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.

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.

Hallucination stories are "a complete myth," he said. "The truth was it was a beautiful, stimulating and drunk in copious quantities."

Absinthe ranges from $57 to $74 a bottle, a price tag that feeds the demand at high-end watering holes. St. George's Lance Winters says his customers are less concerned about mind-altering properties and more about "the poetry in the glass."

At the upscale Bowery Hotel in New York City, where classic absinthe fountains adorn the bar, waiters honor the French practice of pouring ice-cold water slowly over sugar through a slotted spoon.

There, a block away from New York's Five Points glorified in the film "Gangs of New York," a cosmopolitan crowd is increasingly ordering absinthe, according to food and beverage manager James Stuart.

"These are not 23-year-old kids coming in," he said. "They are guys in their 30s, who might have a martini or a Manhattan and say, 'Oh really, it's legal now. I'll try that.'"

Bartenders, who often get calls for Sazerac, which calls for absinthe, are now "elated" they can serve it legally, he said. When the fountain arrives at the table, "Everyone gets interested."

Still, the debauchery associated with absinthe cannot help seep into the ambience of the bar.

"We try to honor the historic nature of the Bowery," said Stuart. "On one side we have a methadone clinic and on the other a project renewal. We incorporate an old-fashioned warm, honest feeling."

"Absinthe makes total sense," said Stuart. "And now that it is legal, you can have fun with it."