Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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

Belgium outlawed production of absinthe in 1905; Switzerland did the same in 1907. The United States followed suit in 1912, as did Italy and France in the next few years. Absinthe, as Barnaby Conrad pointed out in Absinthe, History in a Bottle, had become the first individual alcoholic beverage to be "singled out for prohibition." The Green Fairy had been kicked out of Europe and its few seedy strongholds in the U.S., never to be seen again. At least not above ground.

A glass of absinthe is as poetical as any thing in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset? -- Oscar Wilde

But now the Green Muse is making a comeback. Second-wave absinthe drinkers, lured by its illegal status, mythical mind-altering properties and decadent history, are fueling its resurrection. Mike Iavarone, a Chicago-based importer of antique absinthe spoons and glassware, has set up an Internet Absinthe Ring, a cyber-collective of absinthe-focused businesses and culture groups. He says he processes a few dozen orders a month for his products. The online auction house eBay regularly features pricey absinthe spoons and peripherals, bought by people seeking upscale extras for enjoying their illicit beverage.

Cheers! Wormwood and Warpo lift their glasses.
James Bludworth
Cheers! Wormwood and Warpo lift their glasses.
Absinthe of chalice: Some of the paraphernalia used by absintheurs.
James Bludworth
Absinthe of chalice: Some of the paraphernalia used by absintheurs.

Health-food and herbal stores in Denver and around the U.S. also report a small but growing interest in wormwood.

"It protects you from evil," says Morning Glory (her real name), the owner of Herbal Arts, a metaphysical shop on Colfax Avenue that carries wormwood among its many bulk herbs. "You plant it outside your house, you hang it by your front door, or you carry a little around with you." It also aids in improving psychic powers, she says, and protects the wormwood wearer from bewitchment and serpent bites. ("I haven't been bit yet," she notes.) Morning Glory wears a long flowing dress and sports a pouch of sage and various crystals around her neck. On the wall hangs a poster of Stonehenge; candles burn about the room, and a flattened cloud of sandalwood smoke floats a couple of feet off the floor. Sitting in the back of her store, Morning Glory leafs through a series of books and reads passages dealing with wormwood.

It has also been used as a liniment for animals and humans, she reveals (it's an active ingredient in Absorbine Jr.), and as an aid for heart health. Some people have used the herb in "love infusions," teas and potions designed to woo reluctant lovers. The majority of her clients use wormwood for these types of reasons, she says, but in the past year, a pair of young men have come to her shop inquiring about wormwood's role in homemade absinthe.

"They were newcomers. They didn't know anything at all about it," she recalls. "I told them not to mess with it. People shouldn't do anything they don't understand, whether it's LSD, aspirin or wormwood. But in our culture, we don't take the time to learn those things. Instead we're interested in wormwood because it's used in absinthe, it's highly illegal and it's a great buzz. But wormwood has many other good properties."

Karen Walter, the manager of Quantum Alchemy, another metaphysical store in Capitol Hill, says her customers buy wormwood for its protective powers and to ward off "psychic attacks."

"That's somebody bad-vibing you on a large scale," she says. Walter has three regular customers who purchase wormwood for absinthe-making; they come in three or four times a month. "I had somebody in the other day buying wormwood to make absinthe," she says, but she doesn't see any booming trend. "I think people talk a lot," she says, laughing. "We carry about 240 bulk herbs, and wormwood is not a hot seller."

Some absinthe fans are purchasing the drink over the Internet from vendors who import it from the three countries -- Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic -- in which it is legally manufactured. (Absinthe was never banned in Spain, where Hemingway enjoyed the drink before the annual running of the bulls in Paloma.) Kyle James Bairnsfather, a Czech wholesaler and distributor of Sebor absinthe, says he exports about 4,000 bottles a month to nearly every continent, including an average of about 100 bottles a year into America. He says his clientele is hardly a bunch of drug-crazed mad hatters. "They are wealthy, educated and cultured," Bairnsfather says. "They have come across absinthe in art history class, or while reading, or at a museum -- not in the streets or in a bar."

"Betina" conducts a similar Web-based import business from her home in the U.S. She says the increased popularity of absinthe has been driven by people "who aren't lowlifes. Most of them are upper-echelon people who can afford to blow the money. Some are artists looking to influence their art. People know that all these famous artists got high from it, so they want to try it." Betina ships a trio of Spanish absinthe brands around the world. But unlike Bairnsfather, who says his legal experts have determined that it's legal to ship absinthe into the U.S., Betina understands that her business is against the law. "Oh, yes. It's illegal to import or sell absinthe in this country. But I have my devious ways of avoiding getting caught."

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