Shortly after my second Burning Man, in November, 1996, I attended a San Francisco Cacophony event, hosted by Miss P, founder of the Burning Man Center Camp Cafe. At the Marcel Proust wake, I had my first taste of absinthe. Something about it pulled me in…I remember seeing this green elixir in a crystal bowl with a ladle, and a pitcher of cool water nearby. I asked what it was and was told, absinthe. OH! I laughed nervously, walked away, and walked back. I had heard of absinthe, and I was intimidated, but it was so pretty, glowing green and fragrant. I served myself my first glass. And then another. Pretty soon, the evening became a magical and enchanted one, full of friends new and old, a giggly chill space, gardenia flowers being passed around, and of course, glasses of green absinthe everywhere. The man who made it, Tom Sheft, gave me the recipe, which claimed to be from a family in the French countryside. I immediately had my doubts, given that the recipe called for everclear, wormwood and anise tinctures (available at a small shop in the Mission), and yellow and green food coloring. And yet, I knew I had to make this stuff.
I had graduated NYU just a couple years earlier where I had studied photography and art history as an undergrad. I pursued absinthe as an art historian, and learned that absinthe has been called the liquor of aesthetes. It was drunk by – and influenced the art of – Vincent Van Gogh (though not what made him cut off his ear), Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, and in modern times, Marc Stock’s gorgeous, “The Butler’s in Love – Absinthe,” the original hangs in Bix, the San Francisco restaurant. I was hooked.
I bought all the ingredients and brought them home. I scrapped the labels off the Everclear bottles, followed the recipe, and suddenly I had two bottles of absinthe in front of me. I mean, as close to absinthe as you could get in San Francisco in 1997.
I was working as a photographer for the ACT at the time through a friend at Fairtex, where I was training as a Muay Thai kickboxer. She told me about the costume rental department, and I headed there for a dress to wear to my friends’ Victorian themed bacheror/bachelorette party.
I descended the steps of the Huntington Hotel on April Fool’s Day, 1997 wearing a green gown with beaded dragon flies, in an ancient hallway with green fabric walls, carrying two bottles of green absinthe. My first two bottles. My friend Hernan Cortez said, “We will call you Absinthia.” I served both bottles of the absinthe, and shenanigans ensued.
The amazing thing, that I realized later is that my last name, Vermut, means wormwood in German!
I came home and made more. A few months later, I served some at a Burning Man fundraiser – back in the day when Burning Man itself needed fundraisers – and received my first press! Silke Tudor said, “the Absinthe Underground dispenses an evil-looking concoction that contains Everclear and resembles Joy dishwashing liquid. “It tastes a little, um, soapy,” says a man clutching a yellow cocktail in one hand and a Speak-and-Spin barnyard animal toy in the other, “but it packs a punch that is not altogether unpleasant.”
Reading that, I had my mission. I needed to make a better absinthe – better ingredients, better tasting. Ultimately, I knew it had to be organic, too.
I worked on the flavor as I continued going to Burning Man and serving it at parties at Media Mecca. The event offers a way for its participants to find their role in the community – visionary, builder, gate, ranger, and so on. I was the go to gal for absinthe at Burning Man. I served it at the Lost Horizon Night Market and was featured in a story in NPR. Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man, contacted me seeking advice and absinthe for an absinthe pop up bar in First Camp. We brought a giant barrel of my absinthe to it the first year, and served it in a wooden green hut to participants.
Through the Burning Man community, I served absinthe at Anon Salons, Artumnal Gatherings, private parties, even a wedding. I was interviewed in PigDog Journal, poured absinthe for guests at Flaming Lotus Girls fundraisers, was featured in a podcast called Slow Death in the Afternoon, interviewed for the blog Alcohol Enthusiast, and served it at the opening of Burning Man friend Maya Reynold’s menswear store in Downtown LA, Clade.
Time went on, I continued making my absinthe and working on the recipe, and on March 5, 2007, the ban on absinthe was lifted (add link to article of absinthe always being legal just the ban was lifted), and brands of absinthe started turning up. Absinthe Brasserie and Bar was able to sell actual absinthe and not just wormwood free Pernod!
It took a few years more for me, but in January 2013, I completed my business plan for Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits, LLC through the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, and was awarded Best Business Idea! I launched the LLC and spent the next four years dealing with lawyers, bureaucracy, and on the good days, master recipe development with my distiller, Marian Farms. We ultimately referenced several vintage recipes, combined two that would yield results similar in style to what I was making, and ran test batches using fresh, certified herbs – wormwood, anise, fennel, and coriander – along with the farm’s organic, biodynamic grapes. The copper pot still on the farm is a beautiful work of art.
I was introduced to a wonderful artist, Kate El-Bizri, and we started working on labels. All my friends said, “You have to call this Absinthia™ because that is what it is! This is Absinthia’s absinthe!” Kate designed a label that I loved with all my heart, brand name Absinthia, and I submitted it to the TTB, The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It took a couple of months to learn it was rejected. We created a new brand name and tried again. Rejected. We created another brand name and tried again. Rejected. I hired another lawyer, this one in DC just down the street from the TTB. He suggested we start with the first label and see what happens. He submitted it, and I heard crickets for months. One day he called and told me I was the most patient person on the planet, and that the absinthe labels had passed! He confessed to me that he had submitted the Absinthia label and it was rejected, and forgot to connect with me, so after it passed the deadline, he submitted it again. It was approved! Twenty three months after the first one was submitted! That’s right, I spent two years working on labels.
There were times I really regretted launching the business. I was too legal to bootleg, and not legal enough to sell. Things seemed to drag on, and I felt like I couldn’t get anywhere. Then, suddenly, everything happened at once, as it does. The absinthe was in barrels, the Feds approved the formula, and my product was ready. I found a bottler. I had approved labels, and suddenly the glass bottles, corks, and capsules were being ordered, the absinthe being shipped from the distiller to the bottler. One of my bottler, Coastal Spirits customers, Martin of Geijer Spirits, offered me his distributors license at no cost, just to help me get my first customers and get the business off the ground. After the first week of sales, ABSINTHIA Absinthe Superieure Blanche is available in five bottle shops in the East Bay, one restaurant bar (Sidebar), and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco, with many more to come! I’ll keep the Where to Buy updated so you know how to easily track it down.
Thank you for reading my story!