Drinking (A Lot) With the Guys Behind Arizona's First Absinthe Distiller

Randall D. Ordovich Clarkson and Justin Slusher, founders of Absinthe Minded.
Randall D. Ordovich Clarkson and Justin Slusher, founders of Absinthe Minded. Chris Malloy

Absinthe Minded, a distiller behind two pond-green varieties of absinthe, consists of friends and former punk-rock bandmates Randall D. Ordovich Clarkson and Justin Slusher. The federal ban on the green fairy was lifted in 2007, but the duo was the first absinthe operation in the state when they founded Absinthe Minded 10 years later. They just started pouring and selling in December 2019.

Both kinds of absinthe Clarkson and Slusher produce — they use equipment at Adventurous Stills in Tempe — contain Artemisia absinthium, the wormwood species used in old-school absinthe. One closely tracks tradition and flies at 140 proof. The other clocks in at 80 proof, packing more botanicals.

Recently, I sat down with Clarkson and Slusher at Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale, one of the 20 or so places that currently carries their absinthe. A static of voices pulsed through the restaurant in the lunch hour. People were in from the rain, eating hot truffle fries and tunneling into crocks of French onion soup. Clarkson and Slusher wore jackets, Clarkson with a full green-check suit, mustache, black boots, and ornate leather briefcase, making him look like a character teleported from Raymond Chandler or some French noir.

We got to talking. And man, we drank a lot of absinthe.

click to enlarge Absinthe Minded demonstrates the spoon, sugar cube, dripper method. The distillers use opaque bottles to block sunlight, preventing browning. - CHRIS MALLOY
Absinthe Minded demonstrates the spoon, sugar cube, dripper method. The distillers use opaque bottles to block sunlight, preventing browning.
Chris Malloy
Chris Malloy: Where did your road to absinthe begin?
Randal O. Ordovich: I fell in love with absinthe shorty after they legalized it in the States. I went to medical school in 2011 abroad, so I did a lot of traveling. I’ve had everything from really good to terrible absinthe.

CM: How about the idea to make it yourselves?

RO: I moved back to Phoenix in 2015. I learned how to make wine at home, got drunk on my first bottle of homemade wine. I sat reading through my notes, reading some of my poems, and saw a writing that mentioned absinthe-minded, and thought holy shit, that would be such an awesome company name for an absinthe brand.

CM: So when did you guys get started?
RO: It took us like three months to develop a formulation. Then we had government hurdles. We just started selling in December 2019.

CM: You’re making absinthe at Adventurous Stills in Tempe, using that equipment, right?
Justin Slusher: We’re taking a very unconventional route. We didn’t want a 3 million dollar distillery. We came in and said under separate contract we want to make something under their licensing.

CM: How does the process of making absinthe differ from making, say, whiskey?
JS: The process is really different. Essentially, we’re taking botanicals and oils and we’re bonding the oils to the alcohol.
RO: The way whiskey goes, they ferment the grains, and they distill that. With absinthe, we’re starting with neutral grain spirits that are macerated, and then those are distilled out. It’s kind of similar to the way gin is produced.

click to enlarge Duck confit sandwich: a nice sidekick to absinthe. - CHRIS MALLOY
Duck confit sandwich: a nice sidekick to absinthe.
Chris Malloy
CM: Ordovich, does your medical education help you with the chemistry?
RO: Somewhat.

CM: How many places in the Valley carry your absinthes?
RO: Twenty-plus and counting. We have a list on our website.

CM: What’s different between the two absinthes you make?
RO: Our Absinthe Minded Gold is our premium blend ...
JS: ... which is what we’re drinking.
RO: It’s based off the traditional formulation from Pontarlier, France. It contains the holy trinity of anise seed, fennel seed, and grand wormwood. We also use juniper berries, star anise. and then we do greening with lemon balm and hyssop. The only thing that’s different from the traditional formulation is we added juniper berry and star anise. That’s our Absinthe Minded Gold, 140 proof.

CM: How is your the second absinthe different?
JS: We got advice to provide something that everyone can afford, that isn’t such a high proof.
RO: Our Absinthe Minded Verte is also based on the traditional formula of Pontarlier, France. We added a few other botanicals to provide a sweeter flavor profile: spearmint, coriander, chamomile. You can drink it straight without adding sugar.

click to enlarge A generous pour of Absinthe Minded Gold. - CHRIS MALLOY
A generous pour of Absinthe Minded Gold.
Chris Malloy
Note: Ordville and I were drinking Absinthe Minded Gold poured over ice and diluted with water. Slusher was drinking his poured over a fork and into a glass, illustrating how absinthe can loosh, bright oils shimmered as cascading fluids struck metal. This 140-proof absinthe is classic, with zones of licorice so vast you can almost wander them.

Another note: We weren't sipping Absinthe Minded Verte at Zinc. When I tried it at Adventurous Stills in December 2019, I wrote, "It didn't bathe your tongue in a licorice inferno. That intensity was lowered, with flavors lemony and lemongrassy coming through. This is a gentle green fairy, one dazed by a long hike under the desert sun."

CM: Absinthe is hallucinatory, yes or no?
RO: No.
JS: No? That’s not entirely true. Yes, it is, but you would die of alcohol poisoning long before you would hallucinate. I think oregano has hallucinogenic properties. You’ve never gotten high off of oregano.

CM: How should people drink your absinthes?
RO: The traditional method generally involves pouring 1.5 ounces into an absinthe glass, or any glass. Sugar is an option. You do a 1-to-2 or 1-to-3 ratio of absinthe to water. It’s up to the preference of the drinker. My favorite drink is the Death in the Afternoon [Champagne and absinthe]. We also love the Bohemian Mule, which is a Moscow Mule with absinthe instead of vodka. The French Western is the one that we coined. It’s a White Claw with one shot of absinthe in it.
JS: A half White Claw for every 1.5 shot. It’s kind of the American version of Death in the Afternoon.

CM: As absinthe distillers, how sick are you guys of hearing about Van Gogh?
RO: I love Van Gogh. He’s one of my heroes.
JS: I think Arizona isn’t super educated on absinthe, so the first thing they go to isn’t Van Gogh, it’s that it’s illegal or about hallucinations. I’d be happy if somebody asked me about Van Gogh.

click to enlarge Demonstrating absinthe's looshing. - CHRIS MALLOY
Demonstrating absinthe's looshing.
Chris Malloy
CM: I feel like every time I read about absinthe, there’s an aside about Van Gogh cutting off his ear.
RO: You know who didn’t cut off their ear drinking absinthe? Ernest Hemingway. You know who else didn’t cut off their ear drinking absinthe? Pablo Picasso. Oscar Wilde.
JS: Me.

CM: What does it mean to the the state’s first absinthe distillers?
RO: Being Arizona’s first and only distillers of absinthe is a double-edged sword for us. It’s awesome being pioneers of a new category of spirit in Arizona. However, we acknowledge the challenges of being a new category of spirit in Arizona.

CM: What are your plans in Arizona?
JS: We’re already in Flag, Tucson, Prescott, smaller towns.
RO: Our goal right now is to just cover all Arizona territories and slowly expand beyond the state. We want to be in Vegas. We want to be at the Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. We want to be at the Absinthe House in New Orleans.

CM: Any other plans lined up for the future?
JS: We just started growing our own seeds. We’re just starting with wormwood. We ordered some from the United States, and then we’re doing some from Europe, some ancient seeds that have been passed down. We’re going to try to see the difference.

Note No. 1: Bottles of Absinthe Minded Verte, the 80 proof absinthe, cost about $33. Gold costs $58 or so. Prices vary based on the vendor.
Note No. 2: This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy