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The return of “madness in a bottle”

People went a little crazy when Lance Winters began
selling his pet project just before Christmas. To get the
first bottles of legal, domestically made absinthe in 96
years, hundreds gathered outside St. George Spirits
distillery in Alameda. News helicopters hovered above.
Lines snaked out the door. The distillery sold 1,800
bottles of its new Absinthe Verte in the first day.
Why all the fuss over a libation?
“No other alcoholic drink has inspired so many
geniuses or ruined so many lives,” says Barnaby Conrad III,
author of Absinthe: History in a Bottle (Chronicle Books). “The
19th-century poets called it ‘the Green Fairy’ and claimed it
inspired great art. Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Wilde abused it
while writing some of the great poetry of the age. Van Gogh
drank it while painting his masterpieces in Arles, but also
while cutting off his earlobe. Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin
drank it to excess. Manet, Degas, and Picasso painted
haunting pictures of downwardly mobile absinthe drinkers.”
Much of the hysteria centered on the ingredient
wormwood. The chemical thujone, isolated from Grand
Wormwood, was believed to cause artistic visions and
malicious insanity. Though absinthe never contained large
doses of the chemical, crusaders conspired to outlaw the drink.
“Absinthe was the first alcoholic liquor in the world to
be banned—in Switzerland, Belgium, France, and the
United States (in 1912)—and thus served as a prototype for
Prohibition in America,” Conrad says.
That’s now changed. Today, absinthe can be sold if it
meets the U.S. government’s criteria of having a legally
negligible amount of thujone and a bottle label that doesn’t
promise hallucinatory excesses—like monkeys beating on
human skulls, which was the original bottle illustration for St.
George Absinthe Verte. (Now the monkey plays a cowbell.)
St. George’s product wasn’t actually the first absinthe to
be sold in the States in the 21st century. San Francisco launch
parties for Swiss-made Kubler and French-made Lucid took
place only weeks before St. George’s absinthe was introduced.
But the local distillery certainly drew the biggest crowds.
That’s vindication for Winters. St. George's distiller
spent 11 years—practically the whole time he’s worked at
the company—perfecting his formula for absinthe. He also
produced Hangar One vodka and other liquors.
Unbeknownst to many people who lined up to buy it,
modern absinthe does not provide a mythical, psychedelic
experience—just a pleasant buzz. St. George’s version is a
SWEET TOOTH: A cube full of sugar helps the absinthe high-proof, anise-flavored spirit made bitter with
go down—as does a judicious dose of water. wormwood. The base liquid ingredient is a grape brandy;
Winters augments the wormwood’s grassiness with stinging
AVE., ALAMEDA, 510.749.0332 ELIXIR, 3200 16TH ST., S.F., 415.552.1633
ABSINTHE, 398 HAYES ST., S.F., 415.551.1590 BOURBON & BRANCH,
BOURBONANDBRANCH.COM DALVA, 3121 16TH ST., S.F., 415.252.7740

The finally legalized spirit (below) is on tap at its namesake bar

and restaurant, Absinthe, in Hayes Valley (above and left).

nettle and meadowsweet, and amplifies the slight

citrus quality in star anise with lemon balm. His
resulting product is quite different from others on
the market, and bartenders who’ve tried it say it tastes fantastic. “It’s
incredible,” says Jackie Patterson, bar manager at Orson. “It’s like the Tiki drinks
difference between single-vineyard wines and mass-produced wines.” containing
At the now appropriately named Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in Hayes absinthe were
Valley, bar manager Jonny Raglin says they’re switching from pastis Pernod not actually born
Fils to St. George Absinthe Verte in their Death in the Afternoon cocktail in foreign lands,
(absinthe with champagne). French Pernod was the first commercially made but were designed
absinthe ever produced, but it became a less alcoholic, sugar-sweetened, to evoke the
wormwood-free pastis after absinthe was banned in Europe. Other feeling of them.
mixologists substitute the anise-flavored Absente, which is made without However, many
Grand Wormwood. Now that the Green Fairy is loose again, they should countries do have
find themselves making substitutions for those substitutions. a tradition of
One of the bar’s most popular cocktails is the Sazerac, a drink from anise-flavored spirits. France has pastis, like Pernod Ricard; Greece has
New Orleans made with Herbsaint, an absinthe substitute. But Raglin says ouzo; Italy has sambuca; and Turkey has raki. All of these are often served,
he won’t use the real stuff in it: “We found that nothing could hold a as absinthe is, over water or ice, so the essential oils come out of the
candle to Herbsaint, although I would never drink it by itself.” solution and form a ghostly white liquid.
Absinthe and its ilk are included in many other cocktails in minute The standard way to drink absinthe is to drip ice water from a tabletop
quantities, which enhances the flavor of the drinks. In the case of tiki fountain over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon resting on top of the glass.
drinks, it also adds a bit of mystery. Unlike anise liqueurs, absinthe can tolerate this technique, which both
Martin Cate, co-owner of the Alameda tiki bar Forbidden Island, sweetens and dilutes the absinthe—at 120 proof and up, the liquor is far too
serves old, complicated tropical cocktails concocted from recently “hot” to drink on its own. Just don’t light the sugar cube on fire—that’s
unearthed recipes. He says the creator of the original tiki-cocktail another piece of really bad advice handed down in absinthe lore.
craze, the secretive Don the Beachcomber, was from absinthe-loving For now, legal absinthe is still a novelty, but after people try it and
New Orleans. “Absinthe, and later Pernod and Herbsaint, was part of realize they won’t see green fairies or cowbell-ringing monkeys, they can
Don’s secret arsenal of flavors that provided the mysterious backbone turn to the old recipes to find new uses for the rest of the bottle.
in his most famous creations. Don’s original 1937 Zombie called for “Absinthe’s real high comes from its artistic associations,” says
absinthe, as well as several of his less famous drinks,” Cate says. He's Conrad. “It is forbidden fruit with hints of decadence, debauchery, and
switching from Pernod to absinthe in his cocktails to create “an the occult. It’s not going to turn you into an artistic genius overnight, but
additional layer of complexity and dynamism.” seek help if you begin sawing off your earlobe with a butter knife.”