'Myth and marketing' with absinthe

Peter Reuell

I'd heard all the stories about absinthe.

I'd heard the legends of how it's supposed to make you go crazy. I read breathless tales of hallucinations and visions. I knew about the greats of modern art and literature, who swore by it as their chemical muse.

Oh, and I also knew about how it's been illegal to import or serve in this country for about the last century.

Is it any wonder I couldn't wait to try it?

After decades as a banned substance, absinthe, the "green fairy" to aficionados, is back on the market and in local stores after the federal government lifted its ban earlier this year.

Hoping to find out what all the fuss is about, I got in touch with Dennis Vasconcelos, liquor manager at Julio's Liquors in Westborough.

The store actually carries two brands of the newly-legal anise-flavored liquor, Lucid and Kubler, both of which sell for upward of $55 a bottle.

To really get the absinthe vibe, though, I need to taste this once-forbidden fruit.

With Vaconcelos' help, I decided set up a taste-test. That's when I got my first lesson in absinthe.

Unlike other liquors, absinthe isn't enjoyed straight-up. There's a preparation that goes along with the drink, one absinthe fans say is as important as the liquor itself.

After pouring about an ounce of absinthe in a glass, Vasconcelos brought out a flat, slotted "absinthe spoon" which he carefully placed over the glass and topped with a sugar cube.

Ice-cold water is then poured over the sugar, dissolving it, and turning the formerly light-green drink a milky white. A quick stir later, and I took the plunge.

Was it any good?

If the idea of cramming a dozen intensely-flavored black jellybeans in your mouth appeals to you, this is your drink. Unfortunately for me, the anise flavor was intense enough to be overpowering.

It was a reaction Vasconcelos said he's seen before.

"We don't see too many adults (buying it)," he said. "It's more college kids. But there are some people who like Sambuca (who also like absinthe). But now it's everyone. We've got adults asking about it.

"One of the wine guys here tried it, and he's in love with it. It's an acquired taste."

What about the stories of hallucinations and crazed rampages?

Pure myth, say Vasconcelos and experts.

When banned, absinthe opponents portrayed the drink as an addictive drug, pointing to thujone, a chemical byproduct of distilling wormwood and a main ingredient in absinthe, as the culprit behind hallucinations and violent acts of absinthe drinkers.

Modern chemists believe such stories are exaggerated, saying tests show low levels of thujone in even vintage absinthe.

Rather, many point to a wine shortage in France during the 1880s and 1890s, during which many wine drinkers switched to the much-stronger absinthe, as one of the main culprits behind the anti-absinthe movement.

With the ban on the liquor lifted, absinthe seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance.

Despite a taste that takes some getting used to, the stuff has been flying off shelves since arriving, something Vasconcelos attributes to the myths around the liquor, and its illegal reputation.

In just two weeks, he said, the stores have sold out of the Kubler brand, and has sold nearly a case of Lucid, the brand I tried. In recent days, Julio's also added a third brand, Absinto Camargo, to shelves.

"If it wasn't illegal to buy it ... it wouldn't be as popular," Vasconcelos said. "It's all myth and marketing. But if you can sell six bottles in two weeks, that's pretty good."

Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at preuell@cnc.com.

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