Taras Hrabowsky and Sasha Selimotic began making wormwood absinthe before it was legal in the US. Developing home-brewed batches in their East Bushwick apartment started off as a hobby in the early 2000s, later developing into Standard Wormwood Distillery, a full-blown enterprise for the lifelong friends once the decades-old ban was effectively lifted in 2007.
Of Swiss origin, wormwood absinthe is a grain alcohol made from macerating herbs and spices, with wormwood being the most well-known among them. The liquor first became popular during the Great French Wine Blight 150 years ago, nearly devastating France's wine production. Following absinthe's rise to the top, it became a favourite spirit among early 1900s Parisian writers and artists, furthering its mysterious quality. The likes of Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, and Ernest Hemingway drank the spirit: If you were hip in this era, you enjoyed an absinthe, or three. Period.
The liquor was largely outlawed because of wormwood: The herb that provides absinthe with its bitter flavour contains thujone, a toxic chemical found in several other edible plants, including juniper, sage, and oregano. Leading scientists of the era found plausible correlations between wormwood and bouts of delirium-inducing hallucinations (which were later debunked), and after a reported murder occurred while a man was consuming the spirit, it was banned in the United States and the majority of European nations. Now we know that the liquor was more dangerous due to its high alcohol content (around 120 proof) instead of thujone, but due to the drunken rages and constant blackouts the spirit inspired, history labeled absinthe as a menace to society, only fueling its usage in speakeasies and hidden nightclubs for the greater 1900s.
Largely drawn to the spirit for precisely these reasons, Taras and Sasha seized the opportunity to become legit once 2007 rolled around. Focusing on an anise-free, wormwood-only approach, the distillery steers away from traditional herbal absinthe, dropping the added sugar, liquorice, and other herbs: The wormwood is on a pedestal. Clocking in at 90 proof with a sweet corn body and spicy rye finish, you can (and should) drink the rye straight, just as you would drink whiskey.
Due to their creative approach to the spirit, the hobby quickly became a viable business prospect for the two old friends and roommates. "We were producing 35 gallons in our apartment—it took up our entire living room at one point," Taras says. The duo drank their own bounty on a cross-country road trip, and after sharing it with friends from far and wide, they realised they were on to something, leading them to pursue their craft seriously.
Craft distilling has a romance to it, and none more than wormwood. The high produced by the spirit has a rare quality. "Absinthe has a lucid, awakening appeal," says Sasha. "It peels your eyelids back!" says Taras.
But finding the right lucidity doesn't come easy. "We called our first batch 'Big Foot Stick.' It was fucked up," Taras jokes. But now the mix is just right. "It's like a stone wall of alcohol, but it goes down like a velvet curtain."
Ramping up production out of the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighbourhood, the duo employs an old bagel machine they purchased in Queens as their main distillery mechanism, having rigged it into a modular, rye-producing apparatus that heats a pot and condenses vapour at the other end. Inspired by traditional wormwood recipes, the setup employs gin basket principles, allowing the vapour to condense and produce an intense, ripe flavour. In the past, wormwood absinthe was synonymous with anise, and distillers stripped out everything but the wormwood, creating a rather harsh flavour. But Taras and Sasha's single-distillation process keeps them close to their mash: It's all about the wormwood and the unique feeling the spirit exudes. Each batch produces up to 700 bottles, which takes about six months from start to finish. They get their wormwood from Taras' family farm in Upstate New York. "We like to work directly with the source of our products," says Taras.
The majority of Taras and Sasha's product sells in Bushwick, where they first began introducing their spirits. With the release of their moonshine in 2014 and their wormwood rye in 2015, the home distillers got their first break with a cocktail feature at The Narrows, just a block away from their shared apartment.
"I remember seeing a wormwood party on Myspace back in the mid 2000s," says Keith Cochran, owner of The Narrows. "Naturally, I was intrigued. But we don't carry a lot of craft distillers. We tend to go with more old school stuff, but this isn't like anything being made."
The Evening Standard cocktail features the Standard Wormwood Distillery rye, demerara syrup, Angostura bitters, and Scarlet Ibis rum, garnished with a lemon twist. Keith carries the liquor due to its multiplicity. "It's strong, but not like drinking it neat. It's a complex flavour profile. I think of it as the intersection of rye, whiskey, and vermouth."
Just up the street from The Narrows, Yours Sincerely crafts a specialty draft cocktail featuring the wormwood rye as well. With all cocktails made in-house, and nitrogen used to speed up the infusion process, the Big Worm Sazerac is a subtle twist on an Old Fashioned. Served with one large, spherical ice cube in a beaker just like the ones you used in science class, a mix of Peychaud's bitters, Cognac, agave and Standard Wormwood Distillery rye blends to create one of the most in-demand cocktails at the establishment.
Defying categorisation and garnering the attention of Brooklyn and Manhattan bars alike, Taras and Sasha make wormwood liquors mostly because they love the process. They're even developing two new products: a wormwood gin and a wormwood agave spirit due out later this year. "It's no desk job," says Taras. "Even though we have a long history of distilling, working with wormwood spirits is a massive canvas and there is so much room for innovation into uncharted territory."