Ted Breaux likes to know how things work — from hacking video-game source code at age 13 to unraveling the mysteries of the most demonized alcoholic spirit in history: absinthe. Breaux has become a living legend in the global bartending community: the “godfather of absinthe.” Today, we visit his backyard in suburban Birmingham — which is more properly known as T.A. Breaux’s Various and Sundry Oddities & Botanical Contradictions.
Story by Clair McLafferty | Photos by Wes Frazer
Ted Breaux is not an easy man to befriend.
When he’s not traveling the world to preach the gospel of absinthe or to distill it, the native New Orleanian spends a lot of time at home. For about 10 years, he’s been molding a house in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, into a space all his own. “Where I choose to live and choose to go are two different things,” he says. “I like suburban life. I like space. I like to get away from people.”
A big part of making his house a home is working in the sloping, wooded 2/3 of an acre back of his house. On a good day, Breaux will move out four to five tons of dirt, all before putting in a workout at the gym. “It’s not the kind of work one wants to do in the summer.” The results are starting to show. So far, he’s cultivated about 100 different types of plants in what he half-jokingly refers to as T.A. Breaux’s Various and Sundry Oddities & Botanical Contradictions. But his goal is to keep around 250 species. The rest, he says, he’ll send to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
He’s got big plans for the plants on his property. When he moved in, a couple of Juniperus virginiana bushes flanked the entrance to his house. Though it’s not the strain most commonly used to make gin (that’s Juniperus communis, or common juniper), it can act in that capacity. Here in the U.S., it’s illegal to distill at home, so Breaux chooses his words carefully to describe his experiments with the juniper.
“As a result of being well-studied in 19th century botanical medicine, I am well versed in the preparation of medical-grade extracts of botanicals for use in spirits and liqueurs,” he says.
Well-versed is a bit of an understatement.
Ted Breaux has been called the godfather of modern absinthe.
He has been the go-to source for common and arcane information about absinthe for the better part of two decades. That never would have happened, save for a series of serendipitous events that began in 1993. Back then, Breaux worked as a microbiologist for a company that’s since been “bought, sold, and no longer exists.”
He received a catalog that contained Bartleby Conrad’s 1988 book, “Absinthe: History in a Bottle.” Within the week, he asked a colleague what absinthe was. The response? “My colleague was like, ‘It’s a liquid that makes people crazy.’ ” says Breaux. “Why does it make people crazy? ‘I don’t know.’ ”
At the time, that was about the extent of what was known about the liquor we call absinthe. “Real” absinthe was purported to cause hallucinations because of compounds extracted from wormwood. But, as Breaux found, the good stuff was actually a tasty, high-proof herbal elixir with a bad reputation.
Toward the end of the 19th century, absinthe was becoming so popular that it was cutting into wine sales in France. It was so popular, in fact, that some unscrupulous dealers were making rotgut absinthe using poisonous chemicals and non-potable alcohol. As a result, some people died, including one man who dismembered his family. The wine industry jumped on the deaths and used them as so-called proof that absinthe was dangerous. It was banned in many countries in Europe, and the U.S. followed suit. Then, the European Union’s new food regulations unintentionally re-legalized absinthe, but getting it back into the U.S. took a bit more work.
The same week Breaux found the catalog and talked to his colleague, absinthe found him a third time.
“I was on a date, walking through the French Quarter, going past the Old Absinthe House. I realized there was fun to be had,” Breaux says. At the time, “my business as a scientist was looking at analytical reports, flora and water, taking samples, having them analyzed, doing some analytical work and determining if they were contaminated and what the problem was. It just seemed crazy that [absinthe] was so popular and there were only theories of what could be wrong with it and why. It seemed like too easy of a mystery to solve.”
He hunted down all known modern research on the topic. He joined Yahoo newsgroups and forums dedicated to absinthe. He read voraciously, and called up the authors of studies and books on the topic to try to find answers to his questions. But even the author of an oft-cited academic article from Scientific American hadn’t actually analyzed any samples. A few years later, he got access to a gas chromatography mass spectrometer and was able to test for thujone, the chemical blamed for absinthe’s mythical hallucinogenic properties.
After reading about it, he wanted to taste it. So, using an old recipe, he made some of his own.
“It was bad,” he says.
Luckily, fate struck again three years later, in 1996. “I had a call from my friends at an antique shop who said an elderly woman just stopped here, wanting to sell us two bottles of antique French liquor. I said I’ll come check it out. It was a bottle of absinthe. I was like, ‘Crap. Is that real? Can that be real?’ Yeah. Bought it.”
In another stroke of good fortune, a colleague had come into possession of a bottle of absinthe that was a family heirloom.
“His grandfather had bought [it] in Cuba many, many years ago,” Breaux says. “It was like lightning striking in the same place twice in less than a month. It was crazy. It was good because I was able to draw samples and taste it, which was very insightful.
For almost a decade after his initial discovery, he built up a collection of bad absinthe. He used all of his time off from work to learn about absinthe, traveling to Europe to learn the art of distillation and research. In 2000, he founded Jade Liqueurs, and in 2004, he began production of his in France.
“Absinthe changed my life,” he says. “As nutty as it sounds, that wasn’t planned, but it happened.”
“I’m living in New Orleans, I’m plugged into a scene,” he says. “I'm the research scientist that distills absinthe and knows a lot about absinthe. My god. You become well known in certain circles for that. I was invited to a lot of parties and things as long I'm bearing absinthe. I even furnished absinthe for a major Hollywood film back then. Francis Ford Coppola and I know each other through absinthe. Absinthe has opened a lot of doors.”
Ted Breaux is a collector, a man of details.
Neither Breaux’s interest in booze nor his ability to home in on the meat and potatoes of various jobs and hobbies are anything new. As he recounted to Wired magazine, he snuck into the University of Louisiana at age 13 to hack into its mainframe to steal the source code for video games. He hot-wired bulldozers at construction sites.
Later, he bartended his way through college.
“I did have an interest in spirits,” he says. “I did recognize back then that inventions like the juice gun and the soda gun were rubbish. I used to do things like make alcoholic ice cream behind the bar, which had the unfortunate effect in a high volume club of making me really busy. There’s a lot of chemistry in liquor. There’s also a lot of bullshit marketing. I realized both those things pretty early on. The thing about absinthe: Back in the day I prided myself in having a pretty good knowledge of spirits. At least, I thought I did. Absinthe — I’d never heard of that.”
While he was working in the research lab, he was also a club DJ and a guitarist in local bands.
“That was a lot of fun, so I had an alter ego after 5 p.m.,” he says. “No one in my professional life knew. As soon as my ass hit that door at 5, nobody knew anything about what I did after that. I knew a lot of people that I had never seen in daylight, literally.”
Breaux applied the same focus to music that he has, more recently, to absinthe.
“I’m a student of history,” he says. “I like historical things. Seriously, I was, I still am technically, an expert in the repair and restoration of vintage vacuum tube guitar amplifiers from the '60s, particularly those of British origin. I had a couple of people that were famous in the world of pop music that wanted a couple of amplifiers that I had, that I still have. Yeah, I went off on some weird tangents, but that's because, of course, I was in a band. We played music from the '60s, specifically British pop. The Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds.”
To truly recreate the sound, he and his band would scrutinize audio and video to make sure they were playing the exact chords as the original bands. “We found out that all the song books, all the chord books, they’re all wrong.” To capture the nuance of sound, they would use the same equipment as the Brits. “I had people come up to me and it's like, ‘Man, you had that sound so nailed that I can't believe that I'm hearing it live.’ I said, ‘Well, that's because I have the original 1965 Maestro FZ-1A Fuzz-Tone that he used to get that sound. Nobody else has that. I even had to get the right type of batteries from the '60s.”
As Breaux will admit, that level of attention to detail can be exhausting.
“People have no idea how many details there are and how it shapes the end result,” he says. “It's exhausting to do that. It becomes a real ... it's more than a hobby. It's a real research project.”
He wonders sometimes if the lengths he went to were healthy. “I went to a clinical psychologist years ago. I had myself tested for ADD, OCD, IQ tests, MMPI personality profile and all that. They're like, ‘Really, you're not ADD. You don't have it. You're not OCD. You don't have that. You're a bit of an unusual personality type and you have an overactive mind.’ It's like, ‘Well, tell me something I don't know.’ But I enjoyed the hell out of it. I really did. The end result was successful. In fact, that band, our success was our own demise. I couldn't keep up with all the shows and have a real job at the same time.”
“This [was] all around Louisiana,” he says. “I had a great collection of music. I had a great vinyl collection — 12-inch singles. Pre-Katrina. Of course, Katrina changed all that, but you got to grow up sometime, right?
A year later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Like many other New Orleanians, it turned his life upside down. At the time, he was working on his last big projects with the research lab. “I was working up here [in Birmingham] five days a week [and] was going home every other weekend. I helped develop some industries to treat industrial waste flow over generated by some of the industries here, which is being trucked out of state. I was doing some research on some recovery technology with the steel industry as well. I solved problems. I was spending a lot of time up here. I was home that weekend that Katrina hit.
“I remember going to bed Saturday night thinking, ‘I'm going to wake up at 6 a.m. on Sunday, and I'm going to check the weather, check real time data from the buoys in the Gulf, and unless that thing has taken a big turn I seriously think I'm going to do something that's unprecedented. I'm going to load up my car full of stuff and I'm going to evacuate.’ The storm was so damn big. When I checked that weather data, I saw reports of waves in the Gulf that were 60 feet with 200 mile-an-hour gusts.… I wasn't even really concerned that much about the wind. I knew it would be bad, but the water…” He trails off.
That morning, he packed his car full of absinthe, antique weapons and anything else he could think to bring. He made sure everything with historical or sentimental value was stored above ground level, and put a hatchet in his attic “just in case.” When he got on the road, the first 20 miles took him six hours.
“A couple times, I thought about turning around and coming home,” he says. “Thank god I didn’t do it. I would have had to use the hatchet. I would have had to hack my way out. People died. I can't even fathom that, that I came that close to coming face-to-face with the unknown. I think the death toll in my neighborhood was about 75 people.”
His house was flooded with seven feet of water. He found out while he was watching CNN and saw some photos taken from a helicopter.
“[I] recognized the intersection down the street from me,” he says. “You could just see the tops of the cars beneath the water. When I saw that, and then I saw another photo that showed houses with water up to the eaves. What can you do? It's a very helpless feeling. I started over. It was just me and whatever I had in my car, and that was it. That was my whole life.”
After some of the flooding had abated, Breaux used a family member’s police credentials, truck and trailer to get back into his house to see if he could save his Harley.
“My god. That was just ... that's just something that's just hard. You could smell death in the air. It's surreal. Everything's dead. There's no green. All the vegetation's dead. Everything's brown and just smells like death and mold. It doesn't even look real. It didn't look real.”
Everything in the house was a loss. “Before Katrina, I had the world's biggest collection of bad absinthe,” he says. “Actually, some poor soul who rummaged through my house after I had gone through it found a bottle of bad absinthe, took a couple swigs, and left it right where it was. It's like, ‘Man, that poor guy.’ He didn't even take the bottle. The bottle didn't even make it out of the house.”
At the time, and even for a few months afterward, he was planning to go back to New Orleans and rebuild.
“If there was ever a time that I could have very easily been pushed out of the South, it was during Katrina,” he says. “I am a sentimental person, and I do have bonds to places and things. If there was ever a time, it was then. I didn't do it, because three out of four grandparents lived well into their 90s. I had grandparents in New Orleans. I felt like I shouldn't be too far.”
His final project in Alabama had familiarized him with the area. When his application for a Small Business Administration disaster loan was accepted, he had to make a choice: rebuild in New Orleans or find a house elsewhere. As he started looking at it pragmatically, he couldn’t think of many good reasons to “live six feet below sea level in a hurricane-prone area that’s subsiding every year with sea level rising and coastal erosion claiming alarming amounts of land in coastal Louisiana to the sea.”
The choice wasn’t easy, but he came to the conclusion that it would be foolish for him to go back and rebuild that house, he says.
“It's like somebody gets struck by lightning. The odds of them being struck again are actually something like 10,000 times greater. It's not like winning the lottery, it's the opposite. Funny, the way it works. It's like, OK, not maybe if this happens again, but when. At some point I think it's a very good chance that it will. It may be in my lifetime, so why should I put myself ... I know how hard it was for me to deal with this. Nature doesn’t intend for man to live there.”
These days, educating consumers and bartenders about absinthe pays Breaux’s bills. Even with the incredible amount of information he’s uncovered, he’s still finding more. But “it’s not something that consumes my life constantly,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t just knowing what was in the city limits of absinthe. I needed to know where those roads originated. I wanted to understand the context. For me, the rabbit hole goes really deep. Besides, the business aspects of it that take a lot of time. Nowadays, I'm pretty well coasting. The meat and potatoes, I know.”
The meat and potatoes of absinthe could sustain him for the rest of his life, but Breaux keeps digging deeper, both for his own personal knowledge and for inspiration for new products.
It’s just that these days, he does most of his digging in his backyard, in T. A. Breaux’s Various and Sundry Oddities and Botanical Contradictions.