Newly Legal, Absinthe Makes A Comback

Picasso sipped it. Oscar Wilde compared it with a sunset. Then there's Earnest Hemingway, who wrote in a letter: "Got tight last night on absinthe. Did knife tricks."

Absinthe, the storied spirit known at the turn of the century as the "Green Fairy," was thought to drive people crazy, and it's been banned in the US since 1912. But now it's back. Federal regulators have approved four brands for sale here. The story now from WBUR's Curt Nickisch.


CURT NICKISCH: Until now, most Americans have only known of absinthe and its supposed hallucinogenic effects through literature. Recent movies such as Moulin Rouge have perpetuated its mystique. So has the TV crime series CSI:


GREG: Stuff's supposed to make you a little crazy.

CATHERINE: And how would Angela get a hold of this?

GREG: Absinthe is rumored to be served in certain underground clubs.

NICKISCH: But clubs don't have to be underground anymore to serve absinthe.


NICKISCH: At this trendy one in downtown Boston recently, hipsters tried the alcoholic drink for the first time. Adam Stern sampled the traditional way: by putting a glass of absinthe on the bar, holding a sugar cube over it, and then dripping ice water over the sugar until the clear liquor turns misty white.

ADAM STERN: The fable is that is makes you hallucinate, that's what made van Gogh go crazy, you see like green stuff, you go wild!

NICKISCH: The reality is that the 106-proof alcohol distilled from anise, wormwood and fennel is much subtler, as Christine Bellameer discovered.

CHRISTINE BELLAMEER: It's good! It tastes just like every spice in my spice cabinet, but it's good!

NICKISCH: And it's one of those spices that's at the heart of absinthe's contentious history. The herb wormwood contains thujone — a psychoactive chemical that messes with brain receptors. It's rumored to have driven Vincent van Gogh to lop off his ear. For such degenerative effects, the US and most of Europe banned absinthe. But purists always felt it got a bad rap from cheap imitations back then. Purists such as the Swiss producer Peter Karl:

PETER KARL: I have drunk many liters of absinthe in my life. And sometimes I emptied a whole liter bottle. It's just a different feeling. But I never had hallucinations or I cut my ear off or a finger or whatever you know.

NICKISCH: Karl makes Kübler-brand absinthe in the same Swiss valley where the spirit was first distilled in the 18th century. A few years ago, he gave a sample to US regulators. To his surprise, they had no problem with it, since the hallucinogen thujone was practically nonexistent. Even so, the feds would not allow the spirit to be sold under the name absinthe. But without the name, what's the point? Kübler hired lawyer Robert Lehrman to work the case, which took four years of negotiating.

ROBERT LEHRMANN: We talked to many lawyers — you know FDA lawyers, litigators, that sort of thing. But in the end, we decided to go with the Swiss embassy.

NICKISCH: That's right, it took Swiss diplomats, famous for behind the scenes brokering of peace deals and easing of Cold War tensions, to convince regulators to put the word absinthe on the bottle — albeit in small letters. But it's just that stigma after a century-long ban that's a marketer's dream, says Patricia Vasconcelos. She's been promoting Kübler for its American distributor:

VASCONCELOS: As marketers, you usually sit in a room for a very long time and you're like okay, what angle can we do, what story can we develop? What do we have? And this one was so easy!

NICKISCH: But some liquor industry observers say the mystique cuts both ways - that some consumers will shy away from what they don't know.

JOE KLINEMAN: Mom and Dad never sat down with a tipple of absinthe.

NICKISCH: Jeff Klineman edits Beverage Spectrum magazine, based in Cambridge. He says absinthe is poised to make a splash, since the high-end market is where the liquor industry is really growing. But he expects demand to drop when the novelty wears.

KLINEMAN: I don't know that there's this massive outcry of people sitting around at tailgates, saying: oh God, if only we had some absinthe, we'd really be bashing!

NICKISCH: But serving as a niche aperitif or after dinner drink is just fine with Swiss absinthe maker Peter Karl. He's just happy to have the counterculture drink back on the counter, and he says he can't wait to see how absinthe will evolve as a mixed drink in the 21st century.

KARL: There was in the good old days a famous drink — it was called Death in the Afternoon. It was named after Earnest Hemingway who drank champagne with absinthe.

NICKISCH: Now Death in the Afternoon could be back, after a lifetime of waiting for the sun to rise.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on November 20, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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