When the first legal absinthe in a century went on sale in the U.S. a few weeks ago, it kicked off a demand for the controversial liquor all across the country.
In Alameda, Calif., where St. George Spirits, an artisinal distiller operating out of a former naval warehouse in San Francisco Bay, was given the OK to sell its version of absinthe by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, customers lined up for a wait of two or more hours to get into the facility to sample the 120-proof spirit and purchase it at $75 a bottle or $300 a case.
Master distiller Lance Winters, 42, created the absinthe — something he's been tinkering with for years — for boss Jorg Rupf, a renowned maker of fruit brandies and Hangar One vodka in his St. George facility.
Winters' recipe includes a grape-based brandy blended with such herbs as wormwood, tarragon, basil, mint, anise and fennel.
St. George does not have the field to itself. Three foreign manufacturers have begun exporting absinthe to the U.S. — Kubler (Switzerland), Absinto Camargo (Brazil) and Lucid (France).
Plus, it is likely other domestic distillers will join the wave to restore absinthe to consumer consciousness.
The licorice-flavored spirit that began as a medicine had been blamed for bad judgment, poor health, even outright madness. Nevertheless, it was the drink beloved of 19th century Parisian cafe society, enjoyed by such writers and artists as Baudelaire, Lautrec, Picasso, Degas and Manet. In fact, in those times the cocktail hour was referred to as l'heure verte — the Green Hour — in honor of absinthe.
There are those who theorize that the anti-absinthe forces were funded by the wine industry, which was losing ground in the marketplace to la Fee Verte, the "Green Fairy," as the drink was known. Any link, no matter how tenuous, between evildoers and absinthe was loudly proclaimed until enough of the public grew fearful of its continued availability to demand a ban around the time of World War I.
Absinthe began its comeback several years ago in England, where entrepreneurs discovered no legal ban remained in effect prohibiting sale or consumption of absinthe.
Classical absinthe is made by steeping dried herbs in ethyl alcohol, then distilling the liquor.
The main herbs are nothing unusual — anise and star anise, peppermint, wormwood, fennel, perhaps a few others, depending upon which recipe one prefers. Wormwood is the catalyst for a chemical change during the process that, combined with the very high alcohol content (usually in excess of 120 proof, or 60 percent, compared to the 80 proof strength of most spirits), gives the drink its potency through release of the chemical thujone.
HOW TO DRINK IT:
Pour 1 1/2 ounces of absinthe into an old-fashioned tumbler, then place a tea strainer containing one sugar cube on top of the glass.
Pack a bit of crushed or cracked ice on top of the sugar. When the ice melts, it will drip into the absinth, taking the sugar with it and turning the green liquid milky.
(William M. Dowd covers the adult beverage field at billdowd.com.)
c.2008 Hearst Newspapers