Nightlife Guide 2008: Absinthe makes the heart go yonder

Apr 29, 2008 at 3:54 pm
According to Western mythology, Ernest Hemmingway drank absinthe to muster the testicular fortitude to run with the bulls in Pamplona. Vincent Van Gogh was purportedly under absinthe’s influence when he cut off his earlobe and awarded it to a prostitute. A more contemporary fable holds that Ronald Reagan was shit-faced on absinthe when he beseeched Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Even though I just made up the Reagan/absinthe story without the benefit of hallucinogens, the beguiling distillation of the wormwood and anise plants has long been generating such legends. Some of them are probably even true. And after an almost-hundred-year prohibition, absinthe is legal in the United States.

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic (124 proof) liquor that contains tiny amounts of a compound called “thujone,” which connoisseurs claim is hallucinogenic. Thujone comes from the wormwood plant, which was prized for centuries as a medicinal herb before modern medicine came along with its Robitussin, Rolaids and Rogaine.

Google “absinthe,” and you’ll quickly be awash in more conspiracy theories than a Courier-Journal “Storychat” page. Everybody seems to agree on this much: Absinthe was wildly popular in European art and literary circles a century ago, making its way into the gullets — and subsequently the art — of Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Van Gogh and many other celebrity stoners of the day. The one-two punch of alcohol and thujone does something special. And that special something led to absinthe’s ban in Europe and the United States. The ban was lifted here in 2007, but U.S. absinthe must contain fewer than 10 parts thujone per million.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of disagreement. Purists say such a small quantity of thujone makes absinthe … not absinthe. Meanwhile, numerous scientific studies claim that vintage absinthe never contained enough thujone to become psychotropic, and that anyone who drank enough thujone to hallucinate would be dead from alcohol poisoning — which would tend to ruin the buzz. What’s more, thujone is found in numerous legal plants, including sage, cypress and juniper, and you don’t see many people hallucinating on them.

One conspiracy theory that jibes with much of capitalist history claims a more corporate motive: The wine industry, suffering from decreasing market share, whipped prohibitionists into a religious frenzy — demonizing absinthe and its bohemian champions — resulting in bans across two continents.

Whatever the case, absinthe fans agree it produces a unique buzz — one many describe as a clear-headed alcohol high. Drunk but not dull. Perhaps thujone combines with the high alcohol content to produce a crunkenness not unlike that time your roommate ate three Xanax and accidentally snorted cocaine out of that stripper’s cleavage, only with more of a licorice/Absorbine Jr. aftertaste. Or maybe those fans are just really drunk.

Adding to the lore is the ceremony involved in drinking absinthe, which borders on liturgical. The procedure calls for a slotted spoon, a sugar cube, a hipster vocabulary and an ability to overcome giggly self-consciousness. The most common ritual calls for pouring a shot of absinthe into a glass, placing the sugar cube on the spoon on top of the glass and patiently dripping water onto the sugar cube to dissolve it into the absinthe below. An alternate “Czech method” involves torching the cube in order to caramelize the sugar. The resulting “louche,” or milky opalescence, complements the drink’s ethereal otherworldliness. Or maybe you’re just really drunk.

So how do you score now that absinthe’s legal again? For now, pretty much the same way you did before — by getting your study-abroad buddy to smuggle some back from Europe. But that’s only temporary, according to Gordon Jackson of Old Town Liquors, who says “it’s a pipeline thing.” Distilling absinthe is an art in itself, and the U.S. market is overwhelmed since the prohibition was lifted. Liquor stores immediately sold out of the few bottles they got in February.

At least two U.S. distilleries are making artisan absinthe, with one — California’s St. George Spirits — planning to distribute through liquor stores. The company’s website ( says its absinthe “reveals seductive flavors of anise … sweet grassy tones, light citrus, white pepper and light menthol notes,” without making any claims to project “Yellow Submarine” onto your neocortex.

Meanwhile, European distillers must modify their recipes to meet the strict U.S. thujone limit. At least one, Lucid (, has begun selling absinthe in the states. Jackson of Old Town Liquors and Jerry Rogers at Party Mart on Brownsboro Road both hope to have absinthe available for sale regularly within about six months — assuming the distillers can ramp up production. When it is, it will sell for $59-$100 per 750 milliliter bottle. If that sounds expensive, consider that a 1-ounce serving goes pretty far. Perhaps the Irish genius Oscar Wilde put it best:

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.”


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