Absinthe is available again to the U.S.
By Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press
Article Launched: 11/23/2007 08:55:30 PM PST
Author Barnaby Conrad holds up a Kubler authentic Swiss Absinthe cocktail at the Bix restaurant in San Francisco. Since its approval by the federal government in May, two brands of the high-proof liquor, made according to original recipes, have been introduced. Conrad is the author of the book called Absinthe. (Eric Risberg / The Associated Press)SAN FRANCISCO - Green fairy, opalescent muse, bottled madness, the essence of life: absinthe has answered to many names over the centuries, feeding inspiration and insanity in equal measures to artists from Baudelaire to Degas before facing a ban that lasted nearly a century.
Now the emerald witch is stepping out of the shadows.
Since its approval by the federal government in May, two brands of the high-proof liquor, Lucid and Kubler, have been introduced to the U.S. market. Both made according to original recipes, they are fueling a revival among the inquisitive and quenching the thirst of cultish devotees.
Drawn out by the dissolution of national barriers in the European Union, absinthe is also newly legal in its birthplace, Switzerland, and in France, whose fin-de-siecle painters and writers enshrined its allure in masterpieces that survived the drink's prohibition on the eve of the first World War, and ensured its reputation.
"I'd read about it in Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and I was curious," said Stephanie Palmer, who works in software sales, sipping Kubler absinthe on the night it was launched in San Francisco. "It has this mystique - all the stories about wormwood."
Wormwood, an herb that grows wild on the slopes of Val-de-Travers, in the Swiss Alps, is absinthe's key ingredient, and counterbalances the mouth-numbing sweetness of the dominant flavor, anise. A relative of tarragon and mugwort, it imbues the drink with bitter undertones and, reputedly, the drinker with a clarity of vision that made it both beloved and banned.
"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were," Oscar Wilde once said of absinthe. "After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
A chemical present in wormwood, thujone, was long been credited with keeping the drinker lucid even as he succumbs to the pleasant lull of alcohol. Recent studies have shown that wormwood excites the nervous system, said Barnaby Conrad III, author of "Absinthe: History in a Bottle."
"It's a little like stepping on the gas and the brakes at the same time," Conrad said.
As he spoke, he prepared a glass of absinthe in the traditional way: placing a flat, slotted spoon across a tulip-shaped glass, balancing a sugar cube on top, then opening a thin-spouted spigot on a tabletop fountain and allowing the trickle of water to melt the sugar into the clear absinthe below.
The mixture turned a milky, alabaster hue - a process known as the louche, a French word meaning "shady," which could be applied to the drink's opaque appearance or to the allegedly dubious virtues of those who consumed it.
Bohemian artists in Paris at the end of the 19th century lived a life beyond morality, spent in search of sensual experience, even at the expense of madness. Their drink of choice, absinthe, came to embody those qualities in the public's imagination.
The underground, even dangerous image of absinthe was displayed in Edouard Manet's life-sized portrait of a Parisian street bum dubbed "The Absinthe Drinker," in the prostitute Nana, from Emile Zola's novel by the same name, who drank absinthe to forget "the beastliness of men," in the portraits of dissolution and folly left by French 19th century poets Paul Marie Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
The reputation wasn't entirely undeserved, Conrad says in his book, reporting the findings of a 19th century doctor who studied absinthe drinkers at a French psychiatric hospital.
Describing its effects on a hardworking sculptor who was prompted to leave work and family and consume a dozen glasses of the stuff at a go, the doctor wrote in his 1859 thesis, "He drank (...) without the ability to get drunk: he was like a beast."
And an excess of wormwood can indeed be deadly, Conrad said. But the chemical reputed to carry the hallucinogenic qualities is present in such low quantities in both the current versions - as required under the federal approval - and the alcohol content so high at more than 100 proof, that the consumer would die of alcohol poisoning long before being seriously affected by thujone, Conrad said. That was also true of 19th-century absinthe, he said.
"The real high is the associations," he said. "Absinthe is pre-1915 Paris, when time unfolded differently."
That's precisely what is drawing new consumers to the old spirit, said Lyons Brown, importer of the Kubler brand.
"There's been this legend, this lure to absinthe that never went away" in spite of its ban in 1912 in the United States, said Brown. "American consumers aren't being introduced to absinthe - they've been waiting for it. The demand is already there."
Using an 1863 recipe passed down through four generations of the Kubler family, distiller Peter Karl macerates the herbs, steeping them for a day in wheat- and rye-based alcohol warmed just above body temperature. Then he distills the mixture slowly, ridding it of the chlorophyl present in French absinthe and which lends it stronger flavors and a green tint.
Indeed, shimmering in the dim recesses of a bar, its warmth making conversation flow above the din of music, Karl's mixture does seem to work the San Francisco crowd into an exalted state - "a different buzz," according to patron Tracey Grant, a San Francisco graphic designer.