People have been driving to Rotterdam Wine & Liquor from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and they’ve been calling from as far away as Florida and the West Coast.
They’re looking for absinthe, the liquor that was popular with artists and writers such as Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allen Poe but banned in the U.S. in 1912, a casualty of the temperance movement. While beer, wine and other spirits became legal again when Prohibition ended, absinthe’s reputation — undeserved, experts say — for causing hallucinations kept it off the shelves.
Last spring, the ban on absinthe was lifted and the liquor entered the U.S. market for the first time since Prohibition. Two area stores, Rotterdam Wine & Liquor and The Vineyard Wine & Spirits in Schenectady, are now selling Lucid, the first absinthe cleared for sale in America. Created by New Orleans native Ted Breaux and distilled in France, it is distributed by New York City-based Viridian Spirits.
So far, Lucid has been such a hot seller that Ken Greene, the owner of Rotterdam Wine & Liquor, hasn’t even had a chance to try it. He said he expected Lucid to sell well when he began stocking it during the summer.
“It was a banned item, and once a banned item gets released, people are interested in it,” he said.
‘La Fée Verte’
Known as “La Fée Verte,” or “the green fairy,” because of its unusual color, absinthe’s ingredients include anise, fennel and, most controversial of all, wormwood, an herb that contains thujone, the chemical to which the liquor’s supposed hallucinogenic effects were long attributed.
Adding to absinthe’s mystique is the multistep ritual for imbibing it. Typically, drinkers pour 1.25 to 1.5 ounces of the liquor into a glass, then place a sugar cube on top of a flat slotted spoon that rests on the rim of the glass. They then slowly drip four to five ounces of cold water onto the sugar cube, which dissolves into the absinthe. The cold water, which releases the oils in the mixture and brings out the flavors, causes a milky cloud, called the louche, to form.
“I wanted to be sure the first produced in America would be one of quality and one that was truly representative of absinthe from the 1800s,” said Breaux, from outside Birmingham, Ala., where he settled after his house in New Orleans was flooded in Hurricane Katrina and he fled with his collection of vintage absinthe bottles. “I wanted the American public to get an accurate perception of what absinthe was.”
The Vineyard Wine & Spirits began stocking Lucid about a month ago; a small sign informs customers that the liquor is available.
“I read about it in The New York Times in April, and I’ve been trying to track it down for the longest time,” said Tom Vincent, the owner of The Vineyard Wine & Spirits. His first attempts were futile: Lucid had quickly sold out. “It was like a six-month pursuit to get it in here.”
Lucid is selling well at The Vineyard, Vincent said. Some customers are familiar with absinthe. Some aren’t.
“Some people are like, ‘What’s that bottle with the cat’s eyes on it?’ Others know about it because they've read about it,” he said. “I’ve been taken by surprise by how much I’ve sold and how fast it’s sold. I’ve had trouble filling demand.”
Vincent, who has a degree in fine arts, was familiar with absinthe’s popularity among artists of the 19th century. He had friends who had tried it while traveling overseas, but he’d never had the opportunity to drink it.
“I was just as curious as everybody else,” he said.
One of his employees bought a bottle of Lucid and let him try it. They didn’t use a slotted spoon or sugar cubes; instead, they mixed the absinthe with warm water and sugar to create a syrup, then added cold water.
“It was pretty tasty,” Vincent said. “The most prominent flavor I got out of it was anise. The whole room smelled like anise.
“I didn’t see any green fairies,” Vincent added.
Despite the ban, Americans have been able to buy absinthe online from European dealers. But that can be expensive, with prices running close to $200 a bottle. Robert Hess, a Seattle resident who runs a Web site devoted to cocktails, Drinkboy.com, and is a member of The Wormwood Society, a group of absinthe aficionados, first tried absinthe after picking up a bottle at a duty-free store at Heathrow Airport in London; on other international trips, he made similar purchases. At that time, bringing absinthe into America was not allowed, but the bottles were never confiscated when Hess passed through customs.
There were a number of reasons for absinthe’s notoriety, Hess said, including a high alcohol content, about 62 percent.
In the late 1800s, when an infestation of Phylloxera, a tiny insect that feeds on the roots of grapevines, destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in Europe, people began drinking absinthe in great quantities. As the liquor became increasingly popular, stories about unusual behavior while under the influence of absinthe began to circulate. Though some of these stories were embellished, some were true. For instance, in 1905, a Swiss man drunk on absinthe murdered his whole family. All of this caught the attention of the temperance movement, which mounted a campaign to outlaw the drink. In 1906, European countries began to ban absinthe.
That negative reputation didn’t change for a long time.
In the summer of 2000, Breaux, who is a chemist, began analyzing vintage bottles of absinthe and absinthe he had distilled himself to determine the thujone content. Through the years, the perception that absinthe contained dangerously high levels of thujone had persisted; one researcher estimated that it contained about 260 parts per million of thujone.
But Breaux discovered that the thujone content was tiny — less than 10 parts per million. Because the U.S. had never banned absinthe outright — the law simply prohibited food and beverages containing more than 10 parts per million of thujone — Breaux decided to distill a new brand of absinthe and bring it to market in the U.S. “I showed the government that much of what we believed about absinthe is false,” he said. “We explained everything. We made a case, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. We said we would market it based on scientific facts and that we didn’t want to mislead the public.”
There are still unscrupulous absinthe dealers, many based in the Czech Republic, that claim that absinthe causes hallucinations, but that just isn’t true, Breaux said.
Absinthe was legalized in European countries in 1988, when the European Union decided to allow certain levels of thujone in food and beverages.
In December, the first American distiller to produce and sell absinthe since Prohibition, St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., released 3,600 bottles of St. George Absinthe Verte. About half of the absinthe was available in the distillery’s tasting room; it sold out in about six and a half hours. The rest of that first batch went to the distillery’s distributor in northern California; by the time it arrived, there was a waiting list. About 2,300 bottles had already been sold.
A second batch will be released in February, and production will ramp up next summer, when the crop of wormwood matures. St. George Absinthe Verte will be distributed in New York, on a limited basis, in March and will also be available from online retailers who ship to New York.
Lance Winters, a partner at St. George Spirits, made his first batch of absinthe about 11 years ago.
“I had read stories about absinthe, all these things about how people had gravitated toward it,” he said. “But I knew nothing about it. I figured the best way to learn about it would be to make a small batch.”
He used old recipes, including one from the Pernod Fils Company in France. His first batch, he said, was undrinkable, “insanely bitter.”
But he tweaked the recipes and kept working at it. Now, he’s created what is considered one of the best absinthes available. And he’s also developed a taste for it himself.
“It’s poetry in a glass,” Winters said. “It’s a really beautiful thing.”
Though absinthe doesn’t cause hallucinations, Hess said its effects are unique. “Imagine taking a shot of wheat grass juice and a shot of vodka,” he said. “It has an energizing effect. You feel slightly more alert than otherwise.”
Absinthe isn’t cheap.
At The Vineyard, a bottle of Lucid costs $57.99; at Rotterdam Wine & Liquor, it costs about $70.
The big question, Hess said, is whether absinthe will remain a strong seller in the United States. Americans, he noted, have not really developed a huge appetite for anise.
“In Europe, they’re used to that flavor,” he said. “We were never an absinthe-drinking public.
“People see it as hallucinogenic, as clandestine,” Hess continued. “Once that boils off and all we’re left with is the product, what is going to attract people to it?”
Greene predicted a drop-off.
“I’m kind of glad I was the first one to have it because the novelty is going to wear off,” he said.
But some of customers are returning for more.
“There’s one guy that I’ve seen three times now,” he said. “It’s not just one-time buyers. People are coming back. They like it.”
“It’s tough to predict public taste,” Vincent said. “Now, there’s a big bump in sales because people are curious. There’s 95 years of pent-up demand. Once that’s satisfied, it will be like a good scotch. It will be some people’s drink of choice.”