Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

It's been banned for nearly a hundred years, but the Green Muse still inspires Denver bootleggers.

Beer Wolf (not his real name) steps from his bedroom into his basement studio, a large glass jar in his hand. As he unscrews the lid and presents the jar to a visitor, a musty aroma wafts up from the leafy green resinous material within.

"You can't buy this around here," he says with pride. "This is the good shit. It's from Wisconsin."

Wisconsin? The Cheese State hardly seems like a point of origin for killer reefer. But Beer Wolf's primo weed isn't cannabis sativa. It's artemisia absinthium. Wormwood.

Available in most health-food stores, wormwood isn't likely to provoke a storm of DEA agents bursting into area kitchens. But in the hands of Beer Wolf, it might be as illicit as the very best redbud. When he isn't recording local bands in his basement studio, Beer Wolf is one of a small number of people in Denver who use wormwood, grain alcohol and other ingredients to distill an alcoholic beverage that's been banned in most of the world for nearly a hundred years: absinthe.

The banned nature of the drink explains why Beer Wolf, like other absinthe makers in town, asks that his real name not appear in Westword. But he's not shy about touting the virtues of this drink, which he keeps in a decanter on his bedroom shelf.

"It's forbidden fruit," says Beer Wolf, a craggy-featured baby boomer with his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. "Part of absinthe's appeal is that it's illegal. If it wasn't, it would be just another liqueur." He slides a tumbler under the brass spigot on his bottle of absinthe and pours himself a shot, mixing it with water and a dash of sugar. Over his shoulder, a computer screen flanked by a miniature bust of Napoleon and a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe flashes a series of related images, from vintage absinthe labels to photos of the drink's famous bygone users.

A few minutes later, as the drink makes its way through his bloodstream, Beer Wolf outlines another merit of the potion he distills on top of his kitchen stove. "Absinthe is a different kind of high. It's a more heady buzz. It excites your peripheral vision. It's subtle, but there's something more to it."

Beer Wolf enjoys his verdant concoction only sporadically -- a handful of times a year -- sharing the bulk of his product with the musicians who record in his studio. Some of those players attest to absinthe's rewards when it's consumed in quantity, describing the sensory experiences associated with mushrooms and cactus buttons.

"As the night went on, I found myself staring at a tree -- watching it breathe," recalls one guitarist. "It was very strange. At one point, I ended up hugging the tree. I wanted to feel it breathing. I haven't drank absinthe since then."

"Absinthe," says another musician, "is an uncontrollable nightmare."

The name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. -- Revelations 8:11, King James version, the Bible

"The Green Muse" was the drink of choice for artistic heavyweights like Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Developed in Switzerland in the late 1700s as a restorative elixir, in the mid-1800s it was adopted by French soldiers fighting in North Africa, who embraced the drink because of its ability to kill their parasites. When they returned to France, their thirst powered an absinthe boom, with production led by French distiller Pernod. Over the next sixty years, absinthe became the dram of choice for French bohèmes and those in western Europe's upper-crust counterculture. A high-octane aperitif (between 120 and 170 proof), absinthe was made with an extensive menu of ingredients that included anise, cardamom, mint and other herbs and spices. In addition to staggering amounts of alcohol, its chief mind-altering ingredient was wormwood, a plant native to the Northern Hemisphere with a history dating back to Greek mythology.

Wormwood's overwhelming bitterness made absinthe nearly undrinkable in its straight form and led to an intricate ritual for its consumption. In the cafes where it was enjoyed, an absintheur would balance an ornate slotted silver spoon on the rim of his glass and slowly drip water over a sugar cube placed on the spoon. As the sweetened water spilled into the absinthe, the emerald-green liqueur would take on a cloudy appearance, creating the "green fog" that became an aesthetic hallmark of good absinthe.

But "green fog" also described the stupefying state produced by downing several shots. The image of wasted men and women staring into space over numerous green glasses became a popular subject for artists of the period, while poets, playwrights and authors sang the drink's praises. Even though a relatively small number of people drank absinthe and generally did so in moderation, these praises were especially scandalous, particularly to the rising temperance movement of nineteenth-century Europe. By the early 1900s, the drink experienced the most impressive fall from grace of any modern-day beverage, its reputation morphing from healthy wormkiller and right-brain tingler to surefire potion for insanity. The guilty culprit in absinthe's evil ways was alcohol as much as thujone, a naturally occurring compound found within wormwood that allegedly caused an epidemic of mental and physical health dilemmas, from madness to murder.

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