Absinthe is a spirit shrouded in mystery, and longtime friends Dave Harmon and Joe DeGroot want to bring the emerald liquid into the Pittsburgh market.
The North Allegheny High School graduates opened Lawrenceville Distilling at an old machine shop on Harrison Street in July. After years of research and experimentation, they believe they have perfected an absinthe recipe, which is currently under review by the state of Pennsylvania.
Once their concoction is officially approved, they’ll offer Pittsburghers the full absinthe experience. In the meantime, people can sample Lawrenceville Distilling’s other product, Parking Chair Vodka, at pop-ups around town such Merchant Oyster Co.’s first anniversary bash at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The drink of absinthe originated in Switzerland in the late-18th century and rose to popularity throughout Europe thanks to famous imbibers such as poet Arthur Rimbaud and artist Vincent van Gogh, who considered absinthe a sort of creative fuel. Nicknamed “The Green Fairy,” it became notorious for its hallucinogenic effects and was banned in the United States from 1912 to 2007.
Any visions associated with the elixir, Harmon says, have less to do with magical, mind-altering properties and more to do with people overindulging in a high-proof, low-quality version of it.
It starts as a neutral, brandy-like substance that’s infused with herbs and botanicals such as anise, fennel and, most notably, wormwood (a.k.a. Artemisia absinthium), which contains thujone, a chemical that is poisonous in high doses. The concentrated booze changes color as it ages and is traditionally cut with cold water poured into a glass through a slotted spoon with a sugar cube on top. This ritualistic serving technique, known as La Louche, frees the anise and fennel oils and adds to the mystique. It also helps mask flaws in the booze.
Lawrenceville Distilling wouldn’t be the first Pittsburgh locale to experiment with absinthe.
At Industry Public House in Lawrenceville, bartenders use absinthe strictly as an aromatic.
“We do not pour it over a sugar cube and serve it neat,” Public Relations Manager Colin McCullough says. “From what I understand, that came about from old absinthe tasting harsh and medicinal. They added sugar to it for the same reason that we historically muddled fruit in an Old Fashion cocktail. They needed added sweetness to mask the flaws in the base liquor. Prohibition whiskey (moonshine) was awful and they added fruit to mask the impurities when making Old Fashioneds.
“Many bars still do it today, while it’s not necessary and more a matter of preference. Similarly, modern absinthes are superior to many vintage absinthes and only need dilution with water to be consumed.”
The menu boasts two absinthe drinks, including Menlo Park, a combination of Manatawny Old Fellows Gin, Boomsma Cloosterbitter, Grand Absente Absinthe and rosemary. The glass is filled with rosemary, sprayed heavily with absinthe and then lit on fire.
The second offering is the Sazerac, a famous cocktail made with Old Overholt Rye, Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Grande Absente Absinthe, sugar and bitters. All of the ingredients, except for the absinthe, are stirred over ice. Before the beverage is strained into a coupe, the bartender atomizes the glass with absinthe, adding a slight licorice flavor and a strong anise scent.
Wigle Whiskey, based in the Strip District, also distills absinthe , which sells for $40 a bottle.
DeGroot and Harmon are anxious to put a local spin on the absinthe lore.
Lawrenceville Distilling’s 1129 Absinthe Traditionnelle is named after 1129 Ridge Ave., a Manchester property where, according to legend, a haunted mansion once stood.
“We wanted to celebrate the unique things about our city,” Harmon says. “I don’t ever want to limit the fun, but our absinthe is the furthest thing from something that turns you into a raging maniac.”
Right now, bottles of Parking Chair Vodka are only being distributed to area bars and restaurants such as Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, Pie for Breakfast, Spork and The Warren, but Harmon and DeGroot plan to open an online shop as well as a tasting room, retail store and herb garden at their Harrison Street distillery.
Gin production also is on the horizon.
“There’s a movement happening in the U.S. right now where local spirits are being produced that are extremely high in quality,” Harmon says. “It’s exciting.”
Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.