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Ridge Distillery's American-Made Absinthe

By Dana Allen

Fifteen miles down the road from Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort in Kalispell, Montana, Joe and Jules Legate, owners of Ridge Distillery, are crafting American absinthe.

Once thought to be hallucinogenic, absinthe was banned. That absinthe is a hallucinogen is, in fact, an early 20th-century urban myth. Thujone, the supposedly psychoactive ingredient, chemically resembles THC, which causes the "high" in marijuana. But Thujone doesn’t have the same effect on humans.

Absinthe originated in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, but gained popularity and infamy with bohemian artists living in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Wine was too expensive—insects had decimated two-thirds of Europe’s vines—and absinthe became the working class drink of choice. Not only was it a stronger spirit, but its unique herbal mix reputedly heighten some senses while dulling others. Legendary drunken debauchery ensued, with tales of impressionist painters being led to artistic revelation by "the green fairy," a euphemism for the spirit's effect. Soon the liquor was reviled, blamed for insanity, and outlawed.

Production went underground until 2007, when the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted the ban by clarifying rules governing thujone content in foods and beverages. American distillers, including the Legates, brought the green fairy to life.

The Legates discovered that Artermisia absintheium, grand wormwood, the flavor in distilled absinthe, grew wild on their property. Curious, they sent samples to a Seattle distillery, which reported enthusiastically on the quality of their plants. Soon the Legates were growing and supplying herbs to distillers around the country.

Then, they began to dabble with their own distilling, using traditional 1870-1890 French and Swiss methods. The Legates created two varieties using Kentucky spirits infused with the Holy Trinity of absinthe herbs—grand wormwood, green anise, and fennel—topped off with runoff water from nearby Glacier National Park.

The result: two varieties, a white and a green, that are both smooth-sipping spirits with notes of licorice. Louche, the French word for disreputable or shady, refers to the milky coloration good absinthe takes on when cold water is added. Some say that the proper way to drink absinthe is with a dribble of water from a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon with water slowly poured over it and into your glass. According to the Legates, this is "totally optional."

Next time you find yourself skiing Whitefish, sample Ridge Distillery’s absinthe at The Red Room Basement Bar, where it's featured on the cocktail menu. Go to the source at the annual Fete de l’absinthe de Boveresse in Switzerland. Or get the green fairy at home, $42-$62/750ml; ridgedistillery.com.

Filed To: Adventure / Nutrition
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