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A field of wormwood Photo courtesy Trinity Absinthe
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Amanda Pawelski lending a hand to preparing the herbs for distillation. Photo courtesy Trinity Absinthe
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Absinthe, the legendary drink of Belle Époque Paris, is legal again in America.
"It [had] been illegal for 100 years, so not a lot of people know about it. And a lot of the stuff people do know about it is wrong," says Joe Pawelski, owner of Overland Distillery, maker of Trinity Absinthe. Absinthe was accused of causing hallucinations (wormwood, one of its main flavoring ingredients, was fingered as the culprit), which led to its ban throughout Europe and the United States.
However, Pawelski claims that those rumors were started by the wine and beer industries to knock out absinthe, their biggest competitor. "The herbs that are in there do have healing properties, but they don't have properties that are going to make you see drippy ceilings or anything like that." Wormwood has trace amounts of a chemical that could, if injested in large quantities, cause convulsions. Most of the detrimental effects reported in the early 20th century were more likely the result of absinthe's high alcohol content — around 55 to 75 percent.
Pawelski and his wife, Amanda, began distilling absinthe themselves in 2007, the year it was legalized. Their brand, Trinity Absinthe, is now sold in many Richmond restaurants, including Can Can Brasserie, Heritage, Comfort, The Roosevelt and The Berkeley Hotel.
"Absinthe was a challenge, because there wasn't any available," he says. "I did a lot of research, found some old recipes, tried making them and just kept experimenting with that until I got something good."
Pawelski was inspired by an AP chemistry class he took during high school in Powhatan County, and after earning a master's degree in thermal fluids engineering, he worked as an engineer in the beverage industry in Colorado for a few years before he and Amanda decided that they wanted to give making absinthe a real go. Overland Distillery is a family-run operation. Joe is in charge of the distillation process and Amanda does the day-to-day marketing. "She is really responsible for most of our sales — I just make it. It's a good family team," says Pawelski.
The couple has a true farm-to-bottle ethic — all the herbs that they use (anise, wormwood and fennel, the absinthe "trinity") are grown on farms in Colorado and Virginia. They use exactly the same ingredients that were used in turn-of-the-century absinthe. "A lot of people say it's not real [because] it's American absinthe." Pawelski says. "Not true. It's the real deal."
The business has grown slowly, and Pawelski says that was a purposeful choice. "We're craft — that's what we want to be. We like being small."
"Cocktails are pretty bland right now, compared to what they had been," he says. "Now you have a lot of bartenders discovering [absinthe] again." It's in the same category as vodka, whiskey, tequila and gin — all spirits. "A lot of people say that absinthe [creates] just a better feeling, or a more pleasant ‘alert' than other drinks."
Right now, you can't go into an ABC store and buy a bottle of Trinity, but you can place a special order for it, or try a glass at one of the restaurants that serves it. Pawelski hopes that will change soon, but he's happy to see it being served in Richmond.
"Now, you're finally getting what absinthe actually tastes like," he says, "what Hemingway would have been drinking or van Gogh — the real stuff."