Absinthe Trades Mystique for Mass Market

(By William Wan -- The Washington Post)
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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

They called it the green fairy, and they said it could drive you to peaks of manic creativity -- that is, if it didn't first drive you mad. Countries banned it. Teetotalers reviled it. Meanwhile, aficionados built an entire black market around it.

But after decades steeped in mystery and myth, absinthe is forbidden no more, and people are lining up to see for themselves what the green fairy is all about.

It took a legion of lawyers and four years of legal wrangling with U.S. regulators to get it back into the country legally. Since the ban was lifted last year, a handful of companies have been vying to cash in on what they hope will be a new generation of absinthe lovers.

To that end, a small army of Maryland's tastemakers and liquor industry heavyweights assembled yesterday at a Baltimore restaurant, Ixia, for a taste of the notorious drink -- an invitation-only affair organized by one of the three major brands now approved for U.S. distribution.

"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were."

-- Oscar Wilde

But absinthe is more than what comes out of the bottle. An entire ritual surrounds its consumption. At yesterday's event, as in centuries past, about an ounce of absinthe was poured into a glass. The liquid, a Swiss brand called Kubler, looked as clear as water. An absinthe spoon, with intricately carved holes, was balanced over the glass, and a cube of sugar was placed on the spoon. Then, icy water was poured over the sugar, which melted into the liquid below.

The liquid, once clear, turned more milky with each drop of water, a process known as the louche, which in French means "shady."

"It's like a jolt of black licorice," Reagan Warfield, 27, a Baltimore DJ, said after his first taste.

Then he took another sip. "I mean it's fine, but where are the hallucinations? I haven't seen anything except the fairy models floating around."

The fairy models -- in short skirts, pink wings, green body paint and little else -- flitted about without tasting the absinthe.

"We're not supposed to drink anything, so I don't know what it does to you," said Shannon Semesky, 23, of Baltimore. "We're on the job, you know."

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