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Wormwood Society in Golden Gate [X]Press

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The bartender places a strange looking glass resembling a miniature glass chalice on the counter. She uncorks a bottle and the pungent scent of black licorice floats through the air. A deep emerald-green potion pours out of the bottle into the unique glass. She carefully balances a dainty pewter spoon with little holes arranged in a Victorian damask pattern on the rim of the glass. She grabs a sugar cube and places it in the middle of the ornate spoon. She slowly pours clear liquid over the sugar cube. The sugar cube slowly disintegrates, filters through the slotted spoon, and splashes into the green potion pooling at the bottom. Opalescent spirals dance and swirl through the green elixir. Drip. Drip. Drip.

On the other side of the counter, party guests stare and salivate, hypnotized like dogs fixated on their master holding a bone. Sit. Good boy. One man in line brags about dancing with the "Green Fairy" in Paris. His date smiles, nods and says, "It's absolutely absurd that this is illegal."

"Here ya go, miss," the bartender hands the woman her opalescent, murky green cocktail. Her date slides a wad of money across the counter toward the bartender. "Thanks," she says, smiles at her date, takes a sip, and they disappear into the crowd.
"Everybody freeze!" yells a man in a thick bulletproof vest. More uniformed Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents with badges dangling from their necks follow him in to break up the party. He walks over to the counter. "What's in the bottle?"
"Water," says the confused bartender. In the back of her mind she wonders, 'Is the sexy police man going to start stripping or are we really busted?'
"Oh really?" He snatches the bottle from her hand. Sniffs it. "It is water." He slams it back down. "What's in the other one?" He points. "Yes. The green one."
Busted.

This is last call for the San Francisco absinthe party. All the bottles of expensive absinthe are confiscated and co-host Paul Nathan is cited for distributing alcohol containing a poisonous substance--absinthe.

Absinthe is quite possibly the most misunderstood, maligned, and mysterious alcoholic beverage to date. Also known as the Green Fairy, absinthe was the most popular girl at the bar in the 1800s until she was 86-ed for nearly one hundred years. Lovesick for the Green Fairy's hypnotic caress, some admirers smuggled her into the United States from Europe. This year on March 5, the Green Fairy celebrates her third anniversary of being welcomed back into the bar. Some raise their glasses while others are horrified of the once-illicit beverage and her bar stories and fairytales of absinthe-minded hallucinations.

What is Absinthe?

Absinthe is an anise flavored distilled alcoholic beverage with anywhere from 55 and 80 percent alcohol by volume, putting vodka and whisky (which usually contain about 40 and 50 percent alcohol by volume) to shame. Absinthe has a pungent black-licorice aroma and flavor that is derived from the three main herbs used--anise, fennel, and wormwood.

Bohemian absinthe is often served aflame. This has been referred to as the "heroin method" because the sugar cube is soaked in alcohol and lit on fire in a spoon before being tossed in the absinthe. Bohemian absinthe is the perfect frat-boy shot, says Nathan, a connoisseur who discovered absinthe over a decade ago when performing a magic show in Spain.

The fire method is more of a spectacle, not like traditional ritual used to prepare absinthe. The traditional ritual is to drip cold water from an old-fashioned absinthe fountain over a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon and into the glass of absinthe below. Most add three to five parts water to one part absinthe.

Murky History

Absinthe dates back to a time before the invention of the modern mixed-drink, before the invention of soda pop, and even before fruit juice could be preserved and pasteurized for year-round use. The only consistent options were hard liquor with water, beer, or wine. As one can imagine, the aromatic herbal flavor of absinthe was much more enticing to barflies of the 1700s and 1800s than vodka and water, or diluted whisky.

Before it was served in the pubs of London and cafes of France, absinthe was found on the shelves of apothecary shops or old-fashioned pharmacies. Apothecary shops are where one could also find jars of shriveled up herbs and mysterious pickled objects floating in liquid. Absinthe was used as a stomach tonic, long before Tylenol and Alka-seltzer. It was also used as a local anesthetic, rubbed on bruises and strains.
Soon, absinthe spilled into bars, bistros, pubs, cafes, and cabarets all over Europe. By the 1860s, what is known as "happy hour" was referred to as "l'heur vert" or "the green hour."

Absinthe was the drink of paupers and poets like Pabst Blue Ribbon is to broke hipsters today. Many famous artists painted while swigging absinthe, spilling the green liquor onto canvas. Authors scribbled while under the influence. Some of absinthe's famous fans include Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway.

On August 28, 1905, a Swiss man named Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife, two young daughters, and attempted to shoot himself, in a drunken rage. Lanfray allegedly had choked down seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, and two crème de menthes in addition to two glasses of absinthe--but the blame was placed on absinthe and this event became known as the "Absinthe Murder."
With pressure from the prohibition movement, the "Absinthe Murder" was the last nail in absinthe's coffin. One year later, politicians began proposing legislation in Switzerland to make absinthe illegal. Eventually, some passed, and between 1907 and 1912 most of Europe and the United States followed in Switzerland's foot steps. However, Spain and Britain never outlawed absinthe. Shortly thereafter, Prohibition spread through the United States like wild fire.

Smuggling Absinthe


Nathan, the host of San Francisco's bootleg absinthe parties, is a San Francisco native and a magician. Over a decade ago, Nathan was leaving a magic performance in Spain when he met the Green Fairy for the first time. He drank some absinthe, ran with the bulls, and then went to the Madrid Airport.

After that, the smuggling operation began. He kept an eye out for absinthe everywhere. He looked in duty-free shops in London airports, The Absinthe Depot in Berlin, and liquor stores in Spain. He would fill three suitcases with thirty bottles of absinthe (around $60 each). The bottles were stuffed between his magic junk, like bullwhips, card decks, costumes, fire breathing masks, and a bed of nails.

"The trick is to wear a suit," says Nathan. "And stand in line by a hippy wearing a backpack with a Canadian flag who is leaving Amsterdam and reeks of weed. That'll distract them."

Nathan was welcomed home by an absinthe party at Anon Salon. "I thought it would be twenty or thirty of my close friends," he said. "It turned out to be two to three hundred people."

After a few absinthe parties, the police and ABC sniffed out the anise and came knocking on the door of one of Nathan's parties at the SOMA district's Anon Salon. The bust was the only absinthe bust in modern times and one of the largest alcohol busts in all of California, says Nathan.

On March 5, 2007, only two months after police broke up Nathan's absinthe party, confiscated his absinthe, and cited him, absinthe was legalized in the United States.

Fairytales and Hallucinations

A woman with long, dark hair yanks open the heavy, gun-metal-grey door of a giant aircraft hanger. A rush of spicy anise flows into her nostrils and excited voices echo off the steal walls and concrete floors. This is not just any aircraft hangar--it is St. George Spirit Distillery, a hidden absinthe gem found across the bay from San Francisco in Alameda's old abandoned Naval Air Station. The base is a ghost town, but every weekend, the distillery buzzes with excitement as guests flock to hanger number 1 to take a tour and taste St. George's homemade vodka, whisky, and absinthe.

Andie Ferman, also known as the Vodka Vixen, leads tours of the distillery. She says people come in asking a variety of questions about absinthe. 'Does it make you hallucinate?' 'Or chop off your ear?' 'Or go crazy?' 'How do you distill absence/abstinence?'
"We don't have any of that abstinence stuff around here," she laughs and sips her small glass of Hangar 1 vodka. "We do have absinthe though, and no, it doesn't make you hallucinate."

The ingredient, wormwood, has been the scapegoat of absinthe-addicted alcoholics for centuries. Simply a shrub, wormwood is a flavorful herb that adds a bitter note to absinthe. When dried, it looks and smells something like hay.

Wormwood contains a small amount of the essential oil, thujone, and is the rumored culprit that supposedly induces absinthe hallucinations. In large amounts, thujone can cause convulsions, not hallucinations. Someone would start twitching or die of alcohol poisoning before they would hallucinate from absinthe, says Ferman.

Thujone research once used crazed alcoholics in old sanitariums as lab rats to prove negative effects of thujone. These end-stage alcoholics were usually suffering the effects of alcohol withdrawals, including hallucinations, says Brian Robinson of The Wormwood Society, an organization aimed at current, historically, and scientifically accurate information about absinthe and consumers.

Today, American absinthe is regulated to only contain ten parts per million (ppm) of thujone, which is technically considered "thujone free." European absinthe permits thirty-five ppm of thujone. Most of the pre-banned absinthe actually had less thujone than modern absinthe. The amount of thujone in sage, bitters, vermouth, and other herbs is completely unregulated. Sage actually contains about 2.5 percent thujone, whereas wormwood only has 1 percent wormwood, says herbalist Chris Headley.

Brad McClelland, an employee at St. George Spirit Distillery, stands in front of a giant shiny, copper, distilling machine full of absinthe as he leads a group on a distillery tour. He explains to the audience that eventually the absinthe-obsessed poets and paupers of the nineteenth century were introduced to the opium culture, and they got along great. In fact, some often soaked their sugar cubes in laudanum, a Victorian opium-based drug, and then dissolved the sugary drugs into their absinthe. Perhaps this is where the hallucinations came from.

McClelland explains that just as improperly prepared bathtub gin caused blindness during Prohibition, improperly distilled absinthe in early times had ill effects too. The first part of alcohol being distilled produces dangerous methanol. Methanol causes blindness and affects the brain, which may have been the root of rumors of people suffering from "absinthism." Absinthism was a term coined in absinthe's glory days of the 1800s to describe a disorder associated with the habitual abuse of absinthe in which the abuser suffered from hallucinations, sleeplessness, tremors, and convulsions.

The woman with long, dark hair stares, hypnotized, fascinated by the drops of cold water dripping into the deep green absinthe. Each drop swirls through the liquid and transforms it into an opalescent sea-foam green streak. The milky streak floats through the drink and dissipates, like a glittering trail left by Tinkerbell as she fluttered through the starlit sky over Neverland.

Is she actually seeing green fairies swirl inside her cocktail? No--she is not hallucinating. She is watching the louche effect as the bartender prepares the cocktail. The bartender adds cold water to the absinthe, which emulsifies the non-water soluble oils. At St. George Spirit Distillery, the bartender pours absinthe over ice. As the ice melts, the cold water released from the cubes transforms into swirls of murky green. This is not the traditional preparation method but it has the same effect. The swirling trails caused by the louche are what people used to refer to as, "seeing the green fairy," says Robinson of The Wormwood Society. He says people do not actually have hallucinations of green fairies. The louche effect suspends essential oils in your beverage--it does not suspend your mind.

Once the louching finishes, the woman picks up her icy glass of absinthe and takes a sip. The cold beverage and spicy anise have a cooling effect like putting an Altoid on your tongue. It sends shivers down her spine. The strong flavor causes her face to contort, and her nose scrunches as absinthe trickles down her throat.

Absinthe can have a very slight upper effect, less intense than a vodka and Redbull. This is called the secondary effect and is due to the chemical properties in thujone. Other than that, absinthe is just an alcoholic beverage flavored with anise and has a very high alcohol content.

Back in San Francisco, Nathan sips absinthe in his den that is cluttered with Ouija Boards pinned to the walls and piñatas hanging from the ceiling. Hanukkah garland decorations stretch across the room and dozens of liquor bottles are stacked on an old piano. Nathan claims that if he sips three or four absinthe cocktails each day and allows the wormwood to "build up in his system," he starts to see sparkly fairies on the fourth evening.

Nathan says his peripheral vision gets fuzzy and glittery. When he turns his head to focus on one of the fairy-like sparkles, they dart away. Nathan calls it "chasing fairies." He says that sometimes he can hear a slight tinkering and glittering background noise. He says the hallucinations are completely lucid, not anything like LSD.

Robinson says Nathan has a reputation in the absinthe industry as being "the bad boy" of absinthe and that his hallucinations are scientifically unfounded.

"The people over at the Wormwood Society spend too much time sitting in front of computers," says Nathan. "They don't have time to actually drink absinthe."
"Well no. You are not going to see your dead grandmother crawling up your leg or anything," says Nathan. "It's a very lucid hallucination. It's not some Hunter S. Thompson drug trip. Go get some mushrooms on Haight Street or some drugs on Sixth if you want to get that fucked up. It'll be cheaper too."

Others have reported a feeling of slow motion or seeing a glare on a glass table morph into the shape of a star. Robinson says this is a placebo effect or simply blurred vision from drinking too much. Blackouts are also common among inexperienced absinthe drinkers due to the very high alcohol content.

Marketing companies in the 1990s spread rumors of hallucinations, or fairytale-like experiences, in an attempt to attract the subculture, drug, and rave crowds, says Robinson. It was a marketing team's dream--a potent, minty alcoholic beverage with a dash of mythology, and a ton of murky, mysterious history mixed in.  [X]

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