Violet Crown Spirits Founder Jessica Leigh Graves shares how she’s putting Texas’ first absinthe on the shelves.
By Nick Barancyk, Photos by Courtney Runn
Tucked away in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, two sisters concoct their potions. Among other herbs, they use fennel, sweet anise and wormwood—the trinity of what would one day be called absinthe. The exact origins of the distilled spirit are murky and contested, but the 1769 legend of the Henriod sisters from Couvet, Switzerland, is still one of the most popular.
Soon after its creation, absinthe became massively successful both medicinally and recreationally. It proliferated for more than 150 years until the United States government, looking for causes of criminality, banned it in 1912. With the ban lifted in 2007, Jessica Leigh Graves is part of the small community of American distillers looking to bring absinthe back.
She was reluctant at first. Before founding Violet Crown Spirits, she didn’t even care for the drink.
“I was not an absinthe fan. I drank Irish whiskey, reposado tequila and beer,” she says. That all changed when she tried a test batch of her boyfriend’s homemade brew. “I could immediately recognize the quality of what he did, and I realized I just had bad absinthe experiences.”
From there, she was hooked.
Graves now spends as much time educating as she does distilling.
“Even in the spirits world,” she says, “there’re so many professionals who don’t know anything about absinthe.”
After almost 100 years off the market, misconceptions have taken root. This propagates mainly through movie portrayals of absinthe causing hallucinations of green fairies. Graves says this phenomenon is likely due to drinkers’ prior expectations.
“I think the way you engage with the things that you put in your body…changes the way you feel about that experience,” she says.
From the homegrown mint in her absinthe to the elderberry juice in her elderflower liqueur, Graves puts a huge emphasis on sourcing Texas ingredients. It’s one of the reasons her company has received so much support.
“The thing that keeps showing up for me is that people really believe in the product and us as a company,” she says.
But being a woman in the distilling industry comes with its own challenges.
“I never know what I’m going to get,” Graves says, referring to her interactions with bar owners, “and I usually get friendly and supportive, but every now and again, somebody wants to get more challenging and combative.”
Graves is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to absinthe, so she’s ready when this happens, but she still finds it rude.
“Underneath it all, I’m pretty frustrated,” she says.
For the majority of bar owners, though, Graves has set up a good rapport.
“I’m having a lot of fun with the people who actually want to play,” she says, “and know that we all succeed when we all succeed together.”
As a member of a niche category of spirits, Graves says any one brand doing well means the whole category is doing well.
As a producer of a luxury good, Graves realizes her product isn’t a necessity but serves a higher purpose.
“You can make cheap alcohol out of nothing and people will drink it,” she says. “This is for fun and creativity and expression and joy and having that moment of escape.”
Jessica Leigh Graves’ favorite absinthe cocktail recipe
(Originally created by Dustin Courtright.)
.75 ounces Emerald Absinthe
.5 ounces lemon juice
.5 ounces strawberry syrup
- Combine the absinthe, lemon juice and strawberry syrup in a shaker tin.
- Give the tin a vigorous shake and pour the mixture over ice into a highball glass.
- Fill the remainder of the glass with equal parts ginger beer and soda water, and serve.