August 5, 2008 9:23 a.m.
The Green Fairy is back.
This summer, bars and liquor stores are stocking a storied green product called absinthe that hasn’t been sold legally in the United States since 1912.
Absinthe’s rich history and mystique have found a natural home in Oregon. Although absinthe won’t actually make you see little green fairies, it is one of this years most-sought-after spirits.
In 2007 when the federal government approved domestic production of absinthe products, fans rejoiced. And believe me, rejoicing is something absinthe drinkers do well.
At a packed Portland tasting party for one of the newly-legal brands, marketing executive Doug Lowell, holds court at an elegant art-deco urn with four spigots.
Doug Lowell: “We’re sitting in front of an absinthe fountain.”
It’s not really a fountain of absinthe, but of ice water. Lowell demonstrates the methods by which Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde communed with the Green Muse.
Doug Lowell: “Pour one ounce of absinthe into a glass. You put an absinthe spoon over the rim of a glass (clink clink), and you place a sugar cube on the absinthe spoon. What you’re going to do is you’re going to slowly drip the ice water from the spigot over the sugar cube, and into your absinthe.”
During the 19th century, fans and foes of absinthe spoke in whispers of its hallucinogenic high. It is incredibly strong – 120 proof in its current form – but experts now believe the traditonal recipes for absinthe were no more toxic than other spirits of the day. Still, public hysteria and some very bad PR led Europe and the United States to ban it in the early years of the 20th century.
The tide turned when distillers started approaching the federal government in recent years with absinthe recipes lower in the active ingredient - wormwood, a common medicinal. According to Imbibe magazine, a handful of absinthe brands are now burbling onto the market, but Portland may be the only city in the country housing two of them.
The one, enjoyed by Doug Lowell and these party goers, is Trillium Absinthe Superieure, made by Integrity Spirits.
“I really liked it this is my first.” “I like the bright flavor to it, it’s very sparkly.” New absinthe drinkers Kevin Easton and Ron Pitt got a kick out of Trillium’s complex anise-seed flavor. Of course, for some, it’s an acquired taste.
"It's good. If you like Nyquil, you'll love absinthe." Sarah Spencer, a devotee of beer and vodka drinks, isn’t sure she’s ready to convert. But in the few weeks Trillium’s been on the market however, it’s already carved out a decent-sized niche in the highly-specialized liquor world.
Rich Phillips, who helped develop Integrity’s brand, says it’s clear some people have been waiting feverishly to see if absinthe lives up to its romantic and racy reputation. That very reputation made for a tough development process.
Rich Phillips. “I’ve been fighting the feds for 7 or 8 months.”
It didn’t take long to convince federal regulators that Trillium's wormwood content was in the safe range. A much tougher job was devising labeling and language that didn’t call undue attention to absinthe’s storied powers.
Rich Phillips ... You can’t say ‘Let the Green Hour commence’, because 'green hour' has historic references to hallucinogenic properties.”
Phillips says he’s very proud of the final product. Before the summer’s out, Integrity hopes to open a tasting room, complete with fountains to accommodate absinthe fans in the classic style.
By the end of this month, another brand made in Portland will make its market debut. Gwydion Stone is the founder of the Wormwood Society -- an absinthe enthusiasts’ club that tended the Green Fairy’s flame during the lean years. Now he’s producing a classic French absinthe called Marteau, in Portland.
Gwydion Stone “It’s a mixologist’s dream. It’s one of the things that’s been truly missing from the arsenal for a long time.”
Stone, a full-fledged Mason, freely acknowledges that not everyone may share his anachronistic taste.
Gwydion Stone “There’s always going to be a segment of the population that’s going to go for the sensational aspect of it. They’ll either continue to drink it because they like it or they’ll move away from it because it doesn’t do what they thought it would do.”
But he‘s confident the brands coming to market will weather the hype. Connoisseurs expect that within a few years, Northwest absinthe labels may be ranked among the best in the world.