In the early 1800s, French soldiers conquering and colonizing Algeria were given daily rations of absinthe because military leaders thought it would help their men combat malaria.
When those soldiers returned home, they started demanding the drink at their local watering holes in France. Its rise to popularity was swift, but so was its fall. The spirit rich in herbs such as fennel, anise and wormwood has had a tumultuous history in the annals of public perception.
In the early 1900s it was banned in much of Europe and the United States after dubious links to violent crimes became highly publicized. Much of Europe realized the error and lifted the ban decades ago, and in 2007 the U.S. followed suit.
One local distillery is riding on this resurgence, and producing the spirit the couple behind the bar have come to like so much.
Amanda and Jazper Torres aren’t new to the Flathead Valley, and neither is their still, which was handcrafted in Portugal. Formerly known as Ridge Distillery, the company began in the Flathead years ago when the Torreses were minority owners.
They discovered an old French recipe for the fabled beverage from the 1800s, used it as their base, and built it into an award-winning concoction. As they gained notoriety in craft spirit circles they had to change their name, which they had unwittingly made quite similar to a winery in California. Thus, Vilya Spirits was born.
Eventually the Torres family moved to Oregon to pursue educational opportunities, but when the majority owners were looking to retire they decided to buy them out. They moved the distilling equipment to Oregon for a brief time before deciding to move back and resettle in the Kalispell area.
Now they have space to spread out their distilling equipment and have a tasting room, where they handcraft cocktails with bases of their house-made absinthe, gin and huckleberry liqueur.
The Torres family grows all but two of the ingredients in absinthe locally, and the only reason they don’t do all is that it requires such great quantities of fennel and anise to fill all their orders.
They ship anywhere from 180 to 200 cases of the spirit to their distributor in New Jersey each year, where it then fans out across the country, Jazper said. Each case holds six 750 milliliter bottles, meaning over 1,000 bottles of the hyper locally produced goods are making their way across palettes and down gullets across the nation.
Likely because of the storied history, Jazper said most people who come into the distillery have a lot of questions about absinthe.
“Literally everyone that comes in, we get to go through the spiel with and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Despite its unique taste, by the time most people leave they are converts, he added.
That is likely due in part to the artistic nature of Jazper’s presentation as the bartender. When administering samples, he puts a small amount of absinthe, which weighs in at 68 percent alcohol by volume, in the bottom of a curiously shaped cup.
He sticks a spoon over the top of it, and sits it under a tap of ice water that drops slowly onto the spoon before trickling over the side into the absinthe.
The spirit comes in two colors, one olive green, dubbed “verte,” and the other clear, called “blanche.”
Regardless, as the ice water falls into the spirit, an herbal aroma fills the entire room and the liquid in the bottom of the glass begins to turn into a white, cloudy mixture. The optimal mix for tastes is one part absinthe to four to six parts water, Jazper said.
The tasting room at Vilya Spirits, at 101 E. Center St., Suite 104, is open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and the best rates on bottle prices can be found by buying them straight from the bar in front of the production facility. Full-size bottles retail for under $50, and Jazper is always eager to talk about his craft.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.