Absinthe emerges from the shadows

Absinthe emerges from the shadows

Absinthe emerges from the shadows

The iconic liquor favored by artists outlives stigmas

By Douglas Brown
The Denver Post

Article Launched: 07/23/2008 12:30:00 AM MDT

The Viking guy — red beard, large — opened a plump sack, reached his freckled hand inside, and scooped up a bunch of twigs and yellow-gray flowers.

"Do you want to wear a mask?" asked Todd Leopold, one of the owners of Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver. "This is wormwood. It's awfully bitter. Get a face full of it and you'll be tasting it for hours."

Leopold, 38, failed to cover his mouth and nose. Minutes later he downed a soda to help strip away the taste.

Despite the back-of-the- throat burn, Leopold champions the flavor. He makes absinthe, the stuff that has a ritual surrounding its preparation and which, according to legend, induces hallucinations and caused bohemians around the turn of the 20th century to go on murderous rampages and hold wild orgies. It even gets blamed for Vincent Van Gogh's decision to cut off his earlobe.

The alleged culprit? Wormwood, a shrub that thrives in alpine climates — like in the Alps, where absinthe was invented, and in Colorado.

Absinthe, it turns out, is not some shrub variation of magic mushrooms. But that didn't stop skittish governments around the world, including the United States, from banning wormwood-distilled absinthe in the early 1900s. (See murderous rampages, above.)

But absinthe is back.

"By the end of this year, we will have between 20 and 25 brands available in the United States," says Brian Robinson, review editor for The Wormwood Society, a group dedicated to the pleasures of absinthe. Right now, about eight are available. That's a big jump from this last year, when exactly zero brands sat on liquor-store shelves and in bars.

You can stop by the Corner Bar in Boulder's Hotel Boulderado today, in fact, and not only order an absinthe, but watch the bartender prepare it in a traditional "absinthe fountain," a glass column with spouts on the bottom.

Bartender Shiara Lango recently filled the fountain with ice, then water. She poured the Swiss absinthe Kubler into the glass until it was about one-third full. Then she placed the glass beneath one of the spouts, set a thin, flat, slotted spoon over the glass, and put a sugar cube on the spoon. Slowly, she dribbled water from the spout over the cube, which eventually dissolved. As she added water, the clear liquid — she was using a "blanche" absinthe, which is clear; other absinthes are "verte," or green — turned cloudy. When the glass was full, the drink was ready for consumption.

Taking a match to the sugar cube, and even lighting the absinthe, has become part of the pop-culture image of absinthe, but Robinson says that's all wrong.

"There is absolutely no historical evidence that absinthe was ever set on fire before the 1990s," he says. "It was always a drink you dilute with water and add sugar if you want." The fire, he says, is "another way to say, 'Ooh, look at that shiny thing.' "

Fire, sugar, fountain or none of the above, absinthe always should be diluted with water. On its own, the alcohol content can range from 53 percent to 72 percent — firewater without the flames.

Now that you can, you should: Buy that bottle of absinthe. Don't, though, if you dislike the flavor of anise, which is predominant in absinthe. If you ever have tried pastis, ouzo or Sambuca, you understand the taste.

But the best absinthes offer more than a wallop of licorice.

"Absinthe has more of a depth of flavor," says Robinson. "The wormwood adds an alpiney, almost minty, freshness to the drink. It has a pleasant bitterness, not unlike what you would get in Campari."

Leopold, who grew up in Littleton, opened a brewpub and distillery in Ann Arbor, Mich. with his brother Scott, and moved the distillery business to Denver this year. He says absinthe should taste more floral and bitter than a standard anise drink.

"When you make it properly it smells like an alpine meadow," he says at a restaurant recently, where he brought a bottle of his absinthe verte, poured some of it into a glass, topped it with water, and offered a sample. Milky clouds roiled through the chartreuse glass of liquor.

The stuff isn't just for ritualistic quaffing, though. The Kitchen restaurant in Boulder, for example, serves something they call "Van Gogh's Breakfast," which includes absinthe, espresso vodka and Bailey's Irish Cream.

Absinthe has its disciples, but they are a small group. Lango, the bartender at the Corner Bar, isn't sure where it's headed.

"We sold a lot of it when it first came out," she says. "But when people didn't trip (hallucinate) like they thought they would, we stopped selling as much of it."


Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395 or djbrown@denverpost.com