HOW DID one man from Everett manage to take double gold at the World Spirits Competition in 2011? It all started with his mother’s anise cookies.
Growing up in North Seattle, Marc Bernhard always loved the licorice-like flavor of his French-Canadian mother’s cookies. An appreciation for anise stayed with him, and as an adult he found himself searching for old bottles of absinthe, a potent liquor that was banned in this country for 95 years.
More than a decade ago, Bernhard tracked down a French distiller’s manual from the 1800s. Following the recipe for absinthe, he started experimenting with a 10-liter still. The manual called for obscure ingredients like grande wormwood, Florence fennel and green anise. “Most of the herbs you could buy were garbage,” Bernhard says. So he started a growing and importing herb business, seeking quality products from around the world, even in his own backyard.
Often referred to as “the green fairy” or the “emerald muse,” absinthe was the taste of the Belle Epoque, made famous by artists such as Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh. Bernhard explained how, amid economic and political turmoil at the turn of the 20th century, an anti-absinthe movement — backed in part by the wine industry — campaigned to turn the beloved green fairy into a “green devil.” In the early 1900s, the spirit was banned in France, Switzerland and the U.S.
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When the emerald muse became legally available in the U.S. in 2007, Bernhard embarked on a mission. Determined to make a quality Old World absinthe, he forsook his herb business to open Pacific Distillery in Woodinville, all the while working at Boeing in health and safety. Pacific became one of the first distilleries in Washington state.
He prides himself on being the only distiller in the country who adheres to an 1855 French absinthe recipe. “There’s a lot of fake absinthe,” Bernhard says. Without any government standard, producers may use artificial flavors and colors. To tell if it’s real, the label should have the words “distilled” and “infused.”
The same level of rigor goes into Voyager, an 84-proof London Dry gin. In fact, Bernhard concocted his own recipe based on a 100-year-old bottle from England. “I created 27 different 1-liter batches, and my wife — who has a great palate and didn’t like gin — helped me pick the seven best.” Thirty blind tasters selected two winners, and from those Bernhard landed on the award-winning recipe.
With only one other employee, Bernhard today produces award-winning absinthe and gin, following traditional practices. Pacifique Absinthe and Voyager Gin both took gold at the World Spirits Competition in 2011.
Making small batches by hand, Bernhard uses 500-liter copper stills from Portugal. With his extensive knowledge of botanicals, he sources absinthe ingredients from organic farms in France and Spain, and grows his own locally. For gin, he seeks the best organic juniper, coriander, cardamom and other botanicals from overseas.
Bernhard is committed to resurrecting artisan spirits that were lost as a result of Prohibition and industrialization.
What’s next on his quest? Bernhard tracked down 100-year-old cocktail bitters on eBay to taste, analyze for ingredients and replicate for sale. Pacific will offer three types of old-fashioned bitters in 2015. Vodka is on tap for this fall.
Thanks to a change in state law, Bernhard added a tasting room in June, open 12 to 5 p.m. on weekends. From an industrial center in Woodinville, this Seattle native uncovers lost secrets of the past and gives them new life.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.