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Absinthe: A Potent Potable Makes a Comeback
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Absinthe: A Potent Potable Makes a Comeback

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Absinthe: A Potent Potable Makes a Comeback

Absinthe: A Potent Potable Makes a Comeback
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Picasso sipped absinthe. Hemingway mused on it. It may have helped persuade Van Gogh to lop off his ear. Now a drink banned in the U.S. for nearly a century (it was wrongly considered a hallucinogen) is back on the scene at trendy clubs.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Picasso sipped it, Oscar Wilde compared it to a sunset and Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter: Got tight last night on absinthe. Did knife tricks.

Absinthe has been banned in the United States since 1912, but the once contentious liquor is making a comeback now that federal regulators have approved four brands for sale here.

Curt Nickisch of member station WBUR in Boston sampled the spirit and has this story.

CURT NICKISCH: Those turn-of-the-century Bohemians called absinthe the green fairy, a sort of muse who helped them see the world with poetic clarity and sometimes cloudiness. Absinthe is said to have driven Vincent van Gogh to lop off his ear. That mind-altering mystique eventually got the drink banned in the U.S. and most of Europe. But Swiss absinthe producer, Peter Karl(ph), never saw it as a social menace.

Mr. PETER KARL (Absinthe Producer, Switzerland): I mean, I've drunk many liters of absinthe in my life and sometimes I emptied a whole liter bottle. It's just a different feeling. Of course, you are drunk, but I never had hallucinations or I cut my ear off or a finger or whatever, you know.

NICKISCH: Karl got his first-hand experience from absinthe made illegally in Switzerland's Val-de-Travers, that's the valley where the spirit was first distilled in the 18th century.

Mr. KARL: There were still bootleggers distilling absinthe in hidden distilleries in the mountains or in farms.

NICKISCH: And they kept making it from the same Alpine herbs: anise, fennel and wormwood, which contains a psychoactive chemical that's behind absinthe's foggy reputation. Karl says that chemical was more prevalent back then in poorly-made absinthe. In modern day ones, such as the Kubler brand that Karl makes, it's hardly detectable. After lobbying the Swiss government to overturn its ban, Kubler hired lawyer Robert Lehrman to work U.S. regulators. It took Lehrman five years.

Mr. ROBERT LEHRMAN (Lawyer who Represented Kubler & Wyss): We talked to many other lawyers, you know, FDA lawyers, litigators, that sort of thing. But in the end, we decided to go with the Swiss Embassy.

NICKISCH: It took the silver tongues of Swiss diplomats just to convince the feds to allow the word absinthe on the bottle. Regulators finally said yes this year. Now, those small letters are making a big splash in trendy clubs across the country.

(Soundbite of people talking)

NICKISCH: Hipsters crammed Aria in downtown Boston for absinthe's debut here. Adam Stern came for the allure of the long-illicit elixir.

Mr. ADAM STERN: The fable is that, you know, it makes you hallucinate, that's what made van Gogh go crazy, you see like green stuff, you know, you go wild.

NICKISCH: To try it myself, I chose a somewhat more authentic atmosphere - I thought. I went to a Boston cafe-style restaurant with a friend who looks pretty much the part of a flapper.

(Soundbite of glass clinking)

NICKISCH: We tried it the traditional way, in a minor ritual that involves dripping ice water over a suspended sugar cube into a glass of clear absinthe until it turns misty white. Great.

So, I like it. I think the only that's a little weird, it's like, you know, this is the nectar of the poets. And I'm, like, drinking it in a restaurant, you know, where you could probably also get, like, it's not like this place would love to have Bohemians in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NICKISCH: I wanted Baudelaire. I got people checking their BlackBerrys. But Swiss absinthe maker Peter Karl is just happy to have the counterculture drink back on the counter. Plus, he can't wait to see how absinthe will evolve in mixed drinks in the 21st century.

Mr. KARL: There was in the good old days, there was a famous drink. It was called Death in the Afternoon. It was named after Ernest Hemingway who drank champagne with absinthe.

NICKISCH: The sun is slowly rising again on the drink Oscar Wilde compared to a sunset. And while it may not shine again as brightly as it once did, I, for one, am looking forward to the afterglow.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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