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Absinthe Minded 

Gerber Absinthe — scourge of Romantic poets, favored tipple of pirates — has woven itself like a green ribbon through New Orleans' history, romanticized for its murky, illicit past and vague air of European decadence and danger. The ceremony of absinthe service doesn't hurt the image much either. The paraphernalia — sugar, spoons, flame, slowly dripping water — makes fixing a simple cocktail seem like preparing an exotic drug experience. Aleister Crowley was in favor of it; Ernest Hemingway drank it in Spain.

Pravda (1113 Decatur St., 525-1818) has made absinthe a central feature of its luxuriant Gothic, communist-red-lit vibe. It has all the hardware for the ritualistic preparation. Flat, wafer-thin, perforated silver spoons lay flat across the top of a glass. A sugar cube is placed on the spoon and lit on fire. Ornate glass globes on silvery pedestals are filled with icy water that finishes the traditional preparation of the drink. Water pours from four spouts on the sides to create the "green fairy," the cloudy bloom that swirls hypnotically as the cold liquid hits the shot of absinthe in an effect called "louching," which releases essential oils from the absinthe's mix of herbs. On a summer evening, two students sit at the bar sipping Guinness to treat their last night's hangovers. "I love absinthe, but not today, yet," one says. "It's the ceremony of it."

The glamorous pull of the forbidden sticks with the drink today, although it's readily available — no password, no secret handshake — at many of New Orleans' watering holes and more and more, at haute cocktail joints around the country. (Strangely it's not served at the Old Absinthe House; its drinks use the substitute liqueur Herbsaint.) This is partly due to the New Orleans-born chemist Ted Breaux, who in 2006 brewed up, at the request of the New York Company Viridian Spirits, the first legal, U.S. government-approved American absinthe.

The sticking point for regulated absinthe has not been the wormwood — the legendary Artemisia absinthium — but a toxic chemical compound found within it called thujone. Breaux had analyzed many vintage absinthes and determined that the concentration of thujone in the real stuff was relatively low. His blend, Lucid ($12 a shot at Pravda), is brewed in France's Loire Valley in antique copper stills with an aromatic mix of sweet fennel and anise, as well as grand wormwood, the genuine article. At 124 proof, it's powerful stuff, though not as strong as the Swiss brand Kubler, which sells for $15 a shot at Pravda and packs a wallop at 130 proof. Lucid is blended with an eye to the American palate, traditionally not as much a fan of anise flavors as the European counterpart. While it's as authentic as you can get, it lightens up on the strong licorice flavor. (Absinthe substitutes like Absente and Herbsaint can taste like black Twizzlers; Lucid comes across herbal and clean. European brands approved for sale in the U.S., like Kubler and Le Tourment Vert (The "green torment") are heavier and more anise-y.

At Pravda, there's finally a pair of takers: lamplight shimmers through ice cubes floating in the bell of the decanter as condensation beads on its fluted pewter caps. Milky chartreuse flowers blossom as the taps open and water streams through crusts of burnt sugar into the shots of liquor. One of the students still nurses the last black inch of Guinness in his pint glass; the other has ordered a Sazerac, prepared in a glass swirled with a drop of absinthe. He takes a sip and sputters at its bite.

"This is rough stuff," he says.

click to enlarge Pravda serves absinthe with all the traditional ceremony. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Pravda serves absinthe with all the traditional ceremony.
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