What did you want to be when you were six years old? A fireman? An astronaut? An NBA superstar? All of these are quite common dream jobs among little kids. Probably only one child in a million would say that he wanted to be a distiller when he was still 15 years away from drinking age. Allow us to introduce that one child, Carter Raff.
“At an early age I was fascinated by the complexity of the spirit,” Raff says. “With one bottle of gin you can make a thousand drinks and they will all taste differently. So I started bartending my mom’s parties. I wasn’t just pouring rum and coke into a glass, I was making peach fizzes and pina coladas and stuff that I was trying to perfect.”
Raff is now the owner of San Francisco’s Raff Distillerie. Although he is really more than that, one could say that Raff built the distillery from the ground up. No, really, with a few exceptions pretty much every piece of machinery in the distillery was crafted by Raff's own two hands. From his distillery on Treasure Island Raff makes some of the most interesting small batch spirits in the United States. The most intriguing of these spirits is the Emperor Norton Absinthe Dieu.
For over 100 years the good name of absinthe was dragged through the mud as rumors surrounding the spirit’s potential to cause hallucinations led to a ban in most western countries. After much of the grape crop was decimated by disease during the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-19th century, absinthe soared in popularity within France and the rest of Europe. In order to regain their market share the wine industry launched an ad campaign aimed at convincing drinkers that absinthe caused people to lose their minds. The campaign was amazingly successful as it led to the green liqueur being banned throughout Europe. While the ban may have destroyed the absinthe industry at the time but it also did something else—it created a myth.
Most things that disappear from a culture for over one hundred years are completely forgotten, but if they have a lurid history and mythology they will never completely vanish. This is what happened with absinthe. As the years went by it became more romanticized, and Raff enrapt by the beverage. It didn’t matter that all of the claims of hallucinations were a bunch of malarkey, Raff wanted to learn everything he could about absinthe. The problem was that for many years it was impossible to get a bottle in the United States.
“Before the ban I would go over to Europe and find (absinthe) illegally and bring it back, I was so fascinated by it,” Raff says. “There wasn’t much out there, even illegally, that was traditional French or Swiss absinthe. There was a lot of underground Swiss stuff but you literally had to live in those towns and personally know the people who were making it in order to get some.”
Once he was able to find the right bottles to drink Raff started to learn the ins-and-outs of absinthe. Raff was completely enamored with the traditional French and Swiss style of absinthe, much to his dismay many of the absinthes on the market do not adhere to those guidelines. Therefore when Raff came up with the recipe for his own absinthe he made sure to abide by the rules.
“Most people don’t know what absinthe tastes like, why give them an adulterated version of it?” Raff explains. “I wanted people to be able to taste what real absinthe is like. Most people have thoughts in their head that absinthe needs to have a certain thujone* level and that’s all bull. It’s just marketing.”
The misconceptions and myths surrounding absinthe are a double-edged sword that works both in favor and to the detriment of Raff. Since some people still believe that absinthe will have them hallucinating little green sprites dancing around their heads they tend to be disappointed when they learn that absinthe is not a psychotropic substance. Raff hopes that the lack of hallucinogens doesn’t dissuade people from trying the spirit.
“I don’t want people to be dissuaded from trying absinthe because it doesn’t make you hallucinate,” Raff says. “Traditional absinthe is 136 proof, if you are going shot for shot against someone drinking vodka you’re going to be lucky if you are able to see anything. You don’t need hallucinogens.”
The flipside of that coin is that drinkers who have heard all of the stories about absinthe will be eager to try it now that it is widely available. Part of the challenge that Raff faces is trying to convince people to get a little creative with the spirit. While most people have heard about the traditional method of drinking absinthe—this involves pouring absinthe into the glass and then holding a special spoon above the glass with a sugar cube on it before pouring ice cold water over the spoon before mixing it all together—it is far from the only way to enjoy it. Adventurous mixologists have found that the licorice taste of absinthe blends well with other liquors including bourbon, gin, and tequila.
One place where the myth of absinthe helped Raff a great deal is when he needed to choose a name for his spirit. As a fifth generation San Franciscan Raff likes to pay homage to his hometown’s history when naming his booze. Considering the reputation that absinthe has the decision to name it after Emperor Joshua Norton was a no-brainer. After failing in business during the 1880’s Norton disappeared from San Francisco for a couple of years. When he returned Norton became an instant celebrity thanks to his idiosyncrasies.
“(Norton) wore a half Confederate/half Union civil war uniform with a top hat and a feather,” Raff explains. “He called himself Emperor Norton the First of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He would go around making proclamations and the city of San Francisco allocated 30 dollars a year to keep up his wardrobe.
“He was so eccentric that he is often considered San Francisco’s first tourist attraction,” Raff continues. People came here just to see him. One hundred and fifty years before Yelp people would put plaques in their windows that said ‘Emperor Norton eats here.’”
Years after he was first enamored with the idea of absinthe Raff is helping make Emperor Norton’s name ring loudly throughout San Francisco once again. Only this time signs will say, “Emperor Norton Absinthe Dieu sold here.”
*Thujone is a chemical compound in absinthe that comes from wormwood. Studies from the early 20th century linked the amount of thujone within an absinthe to the potency of the spirit, thus some absinthes claim to have a high level of thujone. Most of these studies have since been discredited and Raff and others believe that the thujone level is inconsequential when it comes to making absinthe.