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The Wormwood Society

Portland Leading The Green Fairy’s Return

Portland Leading The Green Fairy’s Return

Portland, OR
 August 5, 2008 9:23 a.m.

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April Baer

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.