The modern world of spirits is a small one. Order a drink in Stockholm, Sydney or San Antonio, and you’ll find a mostly similar selection of bottles behind the bar. But even in today’s globalized cocktail lounge, many local brands remain, and few have a stronger connection with their place of origin than the greenish-gold, anise-flavored, New Orleans-born liqueur called Herbsaint. Herbsaint has its roots in New Orleans’ spirituous heritage from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city was considered the absinthe capital of the United States. The infamous spirit even made its way into New Orleans’ legendary cuisine, appearing as a flavoring in Antoine’s famous oysters Rockefeller. When absinthe was banned in 1912, it mostly disappeared, but its distinctive anise flavor remained popular.
Following Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, a New Orleans distiller named J. Marion Legendre created an absinthe substitute he called Legendre Absinthe (despite its name, it contained no wormwood). Almost immediately, federal authorities demanded that Legendre change the name; he acquiesced, and began labeling the bottles Legendre Herbsaint, which translates loosely as “holy herb.” It was a name that sounded pure and virtuous. Except it wasn’t.
“The name Herbsaint was a play on the French pronunciation of absinthe, which is absente,” says Jay Hendrickson, a Houston-based collector of vintage Herbsaint and related paraphernalia. Among Louisiana’s French-speaking population, herbe sainte was also the term for the plant known as wormwood. The label on the Herbsaint bottle has always featured an image of the Old Absinthe House, a New Orleans institution favored among absinthe drinkers, and Hendrickson says the current version of the Herbsaint label contains another sly tribute to the forbidden spirit. “Even though Herbsaint doesn’t have wormwood in it, there are wormwood plants on the modern label, which is another wink at absinthe,” he says.
Legendre’s advertisements boasted Herbsaint was “always served when absinthe is called for.” The original Herbsaint was bottled at 120-proof, and its flavor— produced by a secret mix of botanicals with a strong anise note—was heady and complex, more robust than its French counterpart, Pernod. By the 1940s, Herbsaint was the favored absinthe substitute in New Orleans drinks (in addition to Pernod, Legendre had as competitors two other New Orleans-based makers of absinthe substitutes: Solari, which made Greenopal; and Jung & Wolff, with Milky Way). Bars served icy glasses of Herbsaint Frappe (see recipe, right), and bartenders rinsed tumblers with Herbsaint to create New Orleans’ iconic Sazeracs. The liqueur was distributed nationwide.
The popularity of anise has since waned in the U.S., as more drinkers associate its flavor with that of black licorice, instead of the more beguiling absinthe. Today, Herbsaint is bottled at 90-proof and is only distributed in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but in New Orleans, a fondness for the liqueur remains (BevMo sells it online for $16.99 a bottle). Herbsaint is ubiquitous in Sazeracs mixed in the Big Easy, and while Hendrickson believes the spirit’s flavor has changed over the years, he still enjoys Herbsaint Frappes at the Napoleon Bar and at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone—historic watering holes where Herbsaint remains a reliable link to the city’s storied past.
While Herbsaint can be a wonderful base for drinks, a few dashes added to cocktails such as a Cocktail Creole or a Cocktail à la Louisiane (see recipes, right) lend a subtle character to the drink, broadening the various flavors and contributing an ethereal background note. Dashes of Herbsaint were even used as a secret ingredient in some of the first tiki drinks, those created by New Orleansnative Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (better known as Donn Beach) in his Don the Beachcomber restaurants.