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HOMEIN THE MAGAZINEBACK ISSUES | MARCH/APRIL 2010

 

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The Informant

Jay Hendrickson can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Herbsaint.

 

Story by Robert Simonson

Photos by Damian Hevia

 

In 2005, Stanley Schwam was invited to speak on a panel about bitters at Tales of the Cocktail, the tippling convention that takes place in New Orleans every July. He knew something about the subject. For 40 years, he worked for the Sazerac Company, which purchased Peychaud’s Bitters decades ago. At the end of the seminar, Schwam was approached by an unassuming-looking man with lank brown hair, plain moustache and oval-shaped glasses. “Ever seen one of these?” he asked, pulling out an old bottle of Herbsaint. Of course Schwam had. Sazerac had owned the anise-flavored liqueur since 1949. Then he did a double take—the date on the vessel was 1934, the year Herbsaint was introduced. “Where did you get that bottle?” he asked.

 

Jay Hendrickson, the mystery man in the moustache, had found it on eBay. It’s just one of his many Herbsaint keepsakes. He also owns Herbsaint bottles from the 1940s and ’50s, miniature and full-size; Herbsaint recipe booklets and old labels; bottles from the Prohibition-era drug store owned by J. Marion Legendre, the man who invented the popular absinthe substitute; examples of long-discontinued Herbsaint relatives like Legendre Anisette and Legendre New Orleans Bitters; even the original, pre-Herbsaint Legendre Absinthe. “He’s got a lot of things we don’t have,” admits Kevin Richards, Herbsaint’s brand manager. “The best we can do is scour eBay to try to get our hands on our own.”

 

The cocktail world breeds more than its share of obsessives, people focused with laser-like intensity on particular drinks, products lost and extant, recipes, revered mixologists and bygone bars. But even among that monomaniacal crowd, Jay Hendrickson stands out. With no stake in the spirits industry and no interest in entering it, the Houston native has nonetheless transformed himself, in 10 short years, into the world’s leading authority on Herbsaint.

 

His standing is such that, when the Sazerac Company hosted a tasting of Herbsaint Original—a new bottling of the liqueur’s original formula, which was released into selected markets last November and December, and nationwide in January—Hendrickson’s collection of memorabilia was prominently displayed in the tasting room. “I know he’s the leading authority on Herbsaint,” says Truman Cox, lead chemist at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, where most Sazerac products are made. Cox then added, laughing, “But I didn’t really know there was one until we started working on this project.”

 

One could picture Hendrickson, 52, cutting quite a figure as a stamp collector, but as a booze Boswell, he’s an unlikely candidate. He doesn’t possess the bold facial hairstyles, tattoos or larger-than-life personalities of many of the liquor industry’s various brand ambassadors, bartenders, bloggers and historians. He has the mild looks and mild manners of a middle-school social studies teacher, his speaking style is slow and deliberate, seldom shifting out of first gear, and his longtime day job has been as an architectural graphics designer for Houston’s Fastsigns. But Hendrickson might surprise you with hidden pockets of flamboyance and eccentricity. The 1940s-era, Hollywood-style shirts he likes to wear are truly vintage, not reproductions, and he’ll occasionally don a custom-made fedora and two-toned jacket he calls his “Howard Hughes outfit.” It’s not that surprising a get-up when you consider Hendrickson has a pilot’s license and his other passion is aviation history.

 

The seeds of his Herbsaint obsession were planted many years ago when a young Jay Hendrickson and his father were watching the W.C. Fields classic The Bank Dick. “I was about 10 years old,” he remembers. “There was a scene where a harried movie director comes into this bar where Fields is standing and he mentions he has a set of shot nerves and he needs something to calm him down. Fields recommends he have a glass of absinthe. I asked my dad ‘What’s absinthe?’ And he said it was something you can no longer get. It just stuck in my mind that if it’s something they don’t want you to have, it must be interesting.”

 

Fast forward to 1998. Reading Barnaby Conrad’s 1987 book, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, Hendrickson noticed Herbsaint mentioned along with absinthe. He bought a bottle and gave it a try, and before long, he was joining online absinthe forums, trying to find out if Herbsaint had ever been a true absinthe (it never was). “Nobody seemed to know anything about its history, just that it had come out of New Orleans,” he recalls. Before long, he had picked up the Herbsaint torch and has been carrying it every since.

 

Through his historical spelunking, Hendrickson uncovered nearly every chapter in the Herbsaint saga, beginning in 1933, after Prohibition was repealed, when New Orleans pharmacist J.M. Legendre launched Legendre Absinthe. The authorities were not pleased. Absinthe, thought to create mental mayhem in those who imbibed it, had been outlawed, even in name, so he withdrew the label and renamed the absinthe-like liqueur Herbsaint. (“Always served when absinthe is called for,” read the tag line of one ad.)

 

Up until the reintroduction of absinthe to the world market a few years ago, Herbsaint had retained its place in absinthe-tinged cocktails like the Sazerac (and, indeed, some still prefer their Sazeracs with Herbsaint). And while you might assume Herbsaint has taken a hit in sales due to the re-emergence of absinthe, Richards says it’s been quite the contrary. “The brand has benefited from people now looking at that section of the liquor store.”

 

Sometime after the Sazerac Company bought Herbsaint, the drink’s flavor composition was altered slightly (a date and reason that seem to have been lost to history). The green-colored spirit became lighter in hue and less complex in flavor with, according to Hendrickson, more emphasis on the flavor of star anise. Then, a couple years ago, in an effort to celebrate Herbsaint’s 75th anniversary, Sazerac decided to reintroduce Legendre’s original recipe. With the help of Schwam, the company dug Legendre’s old recipe out of the files, but they didn’t have any actual samples of the vintage potion, just empty bottles. Guess who did have some?

 

Hendrickson sent one of his two well-preserved, 120-proof mini-bottles of the original Herbsaint to Truman Cox. “We believe the 2009 edition is spot-on for the flavor intended on the 1930s edition,” says Cox, who compared the two prior to the product’s release. Hendrickson tasted a prototype of Herbsaint Original at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail. In response, he typed into his blog, New Orleans Absinthe History, one of his trademark deadpan reactions: “I’m very pleased.”

Sazerac, meanwhile, is pleased that Jay is pleased. “Any time we can use him to help tell the story of Herbsaint, we do,” says Richards. “Sometimes, it’s nice when the company is not trying to peddle information, and you get an honest third-party guy like Jay doing it.”

 

Given the level of his passion, one has to ask: does Hendrickson really like the stuff that much? In short, yes. “I was very happy when I tasted my first glass of Herbsaint,” he says. “Do you remember the mint Sen-Sen? I used to eat Sen-Sen all the time. It was anise-y, licorice, floral. I really like that flavor profile.”

 

Today, there’s not much about Herbsaint worth knowing that Hendrickson can’t tell you. So, with Herbsaint Original back on the shelves, and nearly every gettable artifact already acquired, is he ready to retire his hobby? Never underestimate a hooch historian. Hendrickson has now begun looking into an early Legendre competitor, L.E Jung & Wulff. Jung was the only documented distilller in New Orleans who made a true absinthe before the ban. When Prohibition ended, he brought out an absinthe around the same time Legendre introduced Herbsaint. Shut down by the Feds in 1934, Jung bounced back with an absinthe substitute called Milky Way.

 

Hendrickson, who managed to uncover an image of the Milky Way logo, is already collecting Jung memorabilia. “That is sort of the Maltese Falcon of absinthe-related brands, because so far no one has ever seen a bottle of Milky Way anywhere,” he says. “Believe me, I’ve looked!”

 

 

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