Hearts Grow Fonder for Absinthe

Decadence and debauchery. Mayhem and murder. Absinthe, the legendary drink and muse of the Moulin Rouge set, is now legal in the United States and making a comeback for the holidays.

Absinthe's reputation is as intoxicating as its licorice-tasting spirit. The emerald-colored elixir, known as the "green fairy," was said to spark creativity, hallucinations and mental illness.

The cultural force of the Belle Epoch, absinthe reputedly derived its hallucinogenic properties from the wormwood plant and its nasty byproduct, a chemical called thujone.

Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway were inspired by its toxic qualities, and Vincent Van Gogh was said to have cut off his ear under its influence.

Now, marketers are hoping to cash in on absinthe's mystique. "Prohibition is over," declares the makers of Lucid, who fought the legal battle to sell an original recipe of the French elixir last May.

Today, just after the 74th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, an American company, St. George Spirit, will begin selling its Absinthe Verte. The homegrown spirit will go head to head with Veridian Spirit's Lucid, Swiss Kubler, Brazilian Absinto Camargo.

Competition has been so keen that Crillon Importers, which has legally sold the absinthe-like liqueur Absente, will soon launch its own wormwood-based product.

The end of America's ban on absinthe is just the beginning of a new brand war for share of a small but growing number of young drinkers who either pride themselves on a sophisticated palate or on living dangerously.

"It's taking off again," said Ray Foley, editor of Bartender magazine. "Bartenders have been after it for a while. The younger kids think it's kind of cool, like Van Gogh cutting off his ear."

California's St.George has sold all its 3,600 bottles in presale orders, according to owner Lance Winters the day before its Dec. 21 launch. "It's pretty crazy today. It's all been a strange trip. I knew there was going to be interest. I didn't think it would be this big."

Absinthe has been illegal in most of Europe since the early 20th century. Legend has it that a Swiss vineyard worker triggered the ban after murdering his family while under the influence of absinthe. In the United States it was banned in 1912, after Prohibitionists brought on its demise, citing health risks in a campaign not unlike the 1936 film "Reefer Madness" that led to the criminalization of marijuana.

But in May, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted the ban. The government still regulates use of thujone, a chemical in wormwood that can cause brain damage at high levels and is a common ingredient in perfumes and salves like Vick Vap-O-Rub and Absorbine Junior.

Since the 1990s, absinthe has been available in Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic, and the United States has turned a blind eye to college students bringing back bottles for personal use.

Bars and liquor stores say today's younger customers are familiar with the absinthe mystique.

"Most of our buyers seem to be in their 20s," said Chris Sletvold, manager of Joe Canal Liquors in Hamilton, N.J. "They associate absinthe with the old days, when people hallucinated, and think they are going to have a trip."

Those who have sipped the powerful green liquid are more apt to get smashing drunk -- it's 124 proof -- than hallucinate, but stories abound.

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