in his entire life. Tenneyson (named after a famed absinthe drinker, the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson), scored a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011, for the spirit itself as well as the packaging.)
All of this is going on from Graham’s home base in Austin, Texas. And at Graham’s ripe old age of 29.
We meet at Contigo. Graham orders a Negroni, which he requests be made with Tenneyson. On tasting this libation, I have a new-found appreciation for Campari. I usually dismiss Campari for its icky pinkness, but it becomes the right counterpoint to the Tenneyson aromatics in this Negroni. “Campari,” per Graham, “is perfect when the sun is still up.” I like a good maxim for day drinking.
Graham orders his cocktails mathematically. A “1-1-1,” in the case of the Negroni. Or later, it would be “3-2-1” for a martini, to describe the proportions of the gin, the dry vermouth, and the Tenneyson. My Malbec choice now seems very boring.
Graham’s entrepreneurial spirit is innate. He was managing money early on as a Vice President of his fraternity at Virginia Tech, in charge of social event-planning and armed with a six-figure annual budget. The business/social side of Graham’s engineer self got even more inspired while traveling the world for his materials science engineering gig at a local humongous technology company. He was already thinking supply chains, distribution channels -- but for some of the classic Asian liquors. Why not get Korea’s Soju in the US, for example.
One day he gets a newspaper clipping from his mom that takes him down an entirely new road. Absinthe Road (that certain road between France and Switzerland, with absinthe distilleries all over). Mom’s newspaper article described the fact that absinthe was now legal again, after a long dark period of shame out of the public eye because of myths and misinformation that got it illegalized in the first place.
Graham says to himself, “why not?” Why not dig into this absinthe. He digs deeply. He consumes the contents of the Absinthe Encyclopedia (still in print and available here at amazon.com).
He contacts the author, David Nathan-Meister. Next thing you know, Mr. Nathan-Meister and Graham are developing a recipe for absinthe, with the goal of bringing something truly original to market. They succeed. They create a white absinthe. One redolent of juniper and less in-your-face on the anise. The result is not at all the scary green stuff that may lead to your thinking on all those stories/myths about hallucinations that gave absinthe its bad rap in the first place. It is lovely. Because it is strong on the juniper side, it makes for an easy, interesting substitute for gin in just about any cocktail.
How do you manage an artisanal product, crafted in a country (France) thousands of miles away from Austin, one that depends on the yield of the required aromatics to produce a quality product? You get good people in France. Graham's good people on the ground in Pontarlier is Master Distiller Dominique Rousselet. M. Rousselet knows the terroir, knows the French growing season, knows how to get the best of the best at which time of year, and knows what tastes how at which times of the year. All of the botanicals of this absinthe are from France: the quintessential wormwood is sourced there; the anise is mostly from Southern France. For each distillation, suppliers send in their samples to Mr. Rousselet, for him to take only the best of what the land has to offer.
They send Graham via FedEx some samples for certain batches. Yes, from France. They do not need to. He trusts their judgment. But he receives the packages, takes a good whiff of the stout aromas of the anise, fennel, and wormwood -- and the select other botanicals that make his white absinthe unique. He has samples going all the way back to the very early days.
As I would tell friends I was writing up a short, non-scientific piece about absinthe, they gasp. Doesn’t that stuff kill you, make you hallucinate? I too was a bit confused about all this: how did absinthe, this forbidden pleasure so prevalent in Parisian literary lore of a certain era, roar back all of a sudden onto the cocktail scene?
In checking out the myths about absinthe, this site on the key controversial ingredient, thujone, proved helpful. For more on the naughty connotations of absinthe and its resurgence, see this lovely NY Times article, along with this one: "Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder."
But at least a very short story on how absinthe is back on the shelves is in order. It is back because, first of all, the science came through, cutting through hyperbole and rumors back in the day that led to people thinking, without any scientific backup, that absinthe was the cause of everything from tuberculosis to epilepsy. See short concise history here.
But hefty lobbying also helped get some laws changed. “Absinthe” itself has not changed. What has changed is what makes absinthe “legal”: what levels of one particular ingredient — thujone – can be included in the libation.
For example, in the US the libation has to be “thujone free.” “Thujone free” means it has no more than 10 mg of thujone per liter. This is no problem because this is “classic” to absinthe production. Thus, folks can still use the quintessential ingredient of wormwood and get the 10mg legal limit. Refer here again to Mental Floss's history of all this, via easy-to-digest bullet points.
So start thinking about a "Tenneyson and Tonic," or a "Tenneyson with [anything-you-might-think-about]" for a gin cocktail. And then drink responsibly -- and let someone else drive. Better yet, stay home and have an absinthe tasting with the neighbors...which has of course crossed my mind.