Hearts Grow Fonder for Absinthe

James Alexander, a 26-year-old hipster from New York City, first tried absinthe at a Czech bar while studying abroad.

"It had a strong licorice flavor and seemed pretty alcoholic," said Alexander. "The only thing unusual I noticed was when I got up to walk to the bathroom, I did feel a little bit of a gliding sensation in my movements."

Distillers and retailers say much of the allure to the drink is the power of suggestion.

"I feel like the hype around absinthe is much larger than the actual effects," said Alexander. "American college kids do their 15-countries-in-Europe summer backpacking trip and buy a bottle of absinthe because it seems so exotic."

Alexander bought a bottle in 2001 when he was in Prague and when he returned he shared it with friends.

"I remember going onto the Internet back in the states to figure out how we were supposed to drink it," he said. "We ended up heating a teaspoon of sugar with a lighter and dropping it into the glass of absinthe. We drank the whole bottle and I didn't see any green fairies."

Megan Royal, a 24-year-old writer from Vermont, believes that absinthe had a "special ingredient," similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. "It feels like a kind of spacey, high drunk."

"It was pretty cool," she said. "Mostly because it was bright green and feels so exotic and literary to be drinking. But it has an awful licorice taste, so I had to sip it down real quick."

Absinthe is an acquired taste, say distributors, and that is why it may take some time for Americans to adjust their palates. The proper way of serving the drink is complicated: Cold water is slowly poured over a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon into the green liquid, turning the drink cloudy white.

Many earlier formulas are "hard to swallow," said Jim Nikola, vice-president for sales at Crillon Importers. "The overall category is very young, and it's hard to say where it can go. When you think of how you drink it and the flavor -- licorice mixed with water -- it's not a proven winner."

His company started the absinthe category with Absent's Absinthe Refined, by using a "sister botanical," southern wormwood, and getting the government to allow a product with less than 10 pp million thujone. Their sales are up 30 percent.

Sales of Lucid's Absinthe Superieure are "phenomenal," according to Viridian Spirits founder Jared Gurfein. The company sells its original French recipe as well as all the accoutrements available -- replica spout fountains for the water and the slotted spoons.

Just four days after its release, Lucid sold its first 1,000 cases. "People in the industry say our volume was better in a half year than the major houses did in a full year," said Gurfein, who waged the legal battle to sell wormwood-based absinthe in the United States.

"We are not just feeding to young hipsters," Gurfein said. "We have a sophisticated clientele. We are definitely not marketing as contraband. It appeals to people who tend to buy better quality spirits and cocktails."

Ted Breaux, an environmental chemist and absinthe connoisseur, spent 14 years developing the brand from a 130-year-old French recipe, using the same process and equipment with no artificial additives. He still owns a dozen of the original 19th century bottles.

"My passion was to resolve the mysteries of absinthe through modern forensic chemistry," said Breaux. What he found was even the absinthe of old could pass today's government regulations on thujone.

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