Absinthe fans can go mad this New Year's
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007
The Green Fairy is back.
Blame Johnny Depp's dazed bathtub scene in 2001's From Hell for making absinthe popular. Blame the fall of the Berlin Wall for making it available. It was the post-Soviet Czech Republic that gleefully jumped on the absinthe manufacturing bandwagon.
The Czech stuff is noxious, according to connoisseurs. But now that the Food and Drug Administration has determined there's little chemical basis for the milky green drink's reputation as a hallucinogen and aphrodisiac, a 95-year ban on imports has been lifted, and French and Swiss absinthe is trickling into South Florida - both legally and illegally - just in time for New Year's Eve. This holiday marks the first New Year's absinthe can be legally served to partygoers. They appear to be ready for a sip of the spirit.
"It has been picking up a lot of steam lately," says Lee Schrager of Southern Wine and Spirits of America Inc., a Miami-based national distributor that sells Lucid, one of the three absinthes allowed by the FDA.
"As you talk to people about it, it's surprising how many people have tried it or how many people have a bottle for special occasions," says Mike, a West Palm Beach professional who asked that his full name not be used. That's because Mike is among those who use the Internet to buy absinthe from other countries, versions still outlawed in the U.S.
Made (in)famous by artists
The lurid reputation and strange appeal of wormwood extract and anise dates to 19th century France, which produced a bumper crop of artists and poets devoted to the spirit: Manet, Degas, Baudelaire, Rimbaud.
Manet painted an infamous oil of dazed absinthe drinkers. Toulouse-Lautrec carried a bottle in a hollowed-out walking cane. Oscar Wilde compared it to a sunset. Later, Picasso created a statue in its honor. Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises and smuggled it into his Key West home.
At one point, absinthe was the drink of choice for the working man in France, threatening to usurp even wine. But in the public's mind, it came to be associated with the decadent and self-destructive artists who sang its praises. When Van Gogh took a knife to his ear, prohibitionists declared it was the direct result of an absinthe binge. "If absinthe isn't banned, our country will rapidly become an immense padded cell where half the Frenchmen will be occupied putting straitjackets on the other half," declared one leader of efforts to bar the liquor.
The scientific issue behind the ban was whether wormwood extract's key ingredient, thujone, caused hallucinations and eventually madness. The U.S. decided it did, banning the spirit in 1912.
Chemist: Danger unfounded
It's T.A. Breaux, a Louisiana chemist who spent his days hunched over a microscope and his nights bartending, who has brought it back, starting with a casual remark made in the early 1990s.
"I was working in a research lab in New Orleans when a colleague of mine made a passing comment about 'the green liqueur that made people crazy,'" Breaux says. He tracked down pre-prohibition bottles of the spirit in 1996 and analyzed the ingredients. There were only trace levels of thujone in this classic brew. By the time you drank enough to risk hallucinating, you would already be dead from alcohol poisoning: Absinthe can be 144 proof.
The finding prompted the Food and Drug Administration to open the door to U.S. sales of the liquor months ago - but just a crack. Only three versions are sold legally, and they can be hard to find. Even the storied Leopard Lounge in Palm Beach doesn't serve the spirit. "There are no requests," a spokeswoman says.
Entrepreneurial Czechs are partly at fault. After the Cold War thawed in the 1990s, they started manufacturing absinthe and selling it in Canada and other countries where the liquor was never outlawed. Their version serves up an unusual taste experience, says Breaux: "Window cleaner. It killed the market."
There are local fans, lured by the classic versions now available, or the mystique, or a little bit of Hollywood. Absinthe has shown up in such movies as Moulin Rouge and From Hell, where purists were enraged when absinthe was lit up and doused with laudanum before being drunk.
"We bought a case," says Ted Keer, co-owner of Delray Beach's Falcon House. Patrons don't expect opiates, but lighting up a sugar cube on a spoon atop the spirit has an appeal.
"It does taste very similar to Pernod," says Southern Wine and Spirits' Schrager. To some, the anise resembles black licorice. And the alcohol content is so high that by a second sip, Mike says, "My tongue is numb."
Connoisseurs claim the liquor offers an especially clear, if brief, high. "That was our inspiration for naming ours Lucid," says Breaux, who teamed with Viridian Spirits Co. of New York to produce an absinthe precisely cloned from the pre-prohibition liquor, and the only one distributed by Southern Wine and Spirits.
Breaux is quick to add that all drinks create different sensations. "I've heard of more people having hallucinations on tequila," he emphasizes.
But the spirit, still smuggled into the U.S. under the FDA's radar, retains its dark reputation.
On Web sites, "you can get it with a higher alcohol content or with a higher thujone content," says Mike, who prefers more thujone. The illicit bottles delivered by courier to his front door from France, Switzerland and England.
The West Palm Beach man is hardly alone. Absinth24.net offers more than a dozen Christmas specials to U.S. customers, including one set packaged in a silk replica of Van Gogh's Starry Night. Bottles are ranked by "effect." Some add fruit flavorings, and some omit anise altogether.
That's near sacrilege to Breaux. "Anyone can put green garbage in a bottle," he says. "But once someone has enough information to grasp it, to understand it, well, absinthe is very popular for a reason."