Photo by Sarah Finnegan.
Ted Breaux, founder and owner of Jade Liqueurs, pours out a Corpse Reviver at the Collins Bar. The drink features the anise-flavored alcohol absinthe, a liquor once banned in the country until Breaux's work helped clear up misconceptions about the beverage.
The story of absinthe is not what everyone typically hears. There’s no wormwood-induced hallucinations, no poison. And to Hoover resident and Jade Liqueurs owner Ted Breaux, the real story is far more interesting.
“What they’ve seen in movies and what they thought they knew is almost all wrong. But the truth is much more interesting,” Breaux said, who has been distilling absinthe in France for the last 13 years. “Everybody loves a good story, just like everybody loves a good movie.”
The question “Why absinthe?” is something Breaux, an environmental biologist and chemist by trade, said he often asks himself. The truth is he came across absinthe by accident.
“It was a situation where it was the right thing at the right time,” Breaux said. “This all hit me like a ton of bricks a long, long time ago, like around the end of ’93. It just got my attention.”
Breaux came across a book about absinthe in a catalog, and then passed the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he lived at the time.
“I asked a colleague of mine, ‘What is this absinthe?’ He said it was that green liquor that made people crazy,” Breaux said. Intrigued by the description, he ended up ordering a book on absinthe and quickly realized there was a lack of information on the subject.
“There were just no credible sources of information,” Breaux said. “The information was there, but it was a hodgepodge of stuff that was believable and things that seemed far-fetched, so as a scientist I wanted to know.”
He took on absinthe as a “pet project,” he said, and sought out answers rather than the speculation he kept coming across. He came across two bottles of vintage absinthe and was able to draw samples from the bottles.
“Wherever there was a suspected environmental problem, my job was to get in there and conduct analyses to determine if there was a problem; and if there was a problem, what that problem was and how extensive a problem [it was],” Breaux said. “So in a way, this was sort of parallel to what I did — why was this liquor a problem? And how is it that no one could solve this?”
He analyzed the absinthe as he would have analyzed soil samples in his job as an environmental biologist, searching for some sort of contamination.
“What I found was astonishing. There was nothing wrong with it,” Breaux said. “You could take those bottles of liqueur, those absinthe bottles, and put them on the shelves.”
A second lab repeated his tests and had similar findings. The problem, Breaux said, wasn’t with absinthe itself — it was with the liqueur’s popularity.
“I realized it was because this stuff was so popular, there were some economic and political interests that wanted there to be something wrong with it,” he said. “That’s always the case.”
In the late 1800s, rumors about drinkers dying or hallucinating after drinking absinthe fueled a campaign to make the liqueur look bad, Breaux said. Those falsehoods are what also led to absinthe being made illegal in the United States.
And speculation about wormwood making absinthe hallucinogenic? Not true, Breaux said, because Jade Liqueurs uses wormwood.
“Not only do we use it, we use historically correct amounts of it,” he said.
As his interest in absinthe and his research base grew, Breaux also worked to combat the rumors and misconceptions surrounding absinthe.
“For me, it was like swimming uphill against this wave of misinformation,” he said. “But eventually, the work I did, that began a whole paradigm shift. It took a minute to take root, but people started to realize it. … Getting absinthe re-legalized in the states, in the U.S. was really about that.”
And on March 5, 2007, Breaux was successful. Absinthe was once again legal in the United States.
“We’ve turned a tide. At the beginning, I was swimming against this strong current of information,” Breaux said. “We managed to turn that whole d--- thing around, so now, I’m swimming with the current.”
That current is working to bring back “old-style spirits,” Breaux said, and coincides with a craft cocktail renaissance. People are learning more about absinthe and having their misinformation corrected, Breaux said, and when he’s not distilling, spreading the truth is one of his goals.
“My life is about 85 percent education, 15 percent distilling,” Breaux said.
Breaux hosts informational seminars around Birmingham and the United States, telling the true story behind absinthe and its renaissance in the U.S. Most people are surprised to hear how absinthe fell out of favor and became a mysterious green liquid.
“It’s such an interesting, sordid story,” he said. “It’s not just liqueur, but it involved culture, politics, economics, fake news and bad science.”
For more information on Jade Liqueurs, go to bestabsinthe.com.