Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Absinthe's Return

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

20070815absinthe.jpgFew things in the world of drink inspire as much curiosity—and as much breathless hysteria—as absinthe. Banished from the U.S. in 1912 as a warm-up exercise by Prohibitionists, absinthe was absent from the U.S. market (legally, at least) until just this past spring. When Viridian Spirits rolled out Lucid, the first (and so far, only) absinthe to meet regulatory approval in almost 100 years, newspapers and magazines immediately began to circulate many of the old, exaggerated claims and contemporary urban myths about the spirit called the "green fairy."

Last week, the Colorado Springs Gazette joined the fray, but with a difference: Reporter Mark Arnest sought to lay many of these rumors to rest, ranging from the Prohibitionist rhetoric that absinthe causes insanity (Vincent van Gogh's gruesome self-mutilation is the perennial example) to the modern-day thrill-seekers belief that it can make a drinker hallucinate (example from the story's Q&A section: "Q: Will it make me hallucinate? A: Ironically, absinthe's reputation as a psychoactive liquor is largely a result of the ban. [...] Q: But what about van Gogh's ear? A: Drunk people sometimes do really stupid things.") In doing so, the story underscores a point that one of Arnest's sources states directly: Absinthe is simply a strong, alcoholic beverage--no more, and no less.

Though it is a quite delicate and flavorful beverage--something that might not be apparent to someone whose only encounter with absinthe was in a bar in Prague or London, where they were served a glass of shamrock-green liquid that had a burning sugar cube suspended over it; or who bought a bottle of something that looked like Scope from a liquor store in Canada and conveniently forgot to mention it to a customs official. Arnest quotes Ted Breaux, the New Orleans–bred chemist who reverse-engineered high-quality absinthes produced prior to the ban, and used the results to develop his own acclaimed line of Jade absinthes, as well as the now-legal Lucid: "The markets in England [and] Canada got polluted with dreck. It ruined the public perception."

Parts of the public have decided to dig much deeper into the topic. Websites such as The Virtual Absinthe Museum and forums such as those from the Wormwood Society and La Fee Verte offer in-depth information and passionate--and sometimes bitterly heated--discussions about absinthe.

While Lucid was the first to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles, there are now a growing number of absinthes being developed at distilleries in the U.S. and in Europe, and their creators are seeking the regulatory go-ahead to enter the U.S. market. They'll no doubt run into the same misperceptions and myths that have sprung up around absinthe in the years since its ban, but its believed this mystique will fuel a curiosity to sample the favored spirit of the Belle Epoque.

What about you? Have you tried Lucid or another absinthe? Does its reputation make you curious to try it, or do you feel the excitement over absinthe is all overblown?