On the night that the new Sazerac House on Canal Street had its grand opening, I happened to be looking at the exhibit for Herbsaint when Bill Goldring, the chairman of the Sazerac company, passed by. He was showing a special guest the many fine points of the museum.
Herbsaint is a native product that was created in 1934 as a substitute for absinthe. As the story goes, absinthe, one of many licorice/anise flavored mixers, was very popular in the city (There was even the Old Absinthe House) though there was one serious problem. The liqueur was seasoned with a slice of wormwood which unfortunately had poisonous qualities. Once the drink was banned, people in the bar business looked for a substitute and it took New Orleans cocktail ingenuity to create Herbsaint. Eventually the Sazerac Company bought the rights and now manufactures it as part of its well-stocked inventory (which also includes another anise flavored mixer, Ojen, a Spanish creation that has a certain following within the Mardi Gras crowd.)
Officially the name Herbsaint came from the Creole phrase Herbe Sainte which means “Sacred Herb.” There could also be another explanation, although I am not sure if it was planned or dumb luck: Goldring nodded (perhaps knowingly) when I pointed out to him that the word Herbsaint included all the letters in “absinthe” with the exception of the “r.” He asked me to point that out to his guest, which I did. “So, Governor, if you move around all the letters and add the “R” you get….” That night I went down in Louisiana political history as the person who introduced a near-anagram to John Bel Edwards. Politicians learn to look impressed when told something even if they are not. I am not sure if that story made it back to the mansion.
This is our annual Best Bars issue, a topic that New Orleans has invested in both culturally and historically. Bars are places not just for drinking but for social gatherings. There are stories to tell including that of curious spellings. But if someone offers you something old, just watch out for the wormwood.