It's midnight at San Francisco's Whisper lounge and the green fairies are starting to appear. They're flitting among gentlemen in top hats and ladies in corsets — and a few men in both. Paul Nathan's second legal absinthe party is doubling as a belated afterparty for last week's Edwardian Ball, and it's in full swing. With the legalization of absinthe in May of last year, this Dickensian crowd is free to openly sip the drink that's been called both the green fairy and the green menace. "It was the decadent drink in the Edwardian times," says Gregory Seeley, an absinthe drinker for about five years. "There's a burlesque, speakeasy environment around it."
Nathan appreciates this new freedom to imbibe. In December 2006, before the FDA lifted the ban on absinthe, one of his parties was raided and Alcoholic Beverage Control agents seized what he says was about $10,000 worth of absinthe. "Someone faxed a copy of my web site's home page to the ABC," he complains. Exactly who remains a mystery. Eventually all charges were dropped and the absinthe was returned. Now he's free to hold parties in the comparatively open environment of Whisper.
Distilled from wormwood, fennel, anise, and other herbs, absinthe is a green-tinged liqueur that ranges from 120 to 140 proof. For centuries it has born a reputation as both a source of inspiration and a gateway to ruin. Much of its infamy comes from thujone, a compound in wormwood, which if ingested in sufficient quantities can cause seizures, hallucinations, and kidney failure. Some reports claim that pre-ban absinthes contained as much as 260 parts per million of thujone. Today the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau mandates that any product labeled "absinthe" must be "thujone-free," meaning that it contains less than 10 parts per million of thujone.
Not everyone agrees that elevated levels of thujone were the real danger. T.A. Breaux, a chemist and absinthe distiller says that the culprit was the harmful additives, like antimony trichloride and copper sulfate, which went into lower-grade absinthes. "Even with the strongest vintage absinthe I've tested I would be dead from alcohol poisoning long before I would be displaying any effects of thujone," he said.
From its birth in the late 1700s to the early 20th century, absinthe flowed freely in Europe, particularly in the Belle Époque when its dual reputation took hold. Henride Toulouse-Lautrec is said to have kept it on hand in a hollowed-out cane. Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh were both dedicated drinkers. While Oscar Wilde asked "What difference is there between absinthe and a sunset?" Paul Verlaine decried it as his undoing. The belief that absinthe triggers violence was cemented around this time with the infamous "absinthe murders" case. In 1905 Jean Lanfray, a laborer in Switzerland killed his pregnant wife and two daughters after a day of prodigious drinking that included wine, cognac, coffee with brandy, and two glasses of absinthe. Fears of "absinthism," a condition whose horrors were said to surpass mere alcoholism also became prevalent. Switzerland banned absinthe in 1910 and France followed suit in 1915. The US banned it in 1912.
Some believe that pressure from winemakers, who were threatened by the growing demand for absinthe, and the powerful temperance movement was the real reason it was banned. Whatever its cause, the prohibition only contributed to absinthe's mystique. "All these artists and poets said 'who the hell are these people who want to tell us what we can't drink,'" Breaux said. "Absinthe became an icon of freedom."
Drinkers claim that absinthe's high is unlike that of other spirits. "You're able to stay cool and clear," said Will Chase, one of the partygoers at Whisper. "The 'drunkeness' is much more lucid." Others add that this sensation of hyper-clarity ultimately gives way to the more familiar effects of alcohol. "It gives one the impression that his senses are sharpened and his mind is clear," Breaux said. "That sensation remains until the alcohol replaces it." The taste also is unique depending on the mixture of herbs and the distillation process. "Absinthe can be delicious and wonderful and it can be overpowering and unpleasant," Paul Nathan said.
Then there's the ritual. Drinking absinthe isn't like cracking open a beer. It's an art that requires a number of accoutrements including a specially designed slotted spoon, an absinthe glass, and a water fountain, all of which are often lavishly detailed and crafted. The classic French preparation starts with pouring a little absinthe into a glass. After that the spoon is placed across the glass and a sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Then ice water is drizzled over the sugar cube. In some preparations the sugar cube is lit on fire and allowed to burn for a few seconds before being extinguished by the ice water. This is the method employed at Whisper, and it's clear that for many drinkers here the ritual is as important as the drink itself. "It's so anti-modern," said Seeley. "It's so against pouring a quick drink or a beer." Betina Wittles, author of Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, agrees. "To many people, what's lovely about absinthe is the entire ritual of pouring and sipping," she said. "One slows down and pauses to live in the actual moment."
Absinthe's popularity is soaring in the Bay Area and retailers are seeing strong sales. "We carry three different kinds of absinthe and they've all done extremely well," said Brian Bowden of BevMo, where absinthe ranges from $50 to $75 a bottle. Alameda-based distiller and retailer St. George Spirits — whose BevMo allocation sold out in two weeks — is also enjoying robust sales. "It's selling as fast as we can make it," said co-owner Lance Winters, whose absinthe sells for $75 a bottle. He added that they released their first batch of absinthe on December 21 and by midday it was gone.
At Whisper, the line for absinthe remains steady even as a burlesque fan dancer launches into her act. While most drinkers say they're pleased that absinthe is now legal, some think that its new legitimacy has drained away its allure. Aaron Pelachaux is one of them. "Now that it's legal I'm just sitting in a bar drinking," he said. "Fuck that."
But if some seasoned drinkers feel that the magic is lost, there's no doubt that plenty of new devotees have only just begun to be captivated.
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