The History of Absinthe in New Orleans
On National Absinthe Day, observed each year on March 5, we celebrate the drink known as “the green fairy."
What is absinthe?
Absinthe is a spirit derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other herbs. Because of its high alcohol percentage, it was made illegal in the United States in 1912, only to be made legal again in 2007. However, it has long been rumored to cause hallucinations – giving it the nickname “The Green Fairy.”
The iconic building on the corner of Bienville and Bourbon Streets was initially erected by Pedro Front and Francisco Juncadelia of Barcelona to house their importing firm. For the next forty years, the store was home to the bartering of food, tobacco and Spanish liquor, and functioned as a typical "corner grocery." In 1815, the ground floor was converted into a saloon known as "Aleix's Coffee House," later rechristened "The Absinthe Room" when mixologist Cayetano Ferrer created the famous Absinthe House Frappe there in 1874 - which became a favorite for Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. At the start of Prohibition, The original Absinthe House bar and all of its fixtures were moved to 400 Bourbon Street in order to preserve it. This speakeasy operation was known as "The Absinthe House Bar” and served bootleg booze. In early 2004, decades after Repeal Day, the original bar from the Old Absinthe House was returned to its 240 Bourbon Street home and currently resides in the adjacent, speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Belle Époque.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s La Galerie de l'Absinthe is only one of its kind in the U.S. Founded by Raymond Bordelon, it is devoted solely to the education and preservation of this unique spirit. With an extensive collection of absinthe through the years, absinthe spoons, absinthe cocktail recipes, and absinthe fountains – this gallery explores the world of absinthe. La Galerie de l’Absinthe offers a special tour through the early days of absinthe with its romantic association with writers, painters and other Bohemians, as well as the times of its prohibition and its relationship to the city of New Orleans.
America’s First Official Cocktail
In 1838, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, owner of a New Orleans apothecary, treated his friends to brandy toddies of his own recipe including the popular brand of Cognac named Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils and his "Peychaud's Bitters," made from a secret family recipe. The toddies were made using a double-ended egg cup as a measuring cup or jigger, then known as a "coquetier" (pronounced "ko-k-tay"), from which the word "cocktail" was derived. Thus, the America's first cocktail – The Sazerac – was born. By 1850, the Sazerac Cocktail was immensely popular, and became the first "branded" cocktail. In 1873, the recipe for the Sazerac Cocktail was altered to replace the French brandy with American Rye whiskey, and a dash of absinthe was added. In 1933, the Sazerac Cocktail was bottled and marketed by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans. That same year, "Herbsaint," a pastis, was made according to a French recipe. "Herbsaint" was so named for the New Orleans term for wormwood - "Herb Sainte." Then, in 1940, the Official Sazerac Cocktail recipe was modified to use Herbsaint as the absinthe.
To learn more about America’s first official cocktail, take an interactive tour at the Sazerac House in the heart of New Orleans.