Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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

The possible health hazards of wormwood are characterized by numbness of legs and arms, loss of intellect, delirium and paralysis. -- The United States Food and Drug Administration

FDA spokeswoman Ivy Kupek says it's a good thing Betina is so careful. "You cannot buy absinthe and bring it into this country. That is against the law." Kupek says the penalty for a consumer or distributor who purchases absinthe and brings it into the U.S. is steep -- up to one year in prison, a fine of $1,000, or a combination of both (though she's unaware of any instances in which she has had to exact such penalties in recent times). "But if you make it yourself, I don't see that as a violation of FDA laws. As long as you're making it for personal use and using legally purchased alcohol to make it." It's also legal, she says, for an absinthe home-brewer to give it away, as long as there's no sale involved.

Marjorie Ruhf, a specialist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington, D.C., says the BATF would have a problem with absinthe only if it were made through distillation, a violation of federal law. "If someone makes the drink by steeping wormwood in an existing alcoholic beverage, it's for your own consumption and you are using purchased alcohol, I don't think it would be illegal. But there could conceivably be state laws that would apply here."

Unexcused absinthe: It's party time at Wormwood and Warpo's apartment.
Unexcused absinthe: It's party time at Wormwood and Warpo's apartment.
Unexcused absinthe: It's party time at Wormwood and Warpo's apartment.
Unexcused absinthe: It's party time at Wormwood and Warpo's apartment.

Don Pace of the Colorado Division of Liquor Enforcement says state laws make home production of absinthe illegal, even if it's made without distillation. Pace says the state statute permits the federally approved in-the-home manufacture of a set amount of beer and wine only, and since absinthe doesn't fall into those categories, it's illegal. "That's the way I interpret the law. Though if we were really confronted with such a case, we'd have to get it confirmed by the state AG's office."

For Mike Iavaronne, legalizing absinthe would be the beginning of its second death knell. "Right now, absinthe is a status symbol," he says, "and if you've got a connection, it's cool to have. But if they were to make it legal, it would be the end of it. It would take the interest away and cut its legs off."

For me, my glory is but a "humble ephemeral absinthe," drunk on the sly, with fear of treason... -- Paul Verlaine

In a ragged apartment near downtown Denver (they have to pour a bucket of water down the toilet to get it to flush), absinthe makers "Wormwood" and "Warpo" are enjoying a Saturday night, treating a visitor to a round of their verdant supply. Wormwood is a polite, pallid 32-year-old, stringbean-thin with a mop of curly black hair. A "cyberpunk before people knew what they were," he sports a fading Spinal Tap T-shirt. A "self-unemployed" computer technician and software designer, he's now between jobs. He and Warpo are longtime collaborators on various video art projects and have provided visual soundtracks for numerous raves. Warpo is a distinguished-looking 39-year-old with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a trailing silver goatee. He makes his living painting "semi-baroque surrealist art," illustrating fringe publications and doing 3-D computer animations.

On one side of Wormwood's apartment, a mountain of junked electronic gear and musical equipment creeps out toward the middle of the room. Computer parts, hard drives, printers and a "vintage Apple collection" share space with a few unstrung guitars, keyboards, videotapes and boxes of software. The talus of technology pushes up against the back of a couch and a small weathered coffee table, where a pint bottle of Everclear holds a jade green liquid: homemade absinthe. Wormwood and Warpo have been making absinthe for about eight years, tweaking their recipe along the way. On a shelf is proof of an earlier alcoholic-beverage experiment -- an empty fifth that sports an automobile graphic and the title "Drivin' Whiskey."

"That's just wrong, isn't it?" Warpo admits.

"That was our flagship liquor," Wormwood says with a smile.

On the other side of the room, a bank of computer screens hosts various images. On one, there's a screensaver of the label from the pair's first absinthe, which they dubbed "Christ on a Crutch." It sports this alluring come-on: "A tasty liqueur likely to stimulate the senses, decrease the inhibitions and possibly cause irreversible nerve damage & social disgrace. 100% whoop-ass guaranteed."

Wormwood says he and Warpo were first drawn to absinthe through a mutual attraction to nineteenth-century poets and playwrights (Alfred Jarry, in particular) and a pursuit of herbal highs other than marijuana. After conducting a few weeks of research on the subject, they made their first batch for Wormwood's birthday bash. They added to the fun with a unique twist on the absinthe-and-sugar-cube ritual. "We bought a bottle of ether," Wormwood says bluntly, "and put a drop of ether on the sugar cubes we used to sweeten the absinthe. People climbed the walls of the building next door like Spider Man. People went off in the bushes and had sex." The pair chuckle at the memory before Warpo laments, "You can't buy ether anymore like you used to do."

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