This Distillery Is Using a Once-Illegal Ingredient in Their Spirits

Evening Standard cocktail
Courtesy of Standard Wormwood Distillery

Absinthe has become a staple of trendy bar culture in the form of a “wash” or “rinse,” but its past is fraught with controversy. Hailing from Switzerland, the grain alcohol—made from anise, fennel, and a plant called wormwood—was cherished by some (like Vincent van Gogh) and feared by many after “absinthe madness” was dubbed the culprit of a cold-blooded French homicide case, per the Science History Institute.

Let it be known that absinthe is not hallucinogenic, but it does have an incredibly high alcohol content—around 45–74% ABV/90-148 proof. And to be clear, any disturbed individual imbibing alcohol who commits murder is to be blamed for the crime—not their spirit of choice.

Still, the U.S. banned absinthe in 1912. More specifically, the U.S. banned thujone, the somewhat toxic, thought-to-be-hallucinogenic compound found in wormwood from being included in foods and drinks. That ban was (sorta) lifted in 2007, according to The Wormwood Society. No laws had changed, but rather agencies and producers realized it had really been legal all along to make and distribute absinthe so long as they adhered to specific regulations. The law allows 10 parts per million (10 mg/L) to be present in foods and drinks. As long as those figures are met, thujone and wormwood get the green light.

Fast forward to present-day Brooklyn, and a pair of long-time friends have made it their mission to bring wormwood into the spotlight. This time, though, it’s absinthe that’s taking a backseat. Their distillery, Standard Wormwood, is using the bitter herb to bring complexity and depth to spirits such as rye whiskey, vermouth, and amaro.

From Moonshiners to Distillers

Taras Hrabowsky and Sasha Selimotic grew up together and moved to New York City as students. Soon after, they became home distillers. “Moonshiners, really,” says Selimotic. They eventually opened what’s now Standard Wormwood Distillery in the old Pfizer Building in Brooklyn, just down the street from their apartment.

“The creative characteristics we share drove us to make our own spirits, and that carries through to today—from sourcing grains from Upstate NY to designing our own still to growing our own wormwood on Taras’ family farm in the Hudson Valley,” Selimotic says.

So why wormwood? Selimotic and Hrabowsky were drawn, in part, to its unusual past. “It underwent a 100-year ban for misleadingly being known as a hallucinogen,” says Selimotic. There’s more to wormwood’s backstory than what we mentioned above. On their site, Selimotic and Hrabowsky write: “While it does give a lucid, wakeful feel and is unique amongst other spirits for this, the true history of why it was banned has to do with when the late 19th century French wine barons suffered a grape blight and saw absinthe rise to popularity. When wine production recovered, the wine barons used their influence to illegalize absinthe and recover wine sales.”

They’re drawn to wormwood’s medicinal properties, too. The herb was utilized for centuries around the world, and was once prescribed by Hippocrates for menstrual pain, jaundice, anemia, and rheumatism. While wormwood produces a strong flavor that can be overpowering, the two wanted to use it in a subtler way, similar to how bitters rounds out overt sweetness and spiciness in a cocktail. The end result is a spirit with a range of long flavors.

“Distilling with wormwood modifies the layers of complexity associated with each spirit we make,” Selimotic says. “Our Wormwood Rye gives a unique structure—unlike any other rye—that allows us to age with both new American and French Oak staves at multiple char levels, creating a complex profile.”

The Art of DIY Spirit Making

“It’s a long and fun process,” Selimotic adds. But it’s not without its obstacles. “The coming together of New York State legislation for farm and microdistilleries, and the lifting of the ban on using wormwood in spirits, put us in the right place at the right time to pursue our passion.”

Eager, potential at-home distillers, beware. While it’s totally legal to brew your own wine or beer in most states (with the exception of some), to distill spirits at home you must first acquire a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit, which can set you back a hefty sum of money. In some cases, it’s best to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor.

Standard Wormwood is moving their distillery operation down to Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sometime between November 2019 to February 2020, with a fully functioning bar and tasting room with a cocktail menu and tasting flights. The duo will also be unveiling three new products: a dry vermouth, a bitter-sweet vermouth, and their second aperitivo.

“The bar will feature cocktails where all of the ingredients are made under one roof, since our spirit range encompasses many of the components of classic cocktails,” Selimotic says. “This makes for a unique experience and also gives us free range to do limited releases at the tasting room throughout the year.”

Wormwood Witch cocktail
Wormwood Witch cocktail Courtesy of Standard Wormwood Distillery

Must-try Cocktails

Wormwood Witch

Courtesy of The Narrows Brooklyn, NY

  • 3/4 oz fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 oz ginger syrup
  • 1/2 oz Liquore Strega
  • 1 oz Standard Wormwood Rye
  1. Combine and shake all ingredients with ice.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass with a large ice cube.
  3. Add one dash of orange bitters on the top and serve.

Evening Standard

Courtesy of The Narrows Brooklyn, NY

  • 1 oz Standard Wormwood Rye
  • 1 oz Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum
  • 1/2 oz Antica Formula Vermouth
  • 1/2 oz Demerara Syrup
  • 2 to 3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  1. Combine all ingredient in a mixing glass.
  2. Crack some ice and add to the mixing glass. Stir.
  3. Strain into a coupe and garnish with a lemon peel.

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