On the Rocks
The Portland Tribune, Mar 14, 2008, Updated Mar 17, 2008
You now can legally buy absinthe in the United States, and in fact, as I write, absinthe is being made in Portland.
Nicknamed the Green Fairy during its heyday in turn-of-the-century France, absinthe was said to cause tremors, hallucinations and ultimately, raving madness due to one of its ingredients, a bitter herb called wormwood.
Absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, and in most of Europe around the same time. Of course, being branded as dangerous, scandalous and forbidden did nothing to undermine its mystique.
I’ve always expected that the tales of absinthe’s destructive powers were greatly exaggerated. That never stopped me from seeking it out, or even from doing some ill-considered things in the process.
In college, I bought a bottle of mossy booze from a fellow who was known around campus as the Naked Guy. Later, I drank from a bottle labeled “Absinth” that had been smuggled in from the Czech Republic, which looked and tasted like Aqua Velva after-shave — nasty stuff.
Last year, at a cocktail-tasting event, a man I didn’t know approached me and pulled a bottle from his pocket. He had a home still, he said, and not only did he make his own absinthe, he actually had grown the wormwood in his backyard.
Risky, I know, but I allowed him to pour some into a cup for me. He diluted it with a bit of cold water, which is the proper way to drink absinthe. (In the old days, the water was poured over a sugar cube, which was balanced on a special slotted spoon.) It turned a pearlescent, cloudy white, as it should.
I didn’t go blind or lose my mind, and in fact the drink was quite flavorful, tasting predominantly of licorice.
First love, then reverie
Jeremiah Guske, a Portlander in the early stages of planning a legitimate absinthe distillery, got his first taste of the illicit stuff in Eugene. It came from a man who called himself an alchemist, Guske says.
“I fell in love with it,” Guske adds. He became intrigued with absinthe’s history, especially its role in the old European tradition of herbal elixirs for body and mind.
Absinthe, he believes, has a powerful mental effect, but not in the psychedelic way that is sometimes attributed to it. It’s more a sense of reverie, as he describes it: “It lowers the veils of perception between this world and the next.”
He and his partners plan to submit initial paperwork for their distillery in the next six to eight months. Its tentative name is Mystik Spirits.
Further along on the road to legitimacy is a partnership between Southeast Portland’s House Spirits Distillery, which makes Aviation Gin, and Seattle-based Gnostalgic Spirits.
The recipe, according to House Spirits co-owner Christian Krogstad, comes from Gwydion Stone, a world-renowned expert on absinthe and founder of the Wormwood Society (www.wormwoodsociety.org). It will be released under the name Marteau as soon as the feds approve the label.
Stopping by House Spirits one afternoon, I find that Krogstad doesn’t have samples of this new absinthe available. However, he’s a man whose hands are restless when he’s not mixing a drink, so he whips up a few vintage absinthe cocktails using St. George Spirits’ Absinthe Verte, a new product out of Alameda, Calif.
A Monkey Gland, a Corpse Reviver #2 and a sazerac later, he’s proved his point: For certain cocktails, absinthe is key.
“There are some things that need to have absinthe,” he says.
On the other hand, he predicts that the current race to production is going to end with too much absinthe and probably some that’s no good, as liquor companies try to cash in on the hype. “It’s not the next flavored vodka,” he says.
Besides, Krogstad warns, it’s expensive. A bottle of Lucid Absinthe Superieure, made in France, goes for $62 at Pearl Specialty Market & Spirits (900 N.W. Lovejoy St.)
That is, it would, if they weren’t sold out. One of the store’s owners, Malik Pirani, confirms that he obtained his first case a few weeks ago. It went quickly, he says, but more is on the way.
Trillium tempts the tongue
At Integrity Spirits, housed in the same building as the Green Dragon Bistro & Brewpub (928 S.E. Ninth Ave.), master distiller Kieran Sienkiewicz is waiting for the government to finish its chemical analysis of his absinthe — thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood, has to be below 10 parts per million for the product to be legal.
I catch Sienkiewicz at the end of his working day, and he offers me a tour. He shows me his absinthe still, custom made in Portugal, and to what will someday be a tasting room.
He shows me some empty green bottles, with the word “Trillium” printed on them — Sienkiewicz has named his creation after the native Northwest flower.
From a plastic jug, like the kind they use for water in cafeterias, he pours a bit of green liquid into the traditional curved and fluted absinthe glass. He adds water. The drink transforms to a translucent, opalescent pale green.
The taste is a cascade of herbal flavors, dominated by anise, and ending with a slight numbness on the tip of the tongue. This is it, the real deal.
It’s also the end of the road. To my surprise, my search for absinthe has landed in my own backyard.
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