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Oscar Wilde once said this about one of his favorite drinks: “After the first glass of absinthe, you see things as you wish they were.”

Such is the mystique of absinthe. Dubbed la fee verte, or the green fairy, by the French, the spirit has long been believed to have hallucinogenic properties, or at the very least, the key to a special kind of intoxication.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is currently holding an exhibit on the unique relationship absinthe has with the city of New Orleans.

Alongside the BBQ cookers, sno-ball machines, and canoes showcased in other exhibits, SoFAb and the Museum of the American cocktail presents a collection of historic bottles, exquisite carafes, crystal bistro glasses, and other whimsical pieces from absinthe’s heyday in the Crescent City.

Tools used for an absinthe service.

In SoFAB.

Pouring absinthe.

A recreated absinthe bar.

The Green Fairy

If you’re not familiar with the drink, absinthe is a liquor made from anise, fennel, other botanicals, with a special, “secret” ingredient: Artemisia Absinthium, or grand wormwood. The spirit is noted for its strong flavor, not unlike licorice, and its bright, gemlike green color.

Absinthe was invented in Switzerland in the early 1800s, but it really took off when French troops brought it back to their home country. The green fairy quickly became a staple in French cafes, which are more like bars than American coffee shops.

The French developed their own absinthe brands and began exporting it all over the world. Of course, it eventually ended up in that old outpost of the French empire: New Orleans.

As La Galerie d’Absinthe demonstrates, New Orleans has a long and storied connection to the green fairy. For more than a decade in the late 1800s, New Orleans imported more absinthe than was drunk in France (which was a feat, considering the French were, for a time, drinking 60 bottles a year per person).

After the first glass of absinthe, you see things as you wish they were. Oscar Wilde.

The Sazerac

The first widely known absinthe cocktail, the Sazerac, was invented here in New Orleans, at the Roosevelt Hotel, then called the Grunelwald Hotel, in 1893. Thomas Handy, proprietor of the Sazerac Bar, used locally-made Peychaud’s bitters, rye whiskey, and a sugar cube to make his own version of an existing cognac cocktail.

Handy was responding to a contemporary New Orleans’ craze for absinthe; at the time, absinthe bars were popping up all over the city. A few of them still exist – Old Absinthe House on Bourbon St. and Pirates Alley Cafe, off Royal St in Pirate’s Alley, are just a few.

But the city’s love affair with the green fairy was cut short in 1912. The temperance movement, gaining steam from the misreported hallucinogenic effects of the drink, lobbied successfully to have absinthe banned in the US, and a few other European countries followed suit.

As La Galerie points out, in absinthe’s absence, drinkers turned to anisettes, or anise-flavored liqueurs, to fill the void. Ojen Legendere, a Spanish anisette, and Herbsaint, a local liqueur, quickly became popular as absinthe replacements.

Repeal & Resurrection

New Orleans went nearly a hundred years without true absinthe. In 2007, a repeal on wormwood importation bans allowed the liquor to begin showing up in bars.

This also lead to a few local companies developing their own absinthes. In the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, you can see bottles of Toulouse Red and Toulouse Green, produced here in New Orleans by the Atelier Vie company.

The museum’s open layout allows you to experience the living history of absinthe in the city. Unlike other museums, where you shuffle along walls of information, the exhibits flow freely from one subject to the next.

One thing notably absent from this museum: “Do Not Touch” signs. Many of the museums artifacts – a four-shaker machine, an actual bar, a table from Antoine’s – are laid out in the open, for you to feel, touch, and experience in much the same way that an early 1900s bar patron would have.

All images by Stephen Binns, Southern Food & Beverage Museum. The museum is located at 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd and is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 11am to 5pm. General admission is $10.50. Entry for seniors and students with IDs is $5.25. Children 12 and under get in for free.

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The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

WWNO

WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

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WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

PRC

Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

NOMA

As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

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