Jennifer Vermut was at a Cacophony Society event in 1996, when someone offered her a glass of absinthe.
She had never heard of it before. Even its green color made her laugh, it looked so strange.
Finally, she was convinced to try it, having no idea that the spirit known as “the green fairy” would become an obsession; one so great that she would learn how to make it, and that eventually, she would bottle her own organic version of the spirit 20 years later.
And she certainly couldn’t have known that she would change her first name to Absinthia.
The absinthe called Absinthia, the creation of Vermut, who lives in Oakland, is now available at several local liquor stores and bars.
When an obsession goes back 20 years, it can sometimes be hard to distill (pardon the pun) it down to a single moment, but Vermut still remembers taking her first sip.
“I loved the flavor of it and it was also my favorite color,” Vermut said simply. (In fact, a trademark of hers is that she is always wearing something green.)
She had been a photography major in college with a minor in art history, so when she began researching absinthe to learn more about it, she found herself immersed in a period of art history she had never studied.
“I also loved the lure of it, that it had been illegal for so long,” she said. “It had such a complicated and interesting story.”
Absinthe is a high-proof botanical spirit that is anise-flavored and includes the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, or grand wormwood, an herbaceous, perennial plant.
First created in Switzerland in the 18th century, the drink was popularized by the artists and writers of Paris. It was even rumored that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear under the influence of absinthe, but Vermut says there’s no basis to the rumor.
“Van Gogh had a history of mental illness, was working with lead-based paints and had syphilis,” she said. “Absinthe had nothing to do with it. I see one of my biggest roles in making absinthe is educating people about it.”
Absinthe has a chemical compound called thujone in it, which some thought to be a psychoactive drug.
In the early 20th century, several things happened which caused most of Europe and America to ban absinthe; one was an alcoholic in Switzerland supposedly murdered his family under its influence. In places like France, the wine industry felt threatened by its growing popularity and worked to have it banned there as well.
Given that Vermut had her first taste in the late ’90s, once she began making it herself, she thought it would remain an underground operation.
“I made my first bottles in ’97 for a friend’s bachelorette party,” said Vermut, “My friend started calling me Absinthia and it stuck like glue.” (She hates it when people call her Jennifer).
The recipe had supposedly come from a family in France. The base was Everclear – a high-proof grain alcohol with a neutral flavor, often used by those making their own liqueurs or other spirits – wormwood and anise tinctures and food coloring.
“It had been illegal for decades, and the internet was brand new then so there was not much on there to research” said Vermut.
Speaking of names, though, while her friend dubbed her Absinthia and it stuck, the story of her last name is an interesting one as well. Vermut said her brother once told her it meant “horse thief” and she never did any further research. But in 1998, after she had already been making absinthe for two years, she read Barnaby Conrad’s “Absinthe: History in a Bottle” and a poster with the word Wermuth had her starting to research the origins of her name. As it turns out, although her ancestors were Jews from Latvia, the name means wormwood in German.
Vermut, who was then – and still remains active in the Burning Man community — became the “go-to” person for absinthe, and she even began making it for Burning Man fundraisers. Silke Tudor of the SF Weekly wrote about her absinthe in 1997, and described it as resembling Joy dishwashing liquid.
Things have improved since then. Vermut worked at a marketing agency as her day job, but continued to make her own absinthe. She was content serving it at parties and at Burning Man, never thinking it would be made legal in her lifetime.
Then, in 2007, it was legalized.
She attended a gathering put on by Tales of the Cocktail, an online site about spirits, and met Ted Breaux, a chemist who is responsible for getting the drink legalized in the United States.
“At first I thought ‘I really like flying under the radar, I don’t want to go legal,’” Vermut said. But then she decided to take up the challenge.
She wrote up a business plan and landed at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco. With a bit of money she received from an inheritance, she launched Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits LLC.
“Here we are four years later and I finally have product,” she said. “It’s been intense and hard and challenging and everything that could come up as a roadblock, has.”
She is working with Marian Farms, a biodynamic farm and distiller in Fresno that grows its own grapes. She sources all of her organic herbs, including the wormwood, from California and Oregon. Marian Farms has a line of its own brandies, and uses the traditional method of distillation in copper pots.
“There’s no Everclear and no food coloring,” Vermut joked. “It’s been 20 years and we’ve come a long way.”
Given that Vermut is already a partner in Caged Heat, a cocktail syrup created by her friend and Oakland bar Sidebar bartender, Jared Hirsch, she knew what to do once the absinthe was ready for marketing.
Currently, another local maker, St. George Spirits in Alameda also makes small-batch absinthe, but in comparison, Absinthia’s production is much smaller. Her first run was 82 cases, and another 160 cases will be ready in time for the holidays. Vermut has a license to self-distribute, but is looking for investors to help her grow.
I tasted Absinthia Blanche, a clear spirit that turns milky white when water is added, or what is called a “louche.” The louche is actually more opalescent than truly white. Absinthia also makes a Verte (which gets its green hue from steeping organic herbs in the liquor), but Vermut was still tinkering with the recipe and I did not get to try it.
The bottles, slim and elegant, are beautifully designed with herbs on them (she hopes to have them etched eventually), which makes the product stand out, in a good way, Vermut believes.
“Alcohol is an old boy’s club,” she said. “There are not a lot of women making it. I wanted the brand to be female. So many absinthes are kind of dark or with goth imagery, so I wanted to make an organic one that is alive and the opposite of that heavy, death feel.”
In the short time she’s had the ability to distribute it, Absinthia is already in eight locations, including at San Francisco brasserie, Absinthe in Hayes Valley.
“In a category full of intense, overwhelming flavors, Absinthia really stood out to us for its elegant simplicity,” said Peter Mustacich, owner of Alchemy Bottle Shop on Grand Avenue in Oakland, which was one of the first places to carry it. “We love that it’s locally made, and the clean, uncomplicated approach really lets you taste the difference that quality ingredients make. This is a great introduction to absinthe, but also something an experienced drinker can appreciate.”