Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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

Warpo lifts the Everclear bottle and gives it a gentle shake, raising the sediment in the bottom. Over a worn teaspoon holding a serving of sugar, he pours a shot of his pride and joy, made by steeping wormwood and other ingredients in grain alcohol. "Whatever you do," he warns, "stay away from wormwood oil. That shit is poison. It'll shut down your liver, ruin your kidneys and kill you." This batch is made with star anise, mint and a dose of kava-kava and Mexican damiana, two herbal supplements with alleged soothing properties. As the glowing broth slips over the edge of the spoon, it drags the sugar into the glass. Warpo then empties a portion of Evian into the glass, thinning the drink to five parts water and one part absinthe. The liquor clouds into a pearly pale green fog as he hands it to a guest. The two men then prepare their own cocktails.

The two admit that there is some division among experts about absinthe's alleged psychoactive properties. "But there's no debate between us," Wormwood says. "When it's good, you feel this kind of thing before the alcohol onset, this flushing. It's almost like nitrous oxide when you first start coming on to the gas."

But, Warpo chimes in, "it's a stimulating kind of buzz, it's not a depressing alcohol buzz. It's like a little fire behind your face. Do you feel it?" he asks.

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.

Yes, indeed. It's a vague visual tingle, a right-behind-the-eyes sensation, slightly speedy, giving the impression that things in the outer reaches of the room are moving slightly. It's subdued, but it's there.

Absinthe, on a winter evening, illumines the smoky soul in green. -- Charles Cros, "With Flowers and With Women"

"I don't know the medical side effects of wormwood," says Marquis Déjà Dû, a Philadelphia-based absinthe maker who writes about absinthe and other subjects for the Web publication Suffering Is Hip. "But a lot of my friends have been drinking it, and we're no crazier than we were to start with. And I'm not willing to believe anything based on 120-year-old medical research. I bring my little bottles around, and people want to know, 'How high will it get you?' like it's some major drug or something. It's not. I tell them, you've got to appreciate subtlety if you want to get anything out of this."

Dale Pendell, a San Francisco ethnobotanist, has conducted considerable research into the interactions between plants and humans. His 1994 book, Pharmako/Peia: Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, includes a recipe for absinthe that has served as a cornerstone for many absinthe makers in the U.S. "Wormwood is a wonderfully sedating, calming and elevating plant," he says. "And it does something to the light. I think it's the secret to impressionism. That mottled-light effect of the impressionist painters is really characteristic of absinthe." What's more, he notes, "absinthe inspired more art than almost any other psychoactive property I can think of in the short time of its existence. Its full legal heyday was less than a century, yet it produced a remarkable profusion of poetry and painting. The list of literary figures that were inspired by it is lengthy and impressive."

Pendell says absinthe has an unworthy reputation based on flawed research from over a century ago and past versions of absinthe that contained much more thujone (and other toxic metals) than the absinthes being made today. "Thujone is pretty well-established as a toxic," he says. "In excessive amounts it can be dangerous. But the dose required for toxicity is so high that you'd have to drink a lot of absinthe. The alcohol would get you first." Absinthe, Pendell says, should lose its barred status in the United States. "I think if it were fairly evaluated today, it would be graded as GRAS. That's the FDA's 'generally recognized as safe' rating."

As Beer Wolf swirls his opalescent cocktail in his hand and talks about his homemade liqueur, a picture of Albert Maigna's "The Green Muse," one of many absinthe-inspired paintings from the late nineteenth century, appears on his computer screen. The painting shows a mystical nymph, swirled in lime-colored gossamer, lurking over the shoulder of a dreamy-faced absintheur. Her hands are wrapped delicately around the head of the man, who sports a look of ignorant bliss.

"The whole idea of that picture is that the fairy is actually sucking the brains out of the man's head." He laughs. "That's all a lot of myth that people are buying into. It's ridiculous, all the talk of how it makes you mad."

"Ultimately, this stuff is booze," Wormwood says. "And if you do it all the time, it's probably gonna hurt you. But three or four times a year, it's not gonna hurt you. Besides, it's kind of a self-limiting thing. Once you drink it, you don't want to drink it again for a while."

Wormwood is in the process of launching his own absinthe-themed Web site, which will include updated information on the drink, links to other absinthe sites and maybe even a do-it-yourself absinthe kit. And for those considering a trip down the emerald path, he has advice. "If you want to do this, you should do your research," he notes. "Study the history and do it right. There are risks here, and you need to be smart if you go about making this.

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