Herbsaint and the Cocktail Era

A range of Herbsaint bottles 1930’s – 1960’s.

Herbsaint first appeared in 1934. It was the creation of J.M. Legendre of New Orleans, who learned how to make absinthe while in France during World War I. It first went on sale following the repeal of Prohibition, and was unique in its category as an absinthe substitute, as opposed to a pastis. Although Herbsaint was originally produced under the name “Legendre Absinthe” it never contained any wormwood. The alcohol control bureau at the time objected to the use of the word Absinthe so it was changed to Legendre Herbsaint. The Sazerac company bought J.M. Legendre & Co. on January 1, 1948. The original recipe was used for many years, but it was eventually changed in the 1970s, producing the modern Herbsaint available today.
A 1930’s advert for Herbsaint reads:

French in name, French in origin, and French in its sophisticated appeal, Legendre Herbsaint is a drink distinctly European in character. Its very appearance differs from all other drinks. In its original state Herbsaint is a transparent greenish amber. Mixed with water or ice as in a frappe, Herbsaint becomes an opaque beverage whose gyrating whorls of coalescent strata have a distinct opalescent hue.
This refreshing and delightful beverage pleases the palate of the connoisseur and man about town alike, and is reminiscent of the charm and unique appeal of New Orleans in whose Vieux Carre it has attained its greatest popularity. To drink Herbsaint is to recall the glories of the past. to renew acquaintance with the romance and glamour of by-gone days of Old France and of that France of the New World-Louisiana.
The famous recipe of Herbsaint has been a long guarded treasure of the Legendre family, a prized possession, handed down from father to son. During all the years, the Legendres pride themselves on the fact that they have never deviated from the original formula of their forebears in the manufacture of the product which has become a New Orleans institution and a national favourite.
Formerly Sold Under the Name of LEGENDRE ABSINTHE In many states it is unlawful to use the name Absinthe – in labelling any product because the word Absinthe invariably calls to mind a poisonous wormwood beverage. The Legendre liqueur does not contain one drop of wormwood, but as we are enjoying a nation-wide distribution and in order to have our product on sale everywhere, we have decided to call it Herbsaint. There is positively no change of formula. The new drink Herbsaint is exactly the same as the drink formerly sold under the name of Legendre Absinthe. The difference is in name only. No other drink can bear the name Herbsaint. Legendre Herbsaint is the only drink of its kind in the world, It has all the virtues of absinthe but none of its sins. Made from a secret French formula, it is the first genuine, non-synthetic, non-poisonous drink of its kind, made in the United States.

Herbsaint bottles 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. The items shown on this page are all courtesy of Jay Hendrickson, the pre-eminent historian of Herbsaint and the Legendre company.

A short history of the original production and sale of Herbsaint by Legendre & Co., J. Marion Legendre, sole owner

Dictated by J. Marion Legendre on October 5th, 1984:

Proof label for circa 1935 120 proof Herbsaint

Our president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a democrat who was elected president and took office in early 1933. One of the planks in his program was to repeal the Volstead Act, which later became an amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The Volstead Act provided that no alcoholic drink stronger than near beer could be produced and sold in any state of the Union. On December 1st, 1933, due to the repeal of this Act, alcoholic liquors were then allowed to be produced and sold. Because no whiskey had been legally made since 1918, there was very little of this old whiskey left. What was left of this whiskey was diluted with alcohol and sold as blended whiskey. Distilleries, old and new, began to manufacture whiskey, but their product was not fit for human consumption. It was sold before it had attained the age of 2 years and, in this state, the taste was terrible.

A rectifier is a manufacturer who has a permit to mix liquors of various types to produce not only blended whiskies but liqueurs of various types and original products containing alcohol such as Herbsaint. I was issued the first permit in the South to become a rectifier thanks to a fraternity brother who was secretary to U. S. House of Representatives Maloney. The permit provided that I could start manufacture on December 1st, 1933. At the time the U. S., states, and city had not set-up a branch of their governments to provide control and the collection of taxes on the rectifiers. It was also true that the rectifiers had no plants where they could produce their liquors and, as a matter of fact, the first month that I began production of Herbsaint, it was done in the rear of the finished attic of my home on Jefferson Avenue and Daneel Street. Later I moved the place of manufacture to the second floor of the Legendre Building, 126 Baronne Street and subsequently to a rear building at 120—122 Baronne Street and later on I purchased a four story building at 213 South Peters Street where I had plenty of space, an elevator and wide doors that enabled me to drive my delivery truck in at night for safekeeping and use as a garage. Here at 213 South Peters Street we were able to cut our expenses of production and what we would do is run the plant for two weeks and then shut it down for two weeks except for the plant manager and head porter. Gus Blancand, a prominent citizen and expert salesman was my first sales manager and with very little help he did a very good job in selling Herbsaint. He travelled to all centres where Herbsaint had a demand and at first did very well as he put in an initial stock of Herbsaint with the wholesalers. Herbsaint, from the very start, was sold for cash, but if the wholesaler found that he was stuck with the product could return it to me and I would refund him his cost. I did this so as to get as much initial distribution as possible for Herbsaint. After this initial distribution to the wholesalers, repeat orders came in slowly and we found that like Angostura bitters there was a steady but small demand for the product except for two or three metropolitan centres one of which was New Orleans. I made it a policy to put my profits in advertising hoping thereby to increase the demand for the product. As a result, I found that Herbsaint became well known but the consumption did not increase in proportion to my advertising expenses. I tried every way possible to have companion products such as manufactured cocktails, liqueurs, etc., but these did not prove successful. After a few years, I found that the people at the plant were making a fair living but all my profits went to advertising with no accompanying improvement. For several years I found myself engaged in running three businesses, i.e., manufacturing and retail drug business, office building business, and the rectifying business. I decided that Herbsaint required constant promotion and direction of sales effort which was not commensurate to me of the effort put forth, The sale and therefore profit began to be more or less of a fixed amount yearly. Centres such as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans produced the bulk of the business. We were just not able to make Herbsaint a popular product except in those localities.

I decided therefore to try to recoup at least some of the expense and money that I put out in advertising, by selling Legendre & Company to a new rectifier. This I did and the rectifier’s name is Sazerac & Company of New Orleans who were struggling also to find additional products that could keep their plant busy in the preparation and manufacture of these products along with the manufacture and bottling of their Sazerac cocktails. The sale was made for a fixed sum of money that was given to me as the buying price and I was also paid for all of the equipment I had at South Peters Street and left that building empty which I later sold at a profit. As an additional purchase price, I was to be paid $2.50 per case until the production and payments were made to me of $50,000. It took Sazerac & Company several years to pay out this indebtedness as per our agreement.
I think I should state how the manufacture of Herbsaint was started by me. I had the largest permit to buy and sell prescription whiskey in the South and the drugstore made a good profit off of this. So much so that I was able to pay off a $60,000 debt to the banks that I inherited from my father due to a bad business move we both had made. I had advised my father to take on a Canal Street lease for a new drugstore at a high price which we decided not to establish and the leasing and vacancies which later developed caused this loss. My father thought I was a real good businessman although I was very young at the time and he concurred and went along with the idea of establishing a new drugstore. My father, Joseph A. Legendre, died shortly after the lease was signed and this left me “holding the bag” in what was to prove a disastrous undertaking.
My father died in 1926 and I ran the drug business until 1958 when I retired and liquidated the business because the doctors had moved out of the business district and I could see that the drugstore would have a hard time in the future in making a profit. During World War II had a very close friend in the intelligence service with me by the name of Reginald P. Parker. Parker was a highly educated man and spoke English, French and German fluently and was educated in Europe to become a diplomat. His father was a wealthy sheep rancher in Australia and made a highly profitable income every year. Parker, Sr. spent his money freely and did not provide for the time when his ranch would prove to be a great loss of income to him. This happened suddenly by a drought which lasted for two years in which all vegetation dried out and his sheep all died. Parker, Sr. could not stand this economic shock and killed himself which left Parker as the only one to provide for his mother who was then an asthmatic and sickly. Strange to say, that after making several moves and testing several climates Mrs. Parker found that she liked New Orleans the best and lived here until she died. During World War I, Parker and I attended the Intelligence School in Le Havre which was operated by the British Intelligence Service which taught the various ways available to the American army and in particular the Intelligence Service to provide a barrier at the entrance of American military areas against enemy spies. This developed into being quite an effort on the part of the U. S. Army and intelligence offices were opened in all cities where American troops arrived by ship to go into the fighting lines and where American camps were established. These included such cities as Bordeaux, Le Harvre, St. Nazaire, Nantes, Marseille, etc. After graduation from Intelligence School in Le Harvre, I was sent along with two others to establish an office of the Intelligence Service in St. Nazaire, Parker was sent to Marseille. While in Marseille, Parker boarded with a family who loved to prepare and drink “pastis” under which label came all the absinthe-like drinks that Marsei1le is famous for. Parker returned with the formula for making pastis that had been given to him by the family with whom he boarded along with a small amount of the ingredients that go to make this drink. Parker was able to get pure alcohol from me and he prepared several batches of this drink which we enjoyed as prohibition had set in and strong drinks were unobtainable, When Parker exhausted the supply of herbs that go to make up pastis, he asked me to try to import what he needed from France. This I was able to do and he gave me a copy of the formula so that when prohibition went out I had already ordered and had on hand a good supply of herbs, etc. and could buy alcohol without restriction and after obtaining a rectifier permit I was able to set up myself in business in the manufacture of Herbsaint.

J.M Legendre 1982.

I employed William B. Wisdom to promote and advertise “Herbsaint”, having a very fertile mind, he prepared recipe books and all sorts of advertising material. He painted Herbsaint as being a most delectable drink and described the product in glowing terms. Wisdom stated that the formula for Herbsaint was handed down from father to son and had been in the Legendre family for a long time. I told him that this might be questioned but he said “It is of no great importance”. As a matter of fact, I have never been questioned on this subject and I have never changed any literature printed by me and by Sazarac. No one really cares how Herbsaint came about as they either enjoy it or do not enjoy this drink. My story is ended.

1944 promotional booklet for Legendre Herbsaint, with numerous cocktail recipes.

A 1937 Herbsaint publicity booklet:

LEGENDRE HERBSAINT is available at 120 proof and 100 proof. Both types have a distinct popularity. The 120 proof HERBSAINT being stronger, is nearly always ordered by Hotels, Bars and Taverns. It also has a following among connoisseurs who were accustomed to drink the French Absinthe before the war. The 100 proof HERBSAINT is more widely sold to individuals. It the same as the 120 proof HERBSAINT in every respect but strength. It is our opinion that those newly initiated to this delectable beverage will prefer the 100 proof HERBSAINT. Both types are available to every purchaser in states permitting their sale. The 120 proof HERBSAINT it naturally slightly higher in price.

THE PURPOSE of this book is to recall the rich glories of the past, and in so doing to trace the history of Legendre HERBSAINT – a history which has indeed become interwoven with the story of the Vieux Caere, famous French Quarter of New Orleans. In this Souvenir Recipe booklet you will find how to make an HERBSAINT Frappé – how to serve an HERBSAINT Punch, and learn the secrets of New Orleans bartenders of other days — recipes zealously guarded by their creators and handed down to posterity from generation to generation. Legendre HERBSAINT is manufactured at 120 proof and 100 proof. It is bottled in 4/5 quarts and 4/5 pints. 1/2 pints (miniatures) are also available where the sale of this size is not prohibited.

French in name, French in origin, and French in its sophisticated appeal, Legendre Herbsaint is a drink distinctly European in character. Its very appearance differs from all other drinks. In its original state Herbsaint is a transparent greenish amber. Mixed with water or ice as in a frappe, Herbsaint becomes an opaque beverage whose gyrating whorls of coalescent strata have a distinct opalescent hue. This refreshing and stimulating beverage pleases the palate of the connoisseur and man about town alike, and is reminiscent of the charm and unique appeal of New Orleans, in whose Vieux Carre it has attained its greatest popularity. To drink Herbsaint is to recall the glories of the past, to renew acquaintance with the romance and glamour of by-gone days of Old France and of that France of the New World – Louisiana. Indeed, the history of Herbsaint is filled with romance. To trace it properly, we must refer to Absinthe, the drink whose place it has taken, and of which it has become the logical successor.

LIKE so many present-day beverages, Absinthe first came into general use because of its mild and pleasing properties. During an early Algerian war, French officers discovered it being used by the natives with whom it was a highly popular drink. A liquor in which a native herb, Artemisia Barrelieri (a member of the absinthe herb family) was steeped in alcohol and water, and flavoured with anise, was found to be so palatable that many of the troops subsequently carried a supply of the herbs back to their native France. Mild potions of this concoction soon found universal favour as a mildly stimulating beverage. Many of France’s most distinguished poets and artists, and bon vivants prided themselves on being connoisseurs of absinthe. Victor Herbert’s “Absinthe Frappe” was one of the more popular songs written to commemorate and idealize it. Paul Verlaine and Baudelaire, famous French poets, glorified Absinthe in immortal poetry.

For generations absinthe was known as the national drink of France. Unfortunately, however, many people became addicted to its use. We know now that the habit-forming element in absinthe is wormwood. As the effects of this poison became more widely known, opposition to the sale of absinthe increased, on the grounds that the wormwood it contained was injurious to the health of the people. In France the opposition assumed political proportions. But it was not until the publication of Marie Corelli’s book, “Wormwood,” that the civilized world became awakened to the evils of wormwood absinthe. Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Brazil, and the United States, prior to 1912, banned the manufacture, sale and importation of wormwood absinthe as a drink dangerous to health. France waited for the Great War and then used it as an excuse for eliminating wormwood absinthe from the country. The ever-growing popularity of the harmful wormwood in absinthe caused these nations to ban the sale of all absinthe. Had the edict merely prohibited the use of wormwood, a similar, non-poisonous absinthe-like drink could have been manufactured from other herbs of the same family, just as Herbsaint has always been made. The law, however, banned both the use of the word “absinthe” and the use of the wormwood ingredient, ruling that the term absinthe itself connotes the presence of wormwood. This necessitates the marketing of non-wormwood beverages (that have been improved by additional modern manufacturing processes, and made even more palatable) under such trade names as the Legendre Herbsaint. It was only natural that New Orleans, the centre of French culture in America, should introduce absinthe to the New World. Those of the French who embarked for America in search of their fortunes brought to New Orleans a taste for this delightful drink, and what is more important, a knowledge of the art so necessary for its manufacture. Making it in accordance with their own family recipes, many favoured the use of the herb containing wormwood. Few, in fact, knew how to make it otherwise. So much so that absinthe as a drink became fixed in the popular mind as one containing the harmful wormwood ingredients, so that absinthe and wormwood became practically synonymous terms and the legal and popular definition of absinthe now is that of a drink containing wormwood.

SOME families, however, had recipes for making a similar drink without using wormwood, but using allied herbs, and among these families was the Legendre family. This recipe has remained in the family, a prized possession, handed down from father to son, a secret formula, for the manufacture of the popular non-poisonous Herbsaint. The Legendre’s pride themselves on the fact that they have never used wormwood in the manufacture of the product which has become a New Orleans institution and a national favourite. No claim is made that Herbsaint is absinthe, (as legally and popularly defined) but it is confidently asserted that the most discriminating epicure cannot distinguish in taste, appearance, and stimulating effect between the banned absinthe and the non-poisonous Herbsaint. The attention of the reader is particularly directed to the Herbsaint label. This is embellished with a composite pen and ink drawing showing the original Old Absinthe House which housed the Old Absinthe Bar (where Herbsaint is now served at its best), with an ornamental iron fence, so typical of the French Quarter. A large urn of the type used in importing Olive Oil from Spain centuries ago, and which today may be seen in large numbers throughout the city’s court yards, is also shown.
Today the Legendre family is manufacturing Herbsaint in New Orleans, and selling it nationally as the only genuine product under this name. Only experienced chemists, using the secret formula, can properly produce Herbsaint. Legendre Herbsaint is the only drink of its kind in the world. There are imitations of course, but there is only one Herbsaint. It is now known throughout the United States, and in popular use in all the large bars and cafes in the country. Herbsaint has a delectable taste and flavour, and its exhilarating, stimulating, and refreshing quality, its beautiful opalescent colour have made Herbsaint an immediate and popular success wherever it is sold. Legendre Herbsaint is the most versatile of all liquors: as a frappe, for which it is used most, it is stimulating and refreshing. In combination with other drinks it is a mixer par excellence; as a punch it becomes the life of the party; while all true connoisseurs know Legendre Herbsaint as the crowning glory of a perfect cocktail.
An Herbsaint Frappé , in fact any Frappé , (pronounced frap-pay), is an iced drink the glass of which has become covered with a thin film of ice on the outer side. To achieve this film of ice it is necessary so fill the glass to the brim with plenty of cracked (but not crushed) ice, pour in the liquid and stir vigorously until the film of ice appears on the outside and the glass becomes frosted. Then strain off the liquid into a second glass, remove the ice to prevent the drink from becoming diluted, and pour your frappe back into the frosted glass. Sip slowly and enjoy to the fullest extent the rosy glow of well being that goes with every frappe. A properly compounded Herbsaint Frappé is truly a drink for the Gods and for those the Gods love! It is a drink which exhilarates the spirits and promotes good fellowship. Every host has sought a cocktail which is easy to make, does not require a wide assortment of ingredients, and which may be prepared at a moment’s notice. To these hosts nationwide, Herbsaint offers the Ever-Ready Cocktail, which is just what the name implies. The only ingredients necessary are sugar, Herbsaint, ice, and a cocktail shaker – and what home is without these?

Fill a large glass with cracked ice. One Teaspoon of Simple Syrup. Two ounces of HERBSAINT. Two ounces of water or seltzer. Shake vigorously until well frosted, strain off the liquid—remove ice and pour drink back into the frosted glass.

Punch is again coming into its own, bringing back all of the convivial atmosphere that surrounds the flowing bowl. If the smart host and hostess want to make a decided hit with their guests by serving something just a little different we recommend an Herbsaint Punch. An Herbsaint Punch is the happy solution to those afternoon cocktail parties that last far into the night. It is also ideal for the small dance – the bridge supper and almost any intimate group of guests.

You make it this way: One large bottle of HERBSAINT. One pint of charged water. Four ounces of simple syrup. (If simple syrup is not available use one cup of sugar.) Fill the bowl with 2 or 3 lumps of ice (the larger the better but they should float freely.) Pour in the HERBSAINT then add the charged water and simple syrup (or sugar). Stir well and serve in punch glasses. As the bowl declines renew the ingredients in the same proportions.

Fill a large glass three-quarters full of cracked ice. One teaspoon of simple syrup. Two ounces of HERBSAINT. One dash of Anisette. Two dashes of Angostura Bitters. Two ounces of Carbonated water. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass.

Use large glass. Half fill the glass with cracked ice. One ounce of Anisette. Two ounces of HERBSAINT. White of one egg. Shake until well frosted, strain into a small thin glass, fill with Seltzer and serve.

One ounce of Anisette. Two ounces of HERBSAINT. Pour into an absinthe glass filled with shaved ice and serve with a straw. Here’s the famous old drink known the world over

One teaspoon of simple syrup. Three dashes of HERBSAINT. Two ounces of Rye Whiskey. Two dashes of Bitters. Twist a piece of lemon peel on top. Pour into a glass of cracked ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. A Southern Favourite
Into a small thin glass filled with cracked ice put: Two ounces of HERBSAINT and slowly fill with Coca-Cola. Stir gently and serve sizzling.
For the morning after
Fill half a glass with cracked ice. Two ounces of HERBSAINT. Two ounces of Italian Vermouth. One dash of bitters. Twist a piece of lemon peel on top. Mix well and strain into a small thin glass.
From the land where drinking is an art
Pour two ounces of HERBSAINT into a large glass. Fill with cracked ice. Then allow iced water to drip into the glass of HERBSAINT, through a lump of sugar had in a strainer until the desired colour and strength is reached — then pour into a small thin glass, stir, and serve.
Built in 1752, at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville Streets, the Old Absinthe House is today one of the oldest landmarks in New Orleans. While still young it became a rendezvous for the pleasure-loving French and Spanish aristocrats who brought to New Orleans so many customs and traditions of the Old World. That delightful continental custom of a Frappe before meals became immediately popular and frappes have been served in this bar for over a hundred years. Today the visitor can still enjoy one of these frappes now made with the famous New Orleans Herbsaint. According to legend, it was in an upstairs room that General Andrew Jackson and Lafitte the pirate laid the strategy for the Battle of New Orleans. To visit the Old Absinthe House and sip an Herbsaint frappe is to feel the full charm of the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) of America’s most interesting city.
The OLD ABSINTHE BAR, located on the corner of Bourbon and Conti Streets in the heart of the Vieux Carre, has the distinction of being one of the oldest bars in the United States. The exquisite Carrara marble fountain fixtures of the bar are mute testimony of the glamour of bygone days. Although in daily use since 1806, they are in a wonderful state of preservation with the exception of the many pit holes that have worn in the marble bases of the two fountains, caused by the constant dripping of water for over a century and a quarter. Originally imported from Europe for the purpose of making “frappes,” these fountains were the first bar fountains seen in the New World. The faucets regulate the flow of water, drop by drop, into a glass filled with cracked ice and the Herbsaint which makes this bar famous. No trip through the French Quarter is complete until you visit the Old Absinthe Bar and enjoy an Herbsaint Frappe surrounded by the many objets d’art that give this Bar the atmosphere of 100 years ago.

Large Glass or Mixing Glass: 12 ounces
Jigger: 2 ounces
Pony: 1 ounce
One Ounce: 2 tablespoons

Drinks are sweetened best with simple syrup. Every home should keep a supply on hand at all times. Its prepared in this manner: Boil the water, then take it off the fire and stir into it one pound of sugar to each one-half pint of water until completely dissolved. When cooled, pour into bottles and keep until needed.

MANY people consider that a teaspoon of HERBSAINT in straight whiskey, in a highball, or with other mixed drinks, increases the strength of the drink and improves its flavour and bouquet. Try it once yourself. Unlike most liquors, HERBSAINT actually perfumes the breath.

In many whiskey cocktails a dash of Legendre HERBSAINT rinsed around the inside of the empty glass before the drink has been poured in will give a delicious flavor, bouquet and tang to the concoction.

A series of Herbsaint advertising cartons, apparently prepared for the launch of the product in 1934, and at bottom, a similar design in billboard size.

A 1950’s article on Herbsaint from “The Dude” magazine by the quirkily named Wambly Bald.