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The green fairy flies again

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
special to the daily
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You can drink as much as you want, but you might never be the same again.

Perhaps no other beverage in history has been so cloaked in mystery, so shaped by myth and lore than the evil “green fairy,” also known as absinthe.

Blamed for murderous behavior and claimed as the muse of poets, this bitter, licorice-tasting concoction has been surrounded in controversy and inescapable stigma since it came on the scene in 1792 as an all-purpose remedy which, by all accounts, has done nothing but perpetuate its curious charm and enhance interest in the forbidden libation. Even the preparation and eventual consumption of absinthe is ritualistic, which only increases its mythical potency.

Most of what you’ve been told about absinthe is a lie, or at the very least, a crude distortion of the truth. Can you die from drinking it? No more than any other alcohol such as bourbon or vodka. It generally has a much higher alcohol content than most spirits, but if drank in moderation, it’s harmless. Absinthe was meant to be sipped, like an aged-cognac.

Will you see strange visions and succumb to morbid fascinations of violence and death? It’s possible, but blaming it on the brew probably won’t hold up in court.

Despite all of the attempts to make it taboo, it has survived and prospered. In fact, it’s making quite the comeback all over the world, including America, where it has been banned since 1912.

Absinthe’s dark past is partly fact and mostly fiction. So many blemishes mar the face of absinthe that it almost seems unthinkable to partake in its evil legacy. Supposedly Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear because of it and Oscar Wilde saw visions while drinking it. Maybe the biggest catalyst of its outlawed status was the notorious Lanfray murders of 1906 in which Jean Lanfray of Switzerland shot and killed his pregnant wife and two daughters before passing out over their dead bodies. Even though Lanfray was a proven alcoholic and had consumed many different types of alcohol that day, the press focused on the two glasses of absinthe he had drank just before the murders.

After the murders, the vilification of absinthe was complete. The drink was banned in many European countries and the United Sates by the early 1900s.

With all of the controversy and romanticism surrounding absinthe, it’s no surprise that it’s back. It has reemerged in various forms in the United States and other countries. Some cheap imitations lacking proper ingredients have been around for a while, but absinthe containing grand wormwood (a main ingredient) was just approved for import and sale in America in May.

One company taking advantage of the void in the market is Lucid. Created by Ted Breaux, a respected absinthe historian and researcher, and distributed by Viridian Spirits, Lucid is the real deal. It will be available for purchase in Colorado liquor stores early next year, Breaux said during a phone interview from New Orleans. He was in the Big Easy trying to promote Lucid, he said.

According to Breaux, the most concise definition of true absinthe is a spirit distilled in alcohol with whole herbs always including Artemesia absinthium (the herb for which the drink was named) and being between 120 to 150 proof. Breaux’s passion for distilling pure absinthe started during the mid-’90s when he began researching the drink and then following only the most traditional methods and recipes to distill a quality product. He took his case to the government to get the old laws banning absinthe overturned, which he said, “took time, patience, and a lot of money.”

It’s been an uphill struggle when it comes to educating the public and the government on the truth and dispelling the myths of absinthe, but the pay off has been huge, as the growing number of states now selling his product is growing monthly, Breaux said.

“The problem is that manufacturers are going to put green dye in some alcohol and put absinthe on the label and try to sell the product. We want to put a product with high quality out there on the market,” Breaux said.

Now absinthe is making a comeback across the board. It is served in dining establishments and bars in New York and New Jersey, and liquor stores across the nation are starting to sell it again.

Even with all of the romance surrounding it, it’s not like people are running out and buying out the liquor stores.

“From a business standpoint I’ve had one person request it,” said Jarrett Osborn, the “wine guy” at Riverwalk Wine and Spirits in Edwards. Osborn said that many of his ideas about absinthe come from his heroes like Hemingway and Oscar Wilde, but said that his own experiences with it have been less than rewarding. “I love the idea of it, but actually drinking it is not for me.”

The same could be said for Avon resident Joseph Settle, who tried drinking absinthe a few years ago with some of his friends in college.

“I don’t remember the taste. I got a little drunk but it wasn’t that crazy. I don’t think we drank enough,” Settle said.

And what about those hallucinations that everyone seems to have when drinking absinthe?

“They don’t hallucinate, so they drink more. We think that’s destructive and unhealthy. I think I’ve heard of more people hallucinating off tequila than any other drink,” Breaux said.

Tequila never had to fight for its rightful place in American culture like absinthe, though. Maybe this time absinthe will build a niche that can’t be brushed aside as a fad ” or maybe we’ll just see a renaissance of really bad poetry.

Arts and Entertainment writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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