Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
"But I do like the community idea of the whole thing," he adds. "It's got a certain resemblance to when we were fourteen and scrounged up a keg somehow and threw a party out in the woods. It's got that being-sneaky-and-having-too-much-fun vibe to it. I like that. We're these crafty, clever people who found a way to get around the law and get what we want."
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