Fri Aug 1, 2008 12:29pm EDT
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters Life!) - The tiny Portland distillery Integrity Spirits has put its sought-after craft vodka and gin on the back burner to brew up something in high demand these days: absinthe.
Other distillers are also scrambling to fill orders as sales across the U.S. surge for the long-banned spirit affectionately called "the green fairy."
"There are about six or seven brands of absinthe available now, and I expect 20 to 25 by year-end," said Brian Robinson, a member of the Wormwood Society, a group of absinthe aficionados.
Austrian distillery Fischer announced in July it would soon begin exporting to the United States an absinthe called Mata Hari. Also last month, Grande Absente from France hit U.S. shelves.
Sale of absinthe was prohibited for nearly 100 years in the United States and some European countries, damned for its now-debunked hallucinogenic and addictive properties.
Associated with famous artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe and Edgar Degas, absinthe's identification with the Bohemian artistic set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lent an aura of romance.
The bans on absinthe have been slowly lifted around the world and the United States approved the first absinthe for sale last year.
Part of absinthe's allure is the ritual serving. Historically absinthe was served in a distinctively-shaped glass, with sugar cube on a slotted spoon over the top of the glass. Ice water was poured over the cube.
The water hitting the absinthe makes the delicate green go cloudy, a phenomenon known as louche.
Distillers speak lovingly of the challenge of crafting absinthe with its complex mix of herbs including grande wormwood, hyssop, fennel and anise.
"It is layered, complex and beautiful when it is at its best," said Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits, Alameda, California. "I consider it the peak of the distiller's art form."
Enthusiasts say the traditional sugar cube is no longer necessary because improved distilling has eliminated absinthe's bitterness.
IN WELL-STOCKED BAR
The green fairy packs a punch. Absinthe is generally at least 120 proof, meaning it is 60 percent or more alcohol, compared with about 40 percent for vodka, for example. The licorice-tasting spirit is most often a pretty lime green, but also comes clear and in several colors.
And the romance of absinthe doesn't come cheaply. The cost of a bottle of absinthe ranges from about $50 to over $100.
Now, it is showing up in cocktails at trendy bars across the country. Daniel Shoemaker, owner and mixologist at Portland's stylish Teardrop Lounge, is creating new absinthe cocktails like the Ex Nihilo, which features gin and vermouth. He is also reinventing some of the absinthe classic cocktails such as the Monkey Gland and the Earthquake.
"It is such a hot item right now," said Rich Phillips of small-batch distiller Integrity, which now has two of its three stills devoted to its Trillium absinthe.
St. George, the first U.S. distiller to sell absinthe, produces 6,000 bottles per batch and is already on it's seventh batch of its Absinthe Verte since the December roll-out. After the first batch went on sale, ""we had a line of people out into the parking lot," Winters said.
Imports are also surging. Worldwide sales of Swiss-made Kubler Absinthe have quadrupled in the past six months, driven by a surge in demand from U.S. consumers, said Joyce Sevilla, a U.S. spokeswoman for Kubler.
No one is predicting that absinthe will ever outsell vodka or other mainstream spirits. But most experts think it will have a permanent place in a well-stocked bar.
"I love absinthe," said Shoemaker, the mixologist. "I really like the flavor in a well-mixed cocktail."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Patricia Reaney)